By Thomas Doyle.
1) Carrick and Jones can be a potent combination in the middle
With injuries to Anderson, Tom Cleverley and now Darren Fletcher taking their toll on the squad, many (including myself) have been calling out for Sir Alex Ferguson to sign another central midfielder. However, while another player may well still be needed in the run-in, Michael Carrick and Phil Jones proved that they can potentially become a great partnership in the middle of the pitch. There is a balance and confidence to the two of them together – both can intercept, tackle and move the ball fluidly, but perhaps most surprisingly, both have shown that they can offer a true attacking threat.
The energy and dynamism of Jones seems to have liberated Carrick, who seems to be playing with more ambition than at perhaps any other time in his Old Trafford career – indeed, Phil Neville tweeted that Jones reminds him of “a young Roy Keane.” Carrick’s interception and desire in scoring the second – his first for over 70 games – typified the qualities Ferguson saw in him at Tottenham, and Jones himself could have had two were it not for Radek Cerny and the post denying him.
Reports over a possible £30million deal with Benfica for playmaker Nicolas Gaitan are gathering strength, and he would undoubtedly be welcomed (the Mata/Silva type player is an interesting choice), but for now at least, Carrick and Jones should be given a few games to see if this could become a lasting relationship.
2) Jonny Evans now has his chance
Jones’ form in a midfield role, coupled with injuries to Nemanja Vidic and the Brazilian twins Rafael and Fabio da Silva, has meant that Jonny Evans has been given more playing time in the centre of defence than even he could have previously hoped for. After being sent off at home to Manchester City, and with the emergence of Jones and Chris Smalling, many felt that Ferguson would be calling time on the young Northern Irishman’s Manchester United career after an indifferent 2010-11 season had cast his impressive beginnings to the back of most supporters’ minds. While Evans may never be the player that his early form hinted at, he still remains a solid squad player, and coped well at Loftus Road on Sunday. He dealt with physical battles well, and hit the woodwork twice from set piece headers.
With his squad stretched, Ferguson will be hoping that Evans will step up to the challenge of standing tall at the back with Rio Ferdinand. Evans could not have asked for a better chance, and it will be up to him to persuade Ferguson that he can be the player to replace the injured captain Vidic.
3) Ashley Young must step up his game
The injury to Antonio Valencia and the sizeable fee paid to Aston Villa this summer suggested that Ferguson would be signing Ashley Young as a first-choice winger, yet despite his fine early form, the 26-year-old is now struggling for a space in the team. Valencia had a fantastic game against Queens Park Rangers – he kicked things off with a delightful assist for Wayne Rooney in the first minute, and was a hive of activity throughout. While he may be a tad predictable with his one-footedness, such is Valencia’s strength and determination that he is still incredibly difficult to stop, and his diligent defensive work is underrated. With Nani in fine form of late, Young will have to play his way back into the team and rediscover the steely directness that was at the heart of his play at the beginning of the season. He will get chances over the festive period, and with Park-ji Sung also available, the manager has great options out wide.
4) A tale of two Evras
Patrice Evra continues to perplex United fans – against QPR he showed all the best and worst of his game during a discombobulated 90 minutes. He was repeatedly targeted and exposed by Jon Mackie in the first half, and was fortunate to escape without a card after struggling to get near either the Scotsman or Shaun Wright-Philips. In the second half, the French left-back was much improved, making numerous interceptions and nullifying Mackie, and looking like a Man United captain.
However, what will worry United fans is that despite his impressive attacking forays, Evra has looked defensively frail for the best part of 18 months now, and though he asserted himself as the game wore on, there are lingering doubts as to his general levels of concentration and tactical discipline. It is no longer surprising to see Evra left for dead, or failing to read an opponent’s intentions. Mackie’s desire was to go outside and cross with a strong right foot, yet time and again Evra committed himself and allowed Mackie to overlap him.
With all due respect to Jon Mackie, he should not have been troubling Evra as much as he did do, and Ferguson will have to wonder whether the likes of Fabio can step up, or whether he may have to scout for another talent in this position.
5) United are on the road to recovery
After the 6-1 drubbing to The-Blues-That-Must-Not-Be-Named, United’s league form has improved enough to keep them within contention, and even close the gap on their rivals to two points. Despite the victory at Old Trafford leading to proclamations that City (sorry) were emphatic title favourites, Ferguson’s men have gone about their work in a quiet manner, racking up 19 points from 21; with a comfortable festive fixture list, United could well be top by the new year, which is when the club traditionally kick on in terms of consistency. While the Champions League exit hurt badly, United are well on course to defend their title, and despite losing Nemanja Vidic for the season, the defence has only conceded two goals in the last seven league games matches. While another European crown may have passed Ferguson by, he has every right to be bullish about United’s league prospects. The swagger last seen in the 8-2 demolition of Arsenal returned at Loftus Road, and it will be a fight to the end with City (and possibly one or two more).