By Nathan Thomas.
1. Hardly vintage, but enough
As in recent weeks Manchester United got the result without setting the world alight but in the cold light of day in the aftermath of recent results a 1-0 win at Goodison Park will be gladly received in and around Old Trafford. United won the game based on a strong period of pressure for twenty minutes in the first half, although United fans may well have wanted the Reds to push on and stamp home their authority and produce an emphatic response after last week’s trouncing at the hands of Manchester City. However as it was United spent the large portion of the second half soaking up constant if impotent pressure from the plucky Toffees. Watching the game it was easy to become frustrated with United’s inability to retain the ball with the Toffees being the team making the inroads forward and at times United were too lax in winning the ball back from the Merseyside team however credit must go to the back four and the goalkeeper who marshalled Everton extremely well limiting them to no more than a few optimistic pot shots from outside the area. However after last week’s result all of the above is largely irrelevant, yes we would have loved to have seen a vintage, swashbuckling United performance akin to those seen in August and September but coming off a defeat like last week’s and having to go to as tough a place as Goodison Park having not won there since 2007 deserves great credit. Lesser teams would have crumbled but as has always been the case United dug deep and ground out a result they just about deserved. Credit to Everton whom in the face of an all to frequent bout of injuries battled hard but were never really going to trouble United whom it must not be forgotten have their own share of injuries.
2. Rooney thrives in the deep, however maybe not that deep
Man United’s formation was difficult to grasp even by the time the half time break had come and gone. Hernandez was clearly operating on the last line of defence with Rooney in behind him but rather than being ‘in the hole’ he seemed to be essentially a fifth midfielder with Welbeck situated from the left but pushing more centrally. At the end of the day you could argue that the formation worked as we got the result but I’m not sure it was the most fluid of United formations that I have ever seen. Rooney was practically paired with Tom Cleverley in the United engine room with Darren Fletcher sitting a bit deeper and doing a top notch job of clearing up loose balls and breaking up Everton attacks. Although Rooney has the passing ability to operate centrally it clearly doesn’t get the best out of him playing as a centre midfielder. It wasn’t as if Rooney played poorly more that he was a peripheral figure which is so unusual for Rooney although admittedly he has never really been as good as he normally is when he has his twice-yearly encounter with his old team, what that is I’m not sure but the trend continued today. However on the positive side Rooney highlighted his ever-present positional discipline as a footballer showing that he is always willing to do a shift for the team. He helped to compact the midfield and in doing so made it difficult for United to break down, although as an attacking force he was fairly quiet apart from playing a part in the only goal of the game.
3. Vidic stamps his authority
Okay I’m sick of being pessimistic so it’s about time I gave United some much deserved credit and nobody more so than Captain Nemanja Vidic who produced one of the most complete defensive performances of the season. His towering no nonsense header in the first half typified his all-round physically dominating performance; Vidic was a cut above and led the United back line superbly well. United have missed Vidic without a doubt not only his ability as a defender but his leadership skills, since coming to United that is something that Vidic has developed and it isn’t often that foreign players come to the Premier League and become prominent leaders and organisers but Vidic has broken that mould. A clean sheet was just what the doctor ordered after the obscene amount of goals that were shipped against City last week however I believe that United need more than just Vidic leading us each week, we will need a consistent back four. The bedrock of our recent success at home and abroad has been built upon the axis of Ferdinand and Vidic and of course Evra and van der Sar, now with van der Sar retired and Ferdinand succumbing to more and more injuries is it time for a permanent changing of the guard and playing Jones or Evans as a consistent partner to Nemanja Vidic, it is a possibility however I am sure that Chris Smalling and Rio Ferdinand would have something to say about that. Don’t let this mislead you into thinking that I no longer rate Rio, not true, on his day he still one of the best defenders in the league as he showed at Anfield recently and I still maintain that the Vidic/Ferdinand axis is still the best defensive partnership in world football but the time they are spending on the pitch together is becoming less and less frequent as the years go by. So, with the defensive ship seemingly having begun to steady after the return of our heroic captain the question is do we continue to infrequently play Ferdinand with him or begin to replace Rio with the likes of Jones, Evans or Smalling, an intriguing conundrum.
4. Cleverley provides a much needed zip to proceedings
It’s difficult not to heap pressure on Tom Cleverley given the impressive contribution he made early in the season, not to mention the fact that a slight dip in United’s form has coincided with the Englishman’s absence. At such a young age though I am reluctant to place so much emphasis on Cleverley as to his importance to the squad however his return against Everton did seem to provide a greater attacking threat from the midfield. For starters the first half yielded a greater successful pass percentage rate than has been seen in recent weeks with Anderson (United’s main attacking influence from the midfield in Cleverley’s absence) being one of the main culprits in giving the ball away far too cheaply. Although his influence may have waned in the second half, understandably so given his lack of games, in the first half he controlled the game well and at one stage Everton could not get the ball out of their own half. Even when they managed to get the ball of United Red shirts immediately swarmed around those in blue as they strived to win it back. Although he may still lack experience his youthful vigour for the game is something that United can utilise to full advantage and although he exited the play early with what appeared to be a reoccurrence of his recent ankle injury an early prognosis suggests that it is nothing serious. Debates will still go on that United need another midfielder but whether Ferguson decides to stick or twist Cleverley is surely destined for a successful future at Old Trafford.
5. United show their gutsy side
As I have already referred to already this was by no means vintage United but it was typical ruthless United. A twenty minute spell of pressure was enough to break a recent Goodison Park hoodoo with Javier Hernandez notching a poachers finish just before the twenty minute mark. However by and large United had to dig in to maintain their 1-0 advantage and boy did they do that, Park worked tirelessly for ninety minutes, he was fouled on numerous occasions but kept plugging away to maintain possession for the Reds. He may not have been particularly effective in attack as he was guilty of giving the ball a little too often but was always first to strain every sinew in order to win back possession. Park is the type of player you need in testing times, United had to win today and showed the determination that won them the nineteenth title last season. Championship winning sides need to have this characteristic and I believe City have yet to have this attribute tested, when you look at United’s fixtures to City it is evident United have had the tougher start playing, Liverpool, Everton, Stoke all away from home as well as beating Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea at Old Trafford. On paper United should really be picking up near to maximum points between now and Christmas with some very winnable looking games on the horizon. Of course the Premier League very rarely turns out to be this straightforward but United must now seize the opportunity to close the gap on City as their title credentials will surely be tested in the run up to the festive period. United have shown resolve in the face of adversity, winning at Everton after being truly humbled by our rivals, could City have done the same had the roles been reversed, I’m not so sure. Last week was tough, there is no escaping it and City fans were thoroughly vindicated in the amount of stick that was dished out over the last week but there is a long way to go in the fight for the title. In my opinion there were far too many knee jerk reactions to last week’s result, yes it was bad, it was horrible to watch but United will always respond, as they did on Saturday and now they must maintain the winning momentum.