Ferguson may elect to utilise his squad for the visit of Sunderland as his side have a tough schedule of 3 games in 6 days over the festive period.
Brown may get the nod ahead of the now established first choice right back Rafael Da Silva. He will likely be up against former red, Richardson, who has recently been reinstated in a more familiar role in midfield. Whilst his starting position has been the left-hand side of midfield (aside from the Chelsea fixture where he was deployed effectively on the right to counter the threat of Anelka and Malouda), Richardson has had some success working across the pitch coming very central at times and looking to keep vital possession of the ball.
Ferdinand and Vidic should be the centre-half pairing of choice, but again don’t be surprised if Chris Smalling is selected in this home game with the fixture pile-up in mind. Evra should start, especially with the threat posed by the Sunderland right-hand side with Gyan (see tactical diagram) likely to be repositioned in a right starting birth (replacing Welbeck); and Henderson, a creative force from central midfield, having much joy orchestrating attacking moves in a central-right position (see chalkboard below).
Gyan dropping deep to not only create but to keep defensive shape: 12 attempted tackles! Gyan | Tackles heatmap | All | 0-90 mins. Sunderland v Bolton Wanderers (18.12.2010):
Henderson central right position (link with Welbeck/Gyan). Henderson | Passes | All | 0-90 mins. Sunderland v Bolton Wanderers (18.12.2010):
On the Manchester United right-hand side of midfield there is a tricky decision for Ferguson once more: Does he continue to play Nani, arguably the league’s best player this season, or rest him in order to play him in consecutive away fixtures? With Park likely to start his last game for the reds before he jets off on International duty, I wouldn’t be surprised if Giggs is picked ahead of Nani and asked to start in familiar left midfield role with Park wide right. This could prove a wise move by Fergie, with Evra and Giggs able to penetrate Sunderland quickly and incisively when the aforementioned right-hand side attacks inevitably break down.
Up front I’m backing Berbatov to regain his place, perhaps at the expense of Darren Fletcher who’s combative qualities – in Lee Cattermole’s absence due to suspension – may be sacrificed in order to accommodate the complimentary central midfield partnership of Anderson and Carrick; the latter a perfect defensive foil for the former’s penetrative runs and attacking capabilities. (One of Fletcher or Carrick should be rested for this game with the tricky trips to the Midlands). Berbatov was unlucky not to start against Arsenal after his 5-goal haul against Blackburn, and he will be itching to reignite his electric partnership with Rooney once again. Ferguson has recently deployed the Bulgarian further up the field ahead of the Englishman, with Rooney asked to work in the false ‘9’ role, dropping deep when required and looking to link with the midfield. Berbatov’s creativity is arguably superior to Rooney’s but what the latter offers in this role is energy, pace and the ability to make attacking runs from deep, linking particularly well with Nani as well as his strike partner. In two of only a handful of appearances together (versus Liverpool and Blackburn), Berbatov has scored 8 goals whilst Rooney has attempted (unbelievably) nearly 200 passes.
Steve Bruce will likely deploy a 4-5-1 but has decisions to be made in midfield with Welbeck and Cattermole both missing from the starting line-up. In the Black Cats’ captain’s absence, the veteran winger Zenden may well get the nod in central midfield – against Chelsea he adopted a central-left position, from which he was able to look for the ball early and link with the overlapping full-back Bardsley – who has had great success as a right-footed left-back of late. Zenden’s defensive maturity (see chalkboard below) has been a surprising asset for Bruce’s team this season but Man United must remain alert to his attacking qualities; the experienced winger also has the ability to drive at the opposition at the right moment as well as time his late runs into the final third astutely.
Zenden’s defensive positioning/tackles. Zenden | Tackles heatmap | All | 0-90 mins. Chelsea v Sunderland (14.11.2010):
Taking up the remaining central midfield birth (if Gyan adopts a wide right starting position) should be Al-Muhammadi, who’s physical presence may be used to Sunderland’s advantage up against Evra much in the same way it was used against Clichy earlier in the season versus Arsenal. Evra is however deceptively strong and good in the air and should be intelligent enough to deal with this threat. With Bent likely to be spearheading single-striker attack, United will have a tough battle on their hands with the pace and movement of the forward players likely to be a testing influence. With the momentum growing however, Ferguson will emphasise the importance of this home fixture and should take the 3 points. The best money is on a slim 1 or 2 goal margin given that Sunderland have remarkably kept the most clean sheets this season in the Premiership.
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