By Nathan Thomas.
Robin van Persie’s sumptuous injury-time winners against West Ham United on Saturday was, if you think about it, a microcosm of United’s brilliantly fluid attacking play that we have borne witness to so far this season. Equally, it could be attested that the entire game could be categorised as a microcosm of the campaign.
At times, United looked effervescent going forward. The interplay between the likes of Cleverley, Hernandez and Welbeck was a joy to behold – particularly in the first half. However, at times, United appeared to lose their way looking incohesive and short of ideas. Admittedly, being an FA Cup third round tie this incurred that the team United played had been, somewhat at least, thrown together and as a result there was bound to be a little stagnation. Regardless, it was the type of display that is steadily becoming the norm for United fans up and down the country, with our finger-nails already looking worse-for-wear, I dread to think of our condition come May!
Despite an excellent Cup comeback that re-affirmed that the halcyon ‘magic of the Cup’ still lingers on, looking at the game on a purely technical stance it was fairly obvious that the primary worry coming out of the game was the defence.
United haven’t looked particularly defensively rigid at any point in the season. However, in recent weeks, with the return of Nemanja Vidic and a somewhat settled back four, there has been a return to something of the defensive stability so desperately needed. Despite this, the team seemed to take a backward step against the Hammers. Yes, Paul Scholes was guilty of lackadaisical pressing for the first goal but the marking from probably our two best centre-halves – Evans and Vidic – was lax for both of James Collins’ headed goals.
Despite his defensive faux-par against West Ham, I am a huge admirer of Jonny Evans; one who I believe has improved immensely since a rather sticky patch in 2010/11. Although some still doubt his credentials, I have seen enough to suggest he can become the bedrock of Manchester United’s defence for years to come. He carries an essence of both Vidic and Ferdinand, his willingness to attack the ball aerially is certainly a trait we have come to know and love from our Serbian skipper and the young Northern-Irishman is evidently unafraid to take the ball out of defence in a manner not dissimilar to Rio in his pomp. Evans is an extremely good technical footballer and he reads the game very well, he may still be a bit rash in the tackle occasionally but that is something that can be ironed out.
Undoubtedly United do have the quality within their ranks, but the key to unlocking our issues is finding stability. It is no secret that a stable back-four ultimately spreads assurance throughout the side and not just amongst the goalkeeper and defenders. Without doubt, our best defensive period of recent years came between 2006 and 2009 where van der Sar, Vidic, Ferdinand and Evra were almost ever-presents for the team both at home and abroad.
In fairness to Ferguson, this task has been made tougher this year due to an early season injury ‘crises amongst his defence. It not only saw us down to just two centre-halves but it also meant that we probably had to rush Nemanja Vidic back when Ferguson would have preferred to ease him in as he is doing at the moment. Still, the manager isn’t entirely blameless; his faffing around with the goalkeeping position is about the worse thing he could have done in terms of maintaining defensive stability. Ferguson obviously sees outstanding attributes in both keepers, but bearing in mind how much he emphasised last season that de Gea was his number one, I believe he should have stuck with him. Lindegaard is a fine stopper and his understanding of the football club has endeared him to the faithful, however I don’t see anything that marks him substantially above de Gea. So, bearing in mind that the Spaniard is six years Lindegaard’s junior, it is evident that the clubs trust should be placed in the former.
United now sit seven points clear at the top of the Premier League, still in the FA Cup and with a mouth-watering tie against Real Madrid in little over a months’ time. It is an enviable position, however the teams resolve will be tested, as although I’m sure Ferguson will ultimately find a settled back-four there will come times where rotation is necessary in order to keep the squad fresh. It is those games that could arguably make or break the campaign.
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