When Ferguson told the press recently that it was ridiculous to even contemplate Manchester United going a whole season unbeaten, I didn’t think he would purposefully set about trying to ensure a self-fulfilling prophecy! The gaffer was visibly livid throughout the game – virtually from the off, despite Rooney scoring his first goal from open play since March with a fine header – but unfortunately he only had himself to blame today. As per the recent trip to the Midlands, Fergie chose to meddle with the team’s shape (crucially different to making changes to personnel), which has seen us follow a fine performance at home to Sunderland, with two rather tepid away encounters. In fact, United were second in every department, as Scharner orchestrated from the back (who, after some criticism from this author prior to the match, was fantastic today at the heart of the defence (see chalkboard), the central midfield three controlled the game, and the front three exposed Man United defensively on numerous occasions.
Credit: Guardian Chalkboard
With Park and Nani unavailable for selection, Fletcher was asked to start wide right (with Obertan left) in a 4-4-2, presumably with the Thomas-Neville duel in mind; But whilst this was the right idea in principle (in my preview I asked the question whether we should counter the 4-2-3-1 with an attacking 4-4-2 – West Bromwich Albion v Manchester United: Match Preview), Fletcher has only just recovered from a virus and it was a risk to ask him to work in tandem with Neville, who was simply dreadful today; The result was the unfamiliar sight of the Scotsman dallying on the ball, misplacing passes and coming too central. In short, Ferguson rotated wrongly, and Giggs should have adopted one of the wide births in Nani’s absence.
At times United looked hopelessly unbalanced
In the centre of the field, Dorrans and Brunt were superb taking advantage of the tired duo of Anderson and Carrick, harrying for possession and penetrative when on the ball. Their tactic seemed to be to get the ball out to Morrison early, who as well as Thomas on the left, has nimble feet and the ability to jink past players; His goal (though wonderfully set up by Vidic’s lackadaisical header) was a beauty and thoroughly deserved. Odemwingie’s role shouldn’t go unnoticed with the success Di Matteo’s team had by playing direct attacking football; Though he missed a penalty, his incisive and clever runs off the ball caused Vidic no end of trouble. Vidic was however his match and though he lost more aerial battles than we are used to seeing, he kept the Nigerian relatively quiet.
Thomas and Dorrans excell:
Credit: Guardian Chalkboard
Neville’s last game?
I am rarely shocked at Fergie’s team selection (mostly I agree with his thinking), but Neville’s inclusion ahead of Rafael stumped me given that today was always going to be an open game, and particularly because Thomas has been sensational this season and has the pace and skill to give any fullback problems. Mid-way through the first half Neville escaped a clear red card (and penalty decision) with a late challenge on Dorrans. With Neville exposed throughout the game (with Fletcher rarely able to assist), it was left to the right Centre Half, Ferdinand to do the work – and boy did he rise to the challenge; The ex United captain (the wrong decision in my opinion), was supreme today, sweeping up fantastically and ensuring the team kept possession (see chalkboard). Gary looked lethargic, unsure and harried, and when substituted late in the 2nd half, he looked over ominously at Ferguson; a look which simply said it all.
Credit: Guardian Chalkboard
Hernandez came on for Berbatov to score the winner with his ‘Ole-like’ instinct, but the decision was still a strange one as the Bulgarian looked lively; perhaps he fell victim to the lack of control United had in midfield, as he constantly tried to find space in between the back four and midfield lines and into the wide areas – and because West Brom pressed so high up the pitch (Barca-esque dare I say?).
Gibson for the sloppy Obertan was the right decision, but having been put in a wide right position, this also caused confusion amongst the travelling support: the set-up became lopsided with 4 centre midfielders across the middle, Anderson being pushed to a wide left position. His introduction did change things however and he immediately gave United more presence on the ball – twice releasing a forward player quite brilliantly. As above, Neville was clearly struggling v Thomas and Fabio’s introduction came too late in my opinion.
Di Matteo threw on Tchoyi wide right late on and whereas previously the instruction to both the defence and Carson was to target Neville with high balls, long balls were aimed in Tchoyi’s direction as the home team sought to capitalise on his aerial advantage over Evra; the tactic nearly paid off with 2 minutes to go, as a header across goal landed at Brunt’s feet, who’s shot was brilliantly charged down from the ever-well positioned Ferdinand.
Overall, United were extremely fortunate to come away with the 3 points after a tough game. Ferguson caused himself a lot of trouble by rotating poorly, and falling victim to the “Capello modus operendi” – trying to fit the players to a system of preference rather than working with the skill-set at your disposal. That said, any team will struggle when you miss four crucial wingers in Valencia, Nani, Giggs and Park, and a more balanced United should regain their mojo when they face Stoke in a few days time.
Ratings: Kuz 7, Neville 2, Rio 9*, Vidic 8, Evra 7, Fletcher 5, Carrick 6, Anderson 5, Obertan 4, Rooney 8, Berbatov 6.
Subs: Gibson 6, Hernandez 7, Fabio 5.
Chris Foy had a day to forget – not only for his indecision on the (correct) penalty claims for both the Neville challenge and the Thomas handball, but for the “niggly” decisions which seemed to be a persistent occurrence for both teams. (in fairness he wasn’t helped by his assistants who were equally as bad). Incidentally, on this point it should be noted how central both liners Cann and Mularkey were to Howard Webb’s recent recognition in being awarded an MBE for refereeing 2 major Finals.