Tuesday, 25 November 2008

United v Villareal Preview, and Apologies

First off, apologies for being on the missing list for the last week. My job is such that it gets busy very suddenly, and when it's busy it is life-consuming. I didn't even see the Villa game, so can't comment on it. I am a bit quieter for the next couple of days, and will definitely be watching tonight and publishing ratings tomorrow.

We go into the Villareal game in a strong but not unassailable position in our group, and level with the Yellow Submarines. We know the value of finishing top of our group, which usually sets up a slightly easier last 16 game, and so it is vital we don't lose tonight. Even better, a win would guarantee qualification and all but guarantee top spot, which would allow Fergie to give some of our promising kids some European experience in the final group game at home to Aalborg.

On the subject of promising kids, our former starlet Guiseppe Rossi will start for Villareal, and rumour is rife that we still have an active buy-back clause over him, whuich could be very useful if his development continues as strongly as reports from Spain suggest. Also look our for Marcos Senna, the player of the tournament at Euro 08 and a former transfer target (who we ditched in favour of Hargreaves...).

Team news

Van der Sar, Neville, Berbatov and Welbeck have all failed to make the trip. This is no great loss, except for Berba who is a massive miss. Tevez will partner Rooney again with the aim of playing himself out of this horrible slump of form, goals and confidence(all linked, of course). Rooney could also do with a decent display, since he has dropped a level from the stellar performances he was putting in in October and is doing little to dispel the idea that he is a very streaky player.

Ronaldo may start despite Fergie's comments after Saturday's draw. I would also expect to see a reversion to the 4-3-2-1 shape that Fergie favours away from home in Europe, with Anderson, Carrick and Fletcher all involved. If Ronaldo is out, expect Nani to deputise if we play three in midfield, and Park if we start with only two in the centre. Rafael and O'Shea fight it out for the right back slot, with Rafael tipped to win the race. Kuszscak replaces EVDS in goal Fergie continues to allow both him and Foster to compete for the number one jersey next season.

Predicted team: Kuszscak; Evra, Vidic, Rio, Rafael; Anderson, Carrick, Fletcher; Ronaldo, Tevez; Rooney.

Predicted score: 2-1 United (Rooney, Carrick)


Sunday, 16 November 2008

United 5-0 Stoke: Report and Ratings

Well, after a week where a lot of fans did a lot of soul-searching and doubting, that was quite the tonic. Or was it? Five goals, a clean sheet, Ronaldo on fire, Welbeck and Manucho making their Premier League debuts, total neutralisation of one of the most dangerous attacking threats in the league - great, hey?

In one way, yes. This is the sort of kick-start that could transcend the actual performance and be a launchpad for the sort of run that we really need. Everyone will turn up at training on Monday feeling pretty good about themselves and about the team. However, as Fergie stressed after the game, the performance in the first half was actually a bit slack. The goal was an error from Sorenson (who had an absolutely torrid afternoon), and then we just relaxed, and were flattered by the 2-0 scoreline given by Carrick's thunderbolt finish.

The second half was exhibition stuff, by contrast. Watching it made you feel warm and fuzzy inside, epitomised by Welbeck's goal of the month contender, which you can just watch again and again. More detail in the ratings, which we'll get onto now.


EVDS - 6 - made a decent save from O'Shea's header, but came and flapped at a free kick. Other than that, fairly untroubled, particularly in the second half where Stoke offered little going forward. I have been negative about him a lot in the last week - one thing I have thought, though, is that we should also judge him on qualities deemed to be very important by the United coaching staff - distribution, and playing as a sweeper-keeper. I must mention in his defence that he has been nearly flawless in this regard, always offering an option when a player is facing his own goal, always looking for a constructive pass rather than a hoof when not under intense pressure, and clearing reliably in tough spots. He also is very quick to look for an outlet when he does claim the ball in his area, and if you think back to the sluggish distribution of Howard and Carroll, and Bosnich's total inability to kick a football, I think we take this for granted when maybe we shouldn't.

Evra - 8 - an excellent performance, combining strength in defence with speed and skill going forward. This sort of display makes me remember why he was accepted as the best left back in the league last season.

Evans - 6.5 - comfortable, but not as composed in possession as he has been in the past. What a luxury it is, though, to have such a quality player as a reserve - another bit of squad strength which makes me feel good about the future.

Vidic - 7.5 - I found it really interesting that he was moved over to play on the right side of the centre back pairing, whereas before Evans has slotted into whichever side was vacant. I think this is a tacit acknowledgement by Fergie that our right side is the weaker, something we were discussing on this blog the other day. Anyway, he was totally dominant, including when covereing behind O'Shea.

O'Shea - 7 - really good performance from Sheasy. He was solid defensively, but we usually expect that. What was pleasing was the was he contributed to the attacks, holding his own in some slick passing triangles on the edge of the Stoke area, including some outrageous attempted flicks. We've forgotten him in the right back stakes, but on this evidence he deserves consideration if Neville does.

Ronaldo - 9 - the boy's back, and how. He was a threat every time he got the ball, scored two free kicks, reduced Sorenson to a quivering wreck, set up Carrick, and generally terrorised Stoke all afternoon. Also good to see the enthusiatic but unforced way in which he celebrated his ton of goals, and how the fans celebrated with him. He was clearly really proud to have hit that milestone, and I'm hoping that this will signal a thaw on the home front as well as more and more trouble for our opponents.

Fletcher - 8.5 - back from injury but still playing to and even above the standards he has set all season. Strong in the tackle, seemingly everywhere at once, and (which is more) displaying an array of passing that was totally absent in his "squad player" years - probably a sign of his growing confidence. The current difference between him and Anderson is the maturity with which Fletcher uses his talents, he operates with much more intelligence and discipline than his Brazilian colleague. Undroppable on this evidence.

Carrick - 8 - first off, a great goal. Four players around him, but his touch found space superbly and his shot was unstoppable. This is his second goal since his return, and if he can keep this up it will go a long way to answering his critics who get held up on his engine room ball retention. Also seemed to be engaged in a pass of the day competition with Fletcher, which is great to see.

Park - 7 - worked hard as always, and with some genuinely good touches. That spinning turn in the second half was first class, shame he didn't bury the shot - but that's the problem, he never does. A player of his type really needs to offer a credible goal threat, but for all his contributions elsewhere, Park never does. Even more attention that usual was drawn to this, as he often had to fill in on the shoulder of the last defender (yes, that's as silly as it sounds) as Tevez dropped and roamed.

Tevez - 5 - I'm sorry, but the more I see the more I think that Berba and Tevez can't play together. Berba likes to drop deep, as does Tevez - but unlike Berba (and Rooney), when his partner is deep Tevez doesn't push up onto the centre backs and into the area. There was a really telling moment in the first half where Berba had the ball in the left channel, and tried to thread a ball down to the byline to Evra on the overlap - he overhit it and it went out, but had Evra kept it in he would have looked up to see nobody in the box, since Tevez was on his heels 35 yards from goal when the pass was hit. When Rooney is fit, I think it is a choice between whether Berba or Tevez should play with him, rather than a choice between Rooney and Tevez to play with Berba.

Berbatov - 7 - great finish for the goal, even if he was slightly fortunate to control a ball which wasn't intended for him. Prompted from deep, and caused the defenders problems by controlling high balls dead again and again. Really fitting well now into the United machine.

Welback (sub) - 8 - what a goal, just what a goal. He also worked hard, and showed an ability to play wide - this will be really useful for him as he looks to get as much first team playing time as possible. Let's hope this is the start of something big, after all he could hardly ask for a bigger confidence booster than that.

Manucho (sub) - 6.5 - great to see him on the pitch, so long after signing him. His lanky style, not to mention his haircut, really did bring Kanu to mind, and he had a couple of half-chances. I suppose it would have been too fairytale for him and Welbeck to score in the same game. Still, I'm looking forward to seeing more, and he looks a different type of player to anyone else we have.

What did you make of the game? Do you agree with my assessments?


Friday, 14 November 2008

United v Stoke - Preview

Saturday sees us take on Stoke at Old Trafford. Unless you've been living in a bunker for this season, you will know that Stoke have a certain player named Rory Delap, and that the said player can throw the ball quite a long way. You may also have seen that certain French managers of North London clubs whinged excessively about Stoke's "physical" style of play following an embarrassing result and performance.

Let me just say a couple of things about these points before I move onto our team news. Delap's long throw is a brutal, brutal weapon. He can deliver it high and looping, or flat and fizzed, in each case towards a number of big, tall lads whose sole aim is to cause enough havoc that the ball goes in somehow. This is going to be a huge test for EVDS in particular - I'm assuming, despite my entreaties in my previous post, that he will play, particularly because he has been busily telling the media how we have plans on how to cope with the long throw - because his decision making and composure under crosses has been pretty questionable this season. Delap has embarrassed other good keepers in the course of this season, who have had no idea whether to come or not and ended up getting it signally wrong.

The last point on this is that our, in my view unparalleled - ability to recycle the ball from defensive areas will be crucial here. A boot into touch from the 18 yard line does not constitute safety against Stoke, and we must look to play our clever triangles is only to gain twenty yards before conceding a throw.

Finally, the physical nature of Stoke's game should not be a problem for us. To resounding silence and my own chagrin, I compared our inability to finish off games we have dominated to the perennial problem experienced by Arsenal. But nobody has ever, or will ever, accuse us of being shy or not up for a physical match, and if Stoke want to come and play that game with us, then they'd better be ready to get it back as good as they give.

Team news

As I said above, I expect EVDS to play in goal, notwithstanding that this would be a perfect opportunity for Foster to show what he's got in a difficult game. Evra is a slight doubt, which would make way for O'Shea - not necessarily a bad thing, given O'Shea's height and aerial ability in set play situations. Wes Brown is still out with a knee injury, leaving the right back slot between Neville and Rafael - despite everything I've said about him this week, I think Neville is the right guy for the sort of streetfight we might have to deal with, and his heading is superior. We should have enough quality to break Stoke down at the back without Rafael's talents in that regard.

Carrick and Anderson are both definitely fit, although Fletcher may have shrugged off a knee injury in time. Carrick must definitely play, and either of the others have the strength and energy to compete. At home, I always like to see us take the initiative, so I'd prefer to see Nani start on the left ahead of Park, although I'm not sure that will happen. Ronaldo will be back on the right, of course. Rooney is struggling to shake off a virus, so Tevez will likely have the chance to build on his midweek goal by playing alongside Berbatov.

Predicted team: EVDS - O'Shea, Vidic, Rio, Neville - Park, Carrick, Anderson, Ronaldo - Tevez, Berbatov

Predicted score: 3-1 United

What do you expect from the game, and what are your predictions?


Thursday, 13 November 2008

The Defence - Problems and Solutions

There is a general dissatisfaction amongst United fans at the moment. Where's our mojo gone, people ask? What's gone so wrong that the same group of players as last year are struggling by their standards? I'm going to do my best to answer those slightly spurious questions by digging deep into the reasons why our defence and our attack are simultaneously a bit off colour. Since this requires quite a lot of detail, today I'm going to focus on the defence.

The Defence

Plain stats first - last season, in the Premiership we conceded 22 goals from the 38 games. This season, we have conceded 10 in 11 games - just under half the number of goals, with less than a third of the games played.

In my view, there are three main reasons for this decline as against last season:

1. The right back merry-go-round

It really is anyone's guess who is going to play at right back from game to game these days. I don't understand this - my analysis has always been that Gary Neville isn't as good as he used to be, Wes Brown is good enough but will never be great, and Rafael isn't good enough yet although he will be great. This isn't new stuff, I've said this repeatedly whenever the issue has come up.

The problem with rotating these guys is that they are so different that they change the complexion of the back four. And the player in the back four whom this affects the most is Rio Ferdinand. Rio plays on the right of the centre back pairing, and so is closely affected by the behaviour of his right back:

- Gary Neville, on a good day, is solid all round. He will do his share defensively and not get embarrassed (yes, I know - I said on a good day, not on an Arsenal day), he is competitive in the air but not that tall, and he will look to get forward and in particular overlap.

When Neville is playing, Rio doesn't have the first idea what to expect. One minute Nev will be attempting a cross from the by-line, leaving a big hole behind him, and the next his slightly failing legs will cause him to hang further back than he otherwise would. And whilst he will be solid against his opposite number for most of the game, the increased chance that he will over-commit or do something rash must be in the back of Rio's mind. Plus, when Nev is on the pitch, Rio seems to defer his moral authority and assume less of a leadership role than he does otherwise, which is a bad thing.

- Wes Brown is much the strongest defensively these days, and he is also the best in the air. He will get forward, but often as an outlet behind the winger as opposed to an overlap - this contributes to the fact that he is the least likely to be caught completely out of position defensively.

When Wes is in the team, Rio is free to devote most of his focus to the centre of the pitch and the strikers - whilst he may occasionally have to come across and cover the winger, most of the time Wes will be in control or at the very least capable of arriving fast enough that a central midfielder can come across and hold the fort until his full back returns. Also, set pieces are that much easier to organise and defend because of the presence of an extra player of centre-back stature.

- Rafael is much the weakest defensively, some well-timed challenges against Arsenal aside. He lacks the experience, and commits himself to the tackle too easily. He has no aerial presence to speak of, and he will get forward at every opportunity, where he is equally happy receiving the ball deep to run at players, overlapping or, as we saw, straying more centrally into the area.

When Rafael is playing, Rio knows that any defensive support he gets is a bonus. Rafael will go where he pleases, and even when he's back defending there's no guarantee he's going to stand up to scrutiny. Therefore, Rio is effectively playing two positions, and has no spare energy left over to organise the rest of the defence.

Conclusion to draw: a defensive unit is most effective if every member knows instinctively what the others will do. This may become a mantra. The solution here is to decide that Wes is the best pick this season, and commit to playing him in at least 80% of the games when fit.

2. The goalkeeping transition

We have similar issues with who should play in goal. Var der Sar is woefully out of form, probably due to age finally catching up with him. Kuszczak, whilst having been understudy for the past two seasons and therefore in some way deserving of his chance, has shown no signs of being good enough to be our next long term number one. Ben Foster has shown plenty of signs of being that good, but has been injured too much so far to force his way in.

Again, my views on this are well documented - I think Foster should be eased in as quickly as possible. But consider again how different these three keepers are, and how those differences change the demands made on the (already fluid, as we have seen) back four.

- EVDS is a shadow of his former self. In his pomp (which for me ended around February last season) he was both a superb shot stopper and dominant in his penalty area. Now he is an acceptable shot stopper and erratically dominant (in that his instinct is to dominate his area but his decision-making has become weaker and he has become prone to the odd unforced error). Also, as his form and so his confidence have declined, he has ceased to be a leader and an organiser - you never see him charging out to give his defenders a piece of his mind, one of the most reliable indicators of a goalkeeper's confidence.

With EVDS in goal, the back four and in particular the centre backs don't know what to expect. They don't know whether he is going to stay put, or come early and claim a cross or loose ball, or come late and make a mess of it (eg against Liverpool). This is an unnecessary extra bit of brain damage for them on top of coping with the rotation at right back and makes it harder for them to focus on their jobs. Notice, just to exacerbate this further, that Fergie has recently started experimenting with zonal marking to cover this flaw - it took Liverpool about a season to get used to Benitez's zonal system, and the last thing we need is to try to incorporate it once every three games.

- Tomasz Kuszczak is a very different keeper. His natural instinct is to stay on his line unless he has no choice but to come for the ball - on the other hand, he is an exceptional shot stopper. Therefore, with TK in goal, the back four have to play that much deeper when crosses and high balls are being played into the box and have to set up with a totally different mindset for corners and set plays. It isn't going to be enough to ease an attacker out of the way to allow your keeper to claim it - you have to deal with it yourself somehow. This is a higher risk way of dealing with difficult crosses, and if all the defenders aren't geared up for it trouble can easily result (eg the Chelsea goal). On the plus side, the defenders have certainty as to what is expected of them - but only when TK is playing.

- Ben Foster, on the other hand, is predisposed to try to come and claim absolutely everything unless there is no chance at all of him getting there. Providing this is done well (eg Schmeichel or Cech instead of David James), this is by far the best approach. It also allows your defenders to hold a higher line and to focus principally on neutralising their man, knowing anything going over their head will be dealt with. However, this also works best when the goalkeeper exhibits strong organisational skills to communicate his intentions and requirements to those in front of him. I haven't seen that yet from Foster, who is likely still a bit starstruck to be bossing Ferdinand and Vidic about.

Let's have that mantra again: a defensive unit is most effective if every member knows instinctively what the others will do. Solution: play Foster in 80% of the games, rather than conducting a season-long audition for the GK spot. Let him sink or swim - if he sinks, at least we know we have to go to the market next summer.

3. Evra's over-ambition

This has become a very long post, so I'll keep this bit short. Evra has in many games overcommitted going forward. I've made this point repeatedly in my player ratings, so I won't labour it now. But this gives Vidic a headache - just as Rio has to play as a part-time fullback when Rafael is next to him, as does Vidic when Evra is in an aggressive frame of mind. This is fine against a single striker, but against teams who play two up top and/or try to actually play football on the wings, it seriously weakens our defence centrally to have the best two centre halves in the league covering their fullbacks all the time. Not to mention when they could do with some cover from the fullbacks.

4. Midfield inconsistency

As a final point, the lack of consistent selection in midfield also has an impact on how the defence sets up. Each of our midfielders contributes defensively in a slightly different way:

- Carrick screens and obstructs areas, but rarely commits to a tackle
- Anderson tries to use his body strength and aggression to get between the opponent and the ball, and failing that actively seeks to win the ball in a challenge
- Hargreaves and Fletcher combine Carrick and Anderson's attributes, which is what makes them our premium defensive midfielders
- Scholes sometimes screens, but is prone to going to ground in 50-50 situations
- Giggs floats about and vaguely makes a nuisance of himself in a Carrick-lite way, but has no real defensive presence
- O'Shea is essentially a centre back pushed a bit further forward

The constant changing in the centre of midfield has affected the level of protection the back four can expect. In one game, you might have Anderson using his energy to track back and cover whichever full back has been caught up the pitch - in the next, Scholes will have given up chasing the same winger and instead tried to get back to assist on the edge of the area. These are big changes when it comes to what is the optimal way for your defenders to deal with a situation.

Again: a defensive unit is most effective if every member knows instinctively what the others will do. In this case, the lack of consistency has been caused by injuries rather than indecisive selection - but again, the solution is to try to play the same pairing as often as possible.

Sorry for the length of post, but I hope you find that in some way interesting - it's my best attempt to dissect our defensive woes. I'd be really interested to read your reactions in the comments.


Wednesday, 12 November 2008

United v QPR, Hargreaves and Ronaldo

Mission accomplished last night, in that we're through to the next round. But at the same time, it was hardly the performance we were hoping for from our young stars and squad players against (an admittedly miserly and unambitious) Championship side.

I didn't see the game myself, since it wasn't shown live anywhere in the UK, and there weren't any decent highlights even. If you found a feed from somewhere, then lucky you. Frankly, all the newspaper reports of the game seem to be written by people who only watched a replay of the goal and listened to the burbling of the "expert pundits" on Sky Sports News, so I won't link you to any of those - the most useful things I can point you to are:

- a report from the Manchester Evening News
- two sets of player ratings, here and here

The main thing I have to add is two unfavourable comparisons with Arsenal, which is probably the last thing you feel like reading, but I think it needs to be said:

1. Wastefulness - it really is becoming a theme of this season that we dominate possession, create countless chances but don't score the number of goals we should. This is very reminiscent of Arsenal in recent years, this lack of cutting edge and inability to shut down games which we are bossing. By all accounts, last night was another of those - and this trend need to stop, now.

2. Shining young stars - whilst I firmly believe that we have a very good crop of youngsters coming through, many of whom could become mainstays of the first team squad for years to come, they certainly didn't set the world on fire in comparison to Arsenal's young guns last night or in the previous round. Arsenal were playing a full strength Premiership side and made 11 changes to the team that beat us - and Jay Simpson, Carlos Vela and Jack Wilshere really made names for themselves. If you want to console yourself on this point, reflect that Arsenal's lack of trophies (not likely to change anytime seen) means they are in danger of becoming the ultimate feeder club - a superb finishing school for young talent, who then go on and actually win things with bigger clubs.

The bigger news from yesterday is obviously that Owen Hargreaves is out for the season after having the first of two major operations on his knee in the US. This is a big blow for us, because not only does he have the potential to be one of the best screening midfielders in Europe, but also has the versatility to play at right back and on the right of midfield, making him a valuable squad member. Also, he is probably our second best free-kick taker behind Ronaldo.

The biggest beneficiary, of course, is Darren Fletcher, who has been sensational all season and is now our first choice DCM. Fletch's form this season, where he has been doing the job Hargreaves was signed for to a very high standard, really softens the impact of this news - but for the first time, well, ever an injury to Fletcher is now a really big problem for us. The other potential winner is Possebon, back from injury last night - we will really see how much Fergie rates him by how many opportunities he is given during this busy season.

The obvious other question is should we go and buy a replacement, or at least loan one during the January window? There are no guarantees that knee operations of this seriousness will be successful first time round, and it may well be even longer than this season before we can hope to call on a fully-fit Hargreaves again. If you had to ask me for candidates, I would reel off names like Lassana Diarra and Scott Parker as interim signings, or you could go back to the drawing board with more expensive premium signings like Marcos Senna. No doubt plenty more central midfielders' names will be bandied around over the coming weeks.

Finally, Ronaldo is sitting down to discuss a new deal with the board. Great news, as far as I'm concerned, and if signing an extended contract is not enough to shut up the boo boys at Old Trafford, then nothing will be.

Lots to discuss here - what are your views?


Tuesday, 11 November 2008

United v QPR- Preview

Bet you'd all forgotten this game even existed, hadn't you? Well, it does, and it's against the lower league glam club, QPR, who are owned by Formula 1 tycoons Bernie Ecclestone and Flavio Briatore.

Whilst in the scheme of things the Carling Cup is unimportant, I still want to see us put in a good run. We have a genuinely exciting crop of young players, and a Carling Cup run will give them a great opportunity to showcase their skills and integrate them into the first team squad. We've done badly in the last couple of years, with early exits against weak teams, but I want to see us kick on this year.

Team news

Fergie has been very open about which of the youngsters are going to feature. Thus, we know to expect to see Evans, Rafael, Possebon, Gibson and Welbeck, and possibly Manucho. Apparently the rest will be made up from the "first team squad", but since that squad is about 24 strong it doesn't narrow things down much.

You could make a lottery game out of predicting the exact team, so here's my attempt:

Foster - O'Shea, Evans, Vidic, Rafael - Park, Gibson, Possebon, Nani - Welbeck, Tevez

Predicted score: 2-1 United

What's your guess?


Monday, 10 November 2008

United 1-2 Arsenal: Report and Ratings

I don't agree with Arsene Wenger very often, and still less often when he's assessing games between us. But he summed Saturday's game up pretty well when he said the difference between the sides was that Arsenal took their chances and we missed ours. I mean it when I say that a fair score would have been 4-4.

I would also add that I had a sense from pretty early on that it just wasn't going to be our day - deflected first goal, the Clichy header which missed by nothing, blatant penalty turned down...it just had all the hallmarks of a bad day at the office.

Still, one point from our three away games against the Big Four isn't great. On the plus side, we get to play those games at home after Christmas, and that'll give us the chance we need to dent the big gap that has opened up above us.


EVDS - 4 -
it's a real shame to see such a good keeper struggling so badly - he was, and is, a shadow of his former self. What worries me most is that he seems to be aiming for competence, for an acceptable level, as though getting through a game without making a horrible mistake will be good enough. That weak punch was an obvious error, although he got away with it. But more than that, he was nowhere near saving either of the goals. You may think this harsh, because both were hit hard, one deflected and one right in the corner - but a really, really top keeper would save both of those about 10-15% of the time. The first isn't that far away from him even after the deflection, but the arm he waves at it is pretty half-hearted; for the second, if you watch closely he commits himself the wrong way, and a full-length dive to his right might have been good enough. Forgive the long diatribe on this subject, but as a former keeper myself I feel I have something to add to this debate and it is something close to my heart. In any case, I'm looking forward to seeing Foster play more and more games.

Evra - 7.5 - a very strong defensive display, keeping a firm lid on the potentially dangerous combo of Walcott and Sagna, neither of whom really got a look in. Sagna wasn't so effective against Evra going the other way, as Evra constantly made runs for the bye-line and drew a number of rash tackles. I've been a bit critical of him earlier in the season for neglecting his defensive duties, but he got the balance spot on here.

Vidic - 8 - he was absolutely everywhere defensively, and was definitely the senior partner on a day when Rio was slightly off in dreamland. Crunching tackles on the floor, commanding headers, intercepting crosses and closing down space - nobody got any change from him. Also, he can't be blamed for allowing Nasri the space for his second goal, he has to track Walcott's run and dare Nasri to beat EVDS from 20 yards knowing Evra is coming across.

Rio - 5 - currently is just not quite operating at his best, although I'm not sure why. He is giving the ball away more often than usual (i.e. it never usually happens at all) when passing out of defence and his anticipation seems slightly off. This seems to have affected his own sense of authority, and he isn't chivvying those around him in the way he was when he was playing at his peak - he seems to have introverted to sort his own game out before worrying about others. I just wonder if this is a knock-on from the right-back merry-go-round - Rio plays on the right of the pair, and has to play a very different game depending on which of the three is next to him.

Neville - 3 -
given an absolutely torrid time by Nasri and Clichy, who passed and crossed around him time and again. He has no answer, and could offer nothing going forward since he doesn't have the pace to get back again. Like Giggs, Neville is a useful player to have in the squad and will contribute a lot against lesser teams, but his time is past now as a top defender it seems.

Park - 7 - slippery and inventive going forward (that dummy showed an awareness I never thought him capable of), he always looked to turn his man and often succeeded. When in space he used the ball intelligently, and put a goal on a plate for Ronaldo (who missed). Supported Evra capably at the other end of the pitch, and was generally well worth his place. Still, he never ever looks like scoring and that is a big problem for a winger.

Carrick - 6.5 - did what was expected of him, although not much more. He screened intelligently and used the ball well, and he is certainly a good fit with Anderson. Shame that shot early on didn't creep in. We look a classier team for his presence. And that booking was laughable.

Anderson - 7 - one of his best performances this season for us. Having Carrick alongside him rather than the more energetic but less predictable Fletcher seemed to release his energy, and he charged around the pitch. For long periods of the first half, he single-handedly neutralised Arsenal's three man central midfield, to Fabregas' obvious annoyance. I'm concerned though that the lack of a goal is becoming a real mental block for him, as his shooting is getting more frequent and more erratic by the game.

Ronaldo - 5.5 - his least effective performance for a long time. Like being back in 2005, he had lots of the ball and showed lots of moments of skill, but there was very little end product. His miss just after Arsenal's second was a shocker, not only because it was a very good chance but also because it would have got us right back in the game and knocked a fragile Arsenal sideways mentally - I'd have backed us to get something from the game if we'd scored that. It wasn't all bad, though - he put a goal on a plate for Rooney, and on another day his free-kick from the left would have forced an own goal from Clichy.

Rooney - 5 - a bit of a mixed bag, he did most things right outside the final third, where he just lost it. He had one golden opportunity and two or three other good chances, and didn't even hit the target with any of them. On a day where we matched Arsenal blow-for-blow but only managed a single goal, that was unforgiveable.

Berbatov - 5 - never really got into the game. A player like Berba will always look ineffectual when his flicks and little runs aren't coming off, but he just floated on the surface and never looked up with the pace. Shame, because this type of game should have suited him very well.

Rafael (sub) - 9 - some great challenges and a driving attacking force, to say nothing of a goal that any player in the world would have been proud of. Who said full-backs can't be impact subs? Still, don't get carried away - he'd have been in just as much trouble as Neville against Clichy and Nasri for 90 minutes, but he thrived in the "playground" football at the end.

Tevez (sub) - 6 - didn't make an impact, and the worrying dip in form and confidence continues.

Giggs (sub) - 6 - played as an auxiliary striker in the end, and was involved in some good moves, but didn't deliver from a couple of useful crossing positions at the end.

What did you make of the game? Do you agree with my ratings?


Friday, 7 November 2008

United v Arsenal - Preview

Usually I just launch straight into United's team news and what we have to do to win the game, but with another big four club we have to look at them first. Or, in this case, look and laugh - a huge injury list (Adebayor and Eboue definitely out; Walcott, Gallas, Sagna and Silvestre doubtful; van Persie suspended for his moronic hack on the Stoke keeper); no wins in three not very difficult games (Spurs, Stoke, Fenerbache); lots of rumblings from the interior; and even some calls for Arsene Wenger's head.

So it should be a cakewalk, right? Well, no. Arsenal-United games rarely have anything to do with the form book, or even injury lists. Remember Phil Neville and Seba Veron bossing a Vieira-led midfield at Highbury? A workmanlike United side ending the "Invincibles" unbeaten run with a dodgy penalty (well, ok, Rooney dived)? An Henry-less Arsenal turning us over at home, and then coming back from a goal down with ten minutes left to to win at Highbury, in the season where they'd have finished outside the top four but for some dodgy lasagne? If form and squad strength had anything to do with those games, they'd all have gone the other way.

We must take nothing for granted, but we need the three points. With late lapses of concentration turning four points into one against Liverpool (1-1 at 80 mins) and Chelsea (1-0 at 80 mins), we need to start doing well in the six-pointers. That means putting our foot on the gas, and keeping it there until Arsenal are out of sight - something we've struggled to do even against lesser teams this year.

Team news

Fletcher joins Wes Brown as a doubt for the game with a sore knee - that would be a loss, given Fletcher's form so far this season. Van der Sar will return in goal, with Neville fit enough to take over at right back - Rafael isn't up to this sort of game yet. Carrick will continue in central midfield, with Anderson joining him if Fletcher doesn't make it. Given it is away, I expect Park to take over from Nani on the left, with Rooney and Berbatov restored to the starting line up alongside Ronaldo.

Predicted team: EVDS; Evra, Vidic, Rio, Neville; Park, Anderson, Carrick, Ronaldo; Rooney, Berbatov.

Predicted scoreline: 3-1 to United (Berbatov, Ronaldo and Vidic(!))


Let's Catch Up - Some Random Thoughts

OK, here's a series of random musings about the events of the last couple of weeks which I haven't been able to blog about.

Firstly, Ronaldo. It seems commonly accepted that he is not yet back to his best, in particular because he missed a hatful of chances at Everton and also because he is losing possession more often than he did at his peak. Well, given that he's scoring at just under a goal a game (7 in 8 appearances), with a couple of assists on top of that, most forwards in the world would kill to be playing that "badly".

Also, as I've made clear in the past, am I a Ronaldo sympathiser, and as such I'm pleased that the fans' attitude towards him seems to be thawing. I'm also pleased that it looks more and more likely that he'll be with us next season as well - crunch time will be when Fergie leaves.

Next, Berbatov. I could watch that piece of skill at West Ham for hours on repeat, and it's become clear that we've signed someone who is going to create as many goals as he scores. Which, of course, is once of the main reasons why Fergie signed him rather than a Huntelaar type player. His contributions to build-up play more generally have also been eye-catching. I'm really excited about how good this guy could be for us over the next five years.

In no particular order, Carrick will make a real difference to us. Good to see his name on the scoresheet, but the scraps of the Celtic game I saw last night also provided ample evidence of what we've been missing - effortless retention of the ball in midfield and sharp, quick, incisive passing going forwards. Fletcher has been our player of the season so far, but his skills don't lie that way. I'm really looking forward to a Carrick-Fletcher partnership for a while - with all due respect to Anderson, Fleth has more than earned a long run in the team.

Which leads me neatly onto Hargreaves, whose injury problems have gone from bad to worse and are now likely to require an operation which will see him out for half the season. I feel sorry for the lad, and am pleased that Fergie came out and publicly said that he wouldn't be sold. But he missed most of the season for Bayern before we bought him, and I do worry that we were so keen to complete the deal we'd negotiated in 2006 that we overlooked or underestimated a problem that was evident before the transfer went through. £20m buys you a lot of defensive midfielder (in the world, probably only Essien is out of that price range), and we haven't had much return on that yet from Hargreaves. Still, he's not that old, so if the op sorts him out then we've plenty of years yet to get value for money on him, and in the meantime Fletch has ensure we won't miss him.

What else, what else? The defence is concerning me. Again, I haven't seen all of any of the recent games, but the lapses that have led to goals or chances (of the type which end up on MOTD highlights) have not been consistently of one type. This is good and bad. In one way, it's not as though we can't defend set plays or we can't hold a line - this is good because it doesn't suggest one weakness that can be targeted and exploited. On the other hand, the fact that our poor (relatively) defensive record seems to be down to a general lack of sharpness is worrying, because it's hard to target a particular area on the training ground to improve. It seems just a case of everyone in the back line needing to raise their game by 20% - hopefully a kick is delivered to the correct part of their collective arse sooner rather than later.

Related to that point, we have started to see the goalkeepers being rotated recently. Both TK and Foster have got a game, although neither had much chance to distinuguish themselves (or otherwise) in what were two quiet games defensively. I approve of this policy, and I agree that we're well off on the keeper front, but it is interesting that Fergie and co seem not yet to have a preference for eithe TK or Foster, and are going to give them both a chance to make a case. This is fine, and competition is healthy etc, but that is a second position in a defensive unit of five where there is going to be a merry-go-round of three players - this is bound to be unsettling.

The first, of course, is right back, but not much change there from what I've said before - Gary Neville is good enough but not as good as he was; Wes is the best choice for now but seems to have lost Fergie's trust somehow; Rafael will be better than either in the future, but for now is defensively suspect.

Right, enough for now. Apologies once more for my long absence - I can't pretend I'll be fully back for a couple of weeks, but I've enjoyed writing this and am hoping to enjoy the Arsenal game even more. There'll be a preview up at the crack of dawn tomorrow morning.


Thursday, 6 November 2008

More apologies - but the blog isn't dead

OK, so I didn't quite get out a preview for the West Ham game. Or any since.

I have been screwed at work, run off my feet at home and laid low by a virus to top it all off. I haven't been able to watch any of our last four games. In short, I haven't had the physical or mental energy to maintain the blog.

I estimate it takes me an hour or so to think up and type out a good post. I haven't had more than ten minutes spare at a time for the past two weeks, and I'm afraid I can't bring myself to churn out short, uninteresting news posts just to keep activity up - call it pride, or standards, or laziness, or something.

To those who have left comments in my absence - thanks for the support and thanks for checking back. I'm going to commit now to previewing and reviewing the Arsenal game, so look out for signs of life tomorrow.

Until then...

- P