Manchester United played like a relaxed team last night in beating a spirited Reading 2-1. They were almost a little too laid back as the shaky last 10 minutes proved, Hernandez hiding the ball in the corner and Reading pumping balls into the United box (or Vidic’s head as it’s otherwise known). Still, overall, Ferguson was happy with the performance, and the job was done.
Nani’s scoring performance led to questions over his future being raised once again, but I think it’s a fait accompli. Hovering under the limelight, Cleverley had a great game showing the progress he’s made, while the match suggested Smalling’s potential is stagnating a little at present due to a lack of game time.
Cleverley can take charge
Alongside the blossoming Carrick in the primary central midfield pairing this season, Cleverley has done what has been needed of him. He’s provided the engine to Carrick’s Bentley (the car that is, definitely not the player), the speed and the snap in the tackle. Last night, though, he was in charge of driving the United vehicle. Anderson was the one to explicitly rabble-rouse, with a raising gesture to the crowd as he went to take a corner in the second half. It was Cleverley, though, who took the responsibility at around the hour mark to force the game to Reading.
In the first 15 minutes of the second half United were beginning to lose momentum and Van Persie’s introduction for Young was as clear a signal as any. It was Nani’s brilliant volleyed finish that broke the deadlock, but the move started from Cleverley, who had upped the tempo of United’s attacking play with quicker, sharper passing and forward driving runs. Although Nani’s shooting was brilliant from the moment he came on, I actually felt Cleverley’s overall game deserved the man-of-the-match award. His passing was precise and purposeful, he always offered an option to Vidic and Smalling, he got into great shooting positions- forcing a great save from Federici with a Scholes-esque shot in the first half- and was as dynamic as ever around the pitch.
In upping the tempo on the hour mark, I thought he showed signs of real maturity as a midfield leader; something perhaps we haven’t seen from him to date.
Smalling’s short on confidence
I’m a big fan of Chris Smalling. His athleticism is apparently unrivalled on the training ground and he seems like a very astute learner. Unfortunately last night he showed very clear signs of lacking confidence. This is hardly surprising given his lack of game time, having only made seven starts this season, as well as the emergence of his peer Evans as a guaranteed starter.
His positioning was as sound as ever, and he didn’t make any howlers (if anyone was to blame for Reading’s goal it was Vidic). He did, though, look seriously nervous with the ball at his feet throughout the 90 minutes, eager to get rid of it as soon as humanly possible. This culminated in two successive sliced long balls in the space of a minute that flew out into the stands. The Smalling I know is a confident ball player, happy to bring the ball into the opposition half and play a decent pass. It’s a shame, as the solution- more match time- doesn’t look particularly forthcoming. Although the games are coming thick and fast, he’s only likely to get a start in the FA Cup and when two of Evans, Vidic and Ferdinand are injured or in need of a rest.
Nani was great, but he’s still going in the summer
Ferguson said last night ‘I had a feeling he would win the game for us’. Interesting… While I think he meant he knew this once Nani came onto the pitch, rather than before the game, it does make you wonder. Judging by his shooting prowess last night, you’d assume Nani showed signs of form in training this week. The purchase of Zaha and an ongoing contract stand-off seemed to signal the door in the summer for Nani, and the fact he didn’t start last night in what can only be described as the perfect opportunity for him to prove his worth, only reinforces this fact further.
In fact, alongside two perfectly struck volleys and a couple of sizzling long range left-footed efforts, there was also a reminder of why Ferguson got the hump with him in the first place. On a few occasions he brought flowing attacking moves to a halt, allowing Reading’s hard-working defence to get behind the ball. In one particular move in the second half, he cut inside from the right into a great position, with two passes on. He stood over the ball for about five seconds and then dribbled away from goal. He obviously had a great impact on the game, but those rabbit-caught-in-the-headlights moments did remind me that he’s not all jet-heels and superb shooting; he can also be as frustrating as hell.
Follow Fabio on Twitter at @Fabzucci