Manchester United’s games over the past two months can be divided into two distinct categories: maverick comebacks of the attack-is-the-best-form-of-attack variety (six games), and victories emanating from an early United goal killing off the opposition (three games). A lacklustre defeat against Norwich was the exception to the former rule and victory over Chelsea the exception to the latter (where Chelsea stormed back to 2-2 before eventually losing after conceding two early goals). Last night’s game against West Ham clearly falls into the early-goal victory category. It is interesting to imagine, though, what the outcome would have been had Van Persie’s tame side-foot effort not viciously deflected off James Collins into the net within thirty seconds of the start. Would Carroll have barged in a West Ham opener to set up a classic United comeback? On this occasion, I think not. Why? Well, last night we saw the first real signs that United are finally tightening things up at the back- starting from midfield.
So, what else did we learn about United’s progress from last night’s game? The ‘diamond midfield: attacking congestion’ equation was proven once again, but that’s hardly news. Two other things did emerge pretty clearly though; namely that Anderson is on his day the most capable of connecting defence and attack and therefore is currently United’s most important player, and that Ferguson’s ability to nurture young talent is in evidence once again as Rafael and Evans have really stepped up to the plate…
Rafael and Evans are peaking at just the right time
Last night was the best performance from Rafael I have ever seen. His form has been excellent this season, but last night he stepped it up to a new level. Until the start of this season he was still the source of some frustration and question marks remained over his ability to ever truly fulfil his clear potential; there was always a sense that he possessed a little too much Marcelo in his game and not enough Gary Neville. The signs are, though, that he has successfully galvanised his best attributes- speed, tenacity and work-rate- with positional sense and sound decision-making, which were both somewhat lacking beforehand, making him currently the best right-back in the Premier League bar none.
Johnny Evans has been maturing more gradually, last season seeing him thrive in a long run at the heart of United’s defence. Like Rafael though, the indications are that Evans has now successfully progressed his game to the next level, emerging as the dominant leader of the back five (including Lindergaard/De Gea) in Ferdinand and Vidic’s absence. Although I would argue he does still need someone with the mobility of Smalling beside him to compensate for his lack of pace- alongside Ferdinand particularly teams breaking at pace will always have a field day- he has nonetheless developed into the best player he can possibly be. As with Rafael, the newly bronzified Ferguson has to take great credit for this, sticking with young talent and guiding them through an inevitably windy, rocky road to fulfilling their potential.
Anderson is currently United’s most important player
Numerous websites went with the headline: ‘Lindegaard: “Anderson is one of the best players in the world”’. Reading his actual quote that went on to say … “at running with the ball, passing it and keeping the dynamic motion”, it all made a bit more sense. World’s Greatest Player he may not be, but clearly Anderson is bang on form. United’s midfield has been desperately short of urgency this season and the Brazilian’s natural tendency to drive forward and create openings has been a true saving grace for the team in his recent involvement.
No doubt his form will ebb and flow as always- even within a single game he can often be guilty of firing the thrusters in bursts, moping around and losing possession when they’re switched off- but when he’s in full flow, as he is at the moment, he’s the best conduit between defence and attack United possess. Last night he slipped through a few perfectly weighted through balls, for the ever-ready Hernandez in particular, and tellingly it was he whom Carrick looked to for purposeful play when building from the back. Ferguson obviously didn’t think much of Anderson’s training at the start of the season, barely getting a look-in for the first two months, but we may as well enjoy his hot form while it lasts. There’s currently no-one else who can drive United forward from midfield like the Brazilian, so in a way a starting place is his to lose, regardless of the formation that’s adopted.
‘Building from the back’- United are finally adopting the sensible cliché
We all know it: teams conceding too many goals tend to follow the well-worn route of starting from the back, rebuilding defensive solidity, maybe managing a couple of goalless draws before developing a more potent attacking force. Chris Hughton has done it expertly at Norwich, Nigel Adkins at Southampton. The only thing is, this strategy is usually adopted as a result of the team actually losing because of conceding too many goals. United are top of the league and have come back to win from nine losing positions. So if it ain’t broke… Except the Norwich result reminded us that something is a little broken, or at least needs some serious oiling, so the rebuilding job is now at last being taken seriously; something Fergie has been emphasising more and more over the past couple of weeks.
Last night, as Johnny Evans told Manchester Evening News, “we were a bit more cautious going forward in order to hold positions a bit more”… “It is up to us now to find the right balance and to know when the right moment is to go forward and when it is the right time to hold our positions.” Carrick’s deployment at the base of the diamond clearly came with strict orders not to deviate from his role, and the mobility of Anderson and Cleverley also meant there was no repeat of the oft-seen image of the Scholes/Giggs-Carrick combo belatedly lugging themselves back behind a fast-paced counter-attack. With United’s powerful arsenal up front (no RVP pun intended), United can afford to play slightly more cautiously from the back and know that between Van Persie, Rooney and Hernandez, a clean sheet is unlikely to mean a goalless draw. This is probably a sound approach to take until Christmas, given that from January onwards, as always, United will inevitably really start to enjoy themselves.
Follow Fabio on Twitter at @Fabzucci