It was a strange game played in a strange stadium, feeding tabloid editors easy puns of the ‘Manchester United restore power with victory’ and ‘Reds surge into knock-out round’ variety. What did we learn about United, though, from their second successive comeback win against Braga last night? Besides reaffirming that Portugese keepers are still prone to leaving their marbles outside their penalty area and that cavernous generator-powered stadia are fraught with logistical risks, we can garner three main points.
Firstly, none of the three players in need of proving themselves last night (Nani, Anderson and Welbeck) strengthened their position, with Nani now looking like a player resigned to a January exit. Secondly, Rafael is now officially one of United’s most important players, having finally established himself as a near-complete right-back. Finally, with United in need of greater mobility at the heart of defence, Chris Smalling’s return to action could well push a tired looking Evans out the side. The team’s over-reliance on Van Persie and inability to play good football without deploying wide men can be taken as read.
Nani set for exit
After SAF’s public reprimanding last week over his careless loss of possession leading to Chelsea’s Capital One Cup equaliser, Nani was given the opportunity to prove himself in his home country last night. The only thing he established was that £130,000 a week probably is an unwise investment for such a perennially frustrating, decision-fluffing footballer. Giving the ball away far too cheaply again last night and only managing one successful dribble, his unreliability in possession and inability to penetrate the Braga defence was one of the main features of a chance-free first half. Other than Hernandez, Nani also had the worst passing completion rate at 83%. With interest for Blackpool’s Tom Ince as a direct replacement being stepped up, United may well look to cash in on Nani come January before his contract expires in the summer. I don’t deny Nani offers a player-beating dribbling ability unrivalled by any other United player, but under his contractual circumstances and with the chance to bring in a direct replacement, Nani’s time at United does seem nigh.
Anderson and Welbeck falling behind
No matter what was publicly said by players and management prior to the fixture, this was United’s least important game of the season thus far, and the performance in the first hour suggested such. However, for Nani, Anderson and Welbeck it was an opportunity to bolster their claim for regular first team action. Like Nani, Anderson was unable to make any desirable impression on the game or his manager, too often failing miserably with the final ball and struggling with distribution more generally. With Fletcher impressing in his brief return spell before contracting the snuffles, as it stands Anderson is undoubtedly behind the Scot and Tom Cleverley in the midfield engine room. Welbeck has also suffered under the rejuvenation of Hernandez, nowadays often being restricted to an awkward wide left position due to the Mexican’s recent goalscoring form. Although his effort was plain to see, he too struggled to pierce the defensive line and was a little careless in possession. Currently then, Nani < Young, Welbeck < Hernandez and Anderson < Fletcher.
Rafael the next G Nev?
Manchester United lacked any sense of urgency before Braga’s opener necessitated it. Even then, it wasn’t until Rafael replaced Nani, pushing Valencia forward, that United started to punch meaningful holes in Braga’s backline. Rafael’s default setting of frenzied urgency made him the perfect ‘impact right-back’ (a term rarely heard) for such an occasion. Capitalising on Smalling and Jones’ injuries, his impressive performances in thirteen starts so far this season (the most of any United player) have solidified his position as first choice right-back. The Brazilian’s defensive positioning and decision-making have drastically improved over the past year as well, making him an excellent all-round player… finally!
Smalling’s speed perfect solution to defensive problems
Johnny Evans is definitely creaking at the moment. His penalty-conceding challenge last night was very clumsy indeed, and his recent series of ‘non’-fouls have given the impression of a man off the pace. The fact that he hasn’t conceded a foul yet in the Premier League is a truly incredible stat, but also a misleading one. Overall he has plugged the defensive hole left by Vidic admirably over the past 12 months and has grown comfortably into one of the senior players, but the signs are definitely apparent that Manchester United require a greater level of mobility in central defence. Smalling is unlikely to be used against Villa this weekend as he regains match fitness, but I’d suggest his speed and agility will add a much needed fresh ingredient into United’s first team over the next few weeks, with Evans the likely casualty owing to Ferdinand’s trumping seniority.
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