United put on another disjointed away display as Aston Villa did their claim to the number four slot no harm with a credible draw at Villa Park. There is a lot to say in the post mortem analysis, so let’s get on with it.
It was always going to be hard following an international break which was as important as a comb for Wayne Rooney. The team hardly got together as a team prior to the game, in the words of Fergie. And in fact, part of his lineup was dictated by that disjointedness. So whilst the back four (O’Shea, Rio, Vidic, Evra) was a reasonable enough choice, the midfield had Ronaldo, Giggs, Carrick and Park. Nani, Anderson and Ronaldo had all returned from Brazil and it seemed unlikely that the boss was going to play all three in a midfield four, against a hardworking and well rested (relatively) Villa midfield trio of Petrov, Reo-Coker and Sidwell. Ronaldo, as I said in the preview, was always going to start, and so he did. Rooney and Tevez made up the front two.
I did however find the substitutions strange, and served as another illustration of why Ferguson is missing someone with a better tactical brain. But we’ll touch on that after this.
United were as dire as I’ve ever seen them all season. Passes went astray, moves broke down courtesy some lazy work or poor positioning of players, or some good work by the Villa players. Ronaldo did all he could do. But he needed help which he wasn’t getting. He ran as much as his travel weary legs could afford him, but after riding one double-teamed challenge after another something had to give. His sulking and frustrations for every challenge, while being cringeworthy to me, was understandable considering nothing is currently going his way. Of course, him gesturing to away fans and reminding them of his number one status was a little too desperate. Cristiano, you are much better than that mate. Surely, for a person who had the mental fortitude to rise above the bile following the 2006 WC fallout, this seems a little too brittle? In short, he was well snuffed out by the Villa defence, so credit where it was due.
Rooney and Tevez were clearly not working on yesterday’s evidence. Tevez seems a pale shadow of last season, and nothing remotely approaching his pre-season hunger and form. He was reduced to trying to win the ball in vain in his own half. Can’t seem to be able to buy a goal for himself even if his life depended on it. Park tried but didn’t help. Rooney — well, let’s just say that he seems either a little low on confidence or hasn’t returned to full fitness, yet.
The defence, however, was the saving grace, with EVDS and Vidic being exceptional. The crunching tackle by Vidic, contrary to what the commentators might make you believe, was not a penalty.
On to the tactics, and it was strange to see what Fergie was thinking when he sent Nani on for Tevez; throwing in a striker, who might spend more time in the business end, for someone who spent more time playing defensive midfield clearly made sense. Ronaldo could have been the Nani replacement, as he was limping whilst Anderson could have come on for Giggs, who was easily overrun. It’s the sort of strange substitutions that have been perplexing.
All said, it was a tough away game against a team, for all our excellent head-to-head record, that needs to be taken seriously. It was made doubly difficult following the international game and injuries. However, whilst I can accept a draw when the team gives their all, it leaves me asking questions about our ability to dig in under adversity and eke out a result. It was the sort of game where the side might have got all three points despite injuries.
It’s November, and it’s too early to call the season over. But December doesn’t get any easier with the distraction of the World Club Cup, and on a day when Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea drew, it has to be put down as a case of an opportunity gone amiss.