Another Premier League game, another 1-0 win. For the 7th consecutive Premier League game, United scored only one goal against their opposition. But following our horrendous defensive performances at the start of the season, who would have thought that the single goal would be enough to win 4 of those games? Never mind City scoring 6 goals on us, but until the Liverpool game in October we had conceded most shots of all the teams in the Premier League. From being a goalscoring machine without mercy at the start of the season, we have returned to become the defensive force we have been renown for since 2008. As people say, digging out 1-0 wins are what makes a Championship winning team, but the transition this team has gone through since our win against Chelsea is very surprising. We have not scored 3 goals in a game since then, and that was back in September.
Why is that? Is it bad luck, poor tactics, or lack of attacking determination? Against Villa, we got some well needed answers…
Going into the game, it was pretty obvious to see what United were looking to do. Going wide, getting crosses in, taking advantage of Aston Villa’s biggest weakness – Their full-backs. Young and Nani both have incredible pace, and it should not really be a challenge for them to get past Warnock and Hutton. Against Newcastle we saw how Fabio became vital to Manchester United’s attacking play, as his overlapping caused havoc down their left side. However, with Smalling playing on the right side of defence Nani was given an awful lot of responsibility. Thankfully, Villa played poorly. They did not have an answer to our game, and whenever they got the ball they seemed clueless. It is incredible to note that Villa have conceded the most goals from crosses in the League, having two of the strongest aerial centre-backs around. Obviously McLeish had not learned from his earlier mistakes, and United took great advantage of that.
It must be said though, that Chicharito’s injury was a big blow to United. With Rooney now playing so deep he looks more like a midfielder than a striker, having the Mexican up front would have been vital. The energy and positioning Little Pea gives us is as vital and effective as having two strikers in there. It must be said though, it is amazing how many injuries United are getting this season. Especially when you consider how they have arrived! Cleverley’s latest injury came without anybody touching him, exactly like Chicharito on Saturday. Countless United players have been injured without anybody near them, Rooney, Welbeck, Young and Anderson all included. It is ridiculous, just like Chicharito’s on Saturday. And this one really was a big blow for United.
With Chicharito injured, Nani was deployed as our front man with Valencia taking over the right wing. Nani, for all his pace, is not really a stretch-striker like Chicharito. He prefers to meet the ball, instead of getting into space and picking it up. Very much like Berbatov, unfortunately. It would have made more sense to use Young as the lone front man. Nani roamed too much, and was very rarely seen in the box. We all saw Young perform admirably as the lone front man against Benfica, stretching defenders and creating space for his team-mates. Although being caught offside time and time again, he would have been a perfect replacement for Chicharito. Young Ashley did not do much on the left wing during the game, so moving him centrally could have made us much more dangerous. Instead, we used Nani as our striker, although never actually seeing him there. He drifted out to the left time and time again, and although it made us weaker centrally it kind of paid off with his brilliant cross creating our only goal of the game.
The goal came as a shock really. With Nani on the left and Rooney in midfield, there were no United players in the box besides Jones. Thankfully his cross was inch perfect! Crosses were going to be our way to goal in this game, but that we would leave their box so empty when we got wide surprised me. Rooney started of the whole move deep in midfield, picking up Evra with a magnificent pass. He then picked out Nani, who only needed one touch before serving it on a plate for Jones to sidefoot in his first career goal. It was a typical Manchester United goal, but how on earth none of Villa’s three defenders managed to pick him up is a big mystery. He was left alone in the box with Dunne and Collins, who were marking no-one. Really poor defending from Villa, and it cost them a goal.
Although wanting to be a central defender, Phil Jones looks much more like a Manchester United midfielder. He has pace, he is strong, he is ferocious in the tackle, and he has a determination for the game which is rare to see these days. But it is not that which makes him a Manchester United midfielder. No, it is rather his ability to arrive late in the box. It is an underrated attribute for all great Manchester United midfielders, from Charlton and Robson to Scholesy and Fletcher, but it is also a very vital trait. Ask anyone what they remember about Paul Scholes, and they will probably say his passing and shooting, or Roy Keane for his tackling and leadership, or even Darren Fletcher for his energetic all-round displays. Despite all these being totally different players, they have a special ability to get in the box unnoticed, get on the end of a perfect cross, and score a goal. We had not seen this attribute in Phil Jones, but following his brilliant goal you cannot help but wonder if we will see more of him in there. It was surprising to see Darren Fletcher out, as his runs would be important against a Villa team so weak from crosses. But with Phil Jones proving that he can do it as well, you could see what Sir Alex was thinking.
Attacking wise, United disappointed. They created chances, but none of our forwards seemed to follow the instructions given by Fergie. Valencia and Young got to the byline time and time again, only for them to see their cross wasted into the Villa box because none of our forwards were in there. Wayne Rooney showed no interest in getting there, making it easy for Dunne and Collins. United did not take their chances, and Villa got more and more into the game. Bringing Heskey on meant more crosses, and although they never really threatened Rio and Vidic they forced a great save out of Lindegaard. Vidic, again, was incredible. United have only conceded one goal since his return from injury, and that was the soft penalty against Newcastle last weekend. His return has been vital, but another player who deserves credit is Michael Carrick. With him in the team United have only conceded 3 goals during the entire season. His positioning and passing is vital for our defence, and it shows. He does not lose the ball very often, unlike Fletch and Anderson who’s poor passing has led to many opposition chances, particularly against City and Chelsea. Carrick’s precise passing does not give oppositions a sniff though. Not only was his positioning and passing great, but he won many headers against Villa, 3 against Heskey alone. His return is vital for our defensive play, and it shows.
United created many chances against Villa, but the overall performance was less than satisfying. Sir Alex made a mistake not using Young as our front man instead of Nani, but thanks to his brilliant cross and yet another great defensive performance United held on to a comfortable 1-0 win. It could, and should, have been much better. With Young, Nani and Evra on the pitch at the same time, it looked like United were using three left wingers at the same time. And with no striker in the box, that really makes very little sense. Keeping possession is vital, but when facing such a poor Villa side going for more goals should have been the main target. Nani cannot be faulted too much, as he has very little experience of playing centrally. Playing Young there, or pushing Rooney forward as the main striker would have given us more options from crosses, but as it were we only got the one goal.
Defensively United are basically perfect, but offensively they need major improvements! Rooney seems to lack the courage to get into goalscoring areas, with his movement and positioning making him more dangerous from rebounds that come following short defensive clearances. And that is a waste when there is no real striker on the pitch. United needed Chicharito in this game, or at least a player who could move cleverly in the box and drag defenders. Although creating enough chances to win the game by 2 or 3 goals, poor choice of tactics stopped us from ripping a poor Aston Villa apart. Welbeck has not played for over a month, so bringing him on early would have been risky. If he starts against Basel on Wednesday we will get some real presence in the box, and having already scored two goals against them this season he may well fancy his chances to get us to the next round.