‘Comeback kings’ is a phrase that has often been pinned to United due to their knack of making life difficult for themselves before going on to dramatically win a game. So it’s no surprise to see that my blood pressure has recently risen and these words feature heavily in Sunday morning’s press, as United beat Southampton 2-1 in a game that followed an all too familiar pattern, and was much harder than it should ever have been on paper.
No disrespect to the Saints, and they made a good game of it, but they currently lie 47 places below United in league standings, and even with our mysterious away-day incompetence, you would have put a week’s worth of Rooney’s wages (try saying that ten times quickly) on this being nothing more than a stroll along the coast.
Fergie made eight changes to the side that struggled against Blackpool for 45 minutes, and brought in the ’reserves’ alongside Scholes and Anderson whilst handing lanky Anders Lindegaard his United debut. Sadly it wasn’t until the introduction of Giggs and Nani that this young United side looked anything like a team capable of winning the game.
Saturday’s game could tell us more about the fringe players at Old Trafford rather than the regular first teamers, and so might not be a significant indication of our chances of winning the F.A Cup, or any other trophy for that matter. So what did we learn apart from the fact that Cristiano Ronaldo is still more appreciated in Manchester than he is in Madrid?
1. Michael Owen is a very good player. Not long ago I believed that Michael James Owen was nothing more than a has-been who was halting the progress of Danny Welbeck and Kiko Macheda at United. But as usual it was foolish of me to question Sir Alex’s decision to stick with him, and since Welbeck and Macheda are now on loan it is reassuring to have a player of Owen’s quality and experience up front, even if he occupies the bench more often than not. Against Southampton he was employed in the ‘hole’ behind Chicharito and Obertan (sort of) and produced an excellent performance, linking play, passing long and short and threatening the goal more than the rest of the team combined.
He showed a side to his game that I for one was not aware of, dropping deep and taking intelligent positions around the edge of the area, whilst still getting his shots on goal away. His ability to score goals has never been questioned and will probably stay with him for the rest of his mercurial career, but on Saturday he showed that he is not just a goal-scorer but also a great all round player and one that will surely have an influence on United’s trophy hunt this season and possibly next. Although he is the fourth choice striker at the moment, he seems happy just to get any amount of time on the pitch, and this will be a massive plus for United as the games come thick and fast around March/April time.
2. Darron Gibson is not Paul Scholes. Gibbo has recently come under intense criticism from so called ‘United fans’ after a string of bad performances. Blaming Gibson for a poor team performance seems to be the fashionable thing to do at the moment, and while I am by no means suggesting he has played well recently, calls for him to be dropped completely from the squad not only call Fergie’s decision making into question, but also lack logic.
Before you smash your computer up in anger at my previous statement, cast your mind back to around this time last season when Gibson played in his longest spell of games in his United career. Impressive displays against Spurs in the League Cup, scoring both goals, and West Ham a few days later eventually culminating in his performance and goal against Bayern Munich in the CL quarter final caused great hope around Old Trafford, that we finally had a goal-scoring midfielder to replace the Ginger Genius.
Fast forward to this season and his opportunities have once again been few and far between until recently, but poor performances like Saturday’s have brought his form to the focal point of discussion. The facts are that he is our biggest goal threat from midfield, (he scored as many as Carrick and Fletcher last season in 21 and 27 less games respectively) does possess the ability to pick a clever pass and does have great body strength. Admittedly it looks as if he will never have as impressive a career as Scholes, but I believe that at the age of only 23 it would be foolish to give up on him just now, and it seems Fergie agrees with me.
3. Coming back from behind is a dangerous game to play. For the second time in four days United went behind to a team considered as far inferior opposition, albeit coming back to win showing a never-say-die attitude that we are now used to and acknowledge is embedded in our club. But the worrying way in which we so often fall behind and struggle for large periods of games not only adds to the mystery of how we remain unbeaten this season, but is surely a cause for concern in terms of our bid to win three trophies.
Southampton shared 50% of possession yesterday and showed no fear in taking the game to United, only faltering when it came to the final ball. They deserved to take the lead, even though there was a degree of luck in how the ball rebounded from Evans to Chaplow, and in Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain they have a player who caused a couple of worrying moments for our defence and will surely be flying past many Premier League full-backs in due time. But I’ll retract from potential future signings for now and instead concentrate on the players currently earning their mammoth wages at United, and how they are playing a dangerous game by not hitting anything like top gear until around the 60th minute of games.
In fairness our usual back 5 were absent from the squad yesterday, and match winners such as Nani, Berbatov and even Rooney were on the bench. But the first half performance was one that could easily have been produced by the regular first team of recent, particularly away from home. I believe that it is only a matter of time until this unhealthy habit will result in defeat as we come up against tougher opposition, although it seems to occur in away games only. Maybe going to places like Birmingham, Blackpool, West Brom and Southampton and putting in home-like performances is too much to expect, and the signs are there that we are slowly improving on the road. But this is no real reflection on the ’kids’ who played on Saturday, and that brings me to my next point.
4. You can win things with kids. Sort-of. The average age of the United team yesterday was less than 23, with only Scholes and Owen breaking the 30 mark. So this team should act as pointer to the future of our club right? Well not exactly because although it is clear to see that Chicharito and Anderson most definitely have a bright future with the Reds, there are still slight question marks over the rest of their team-mates from Saturday.
There was little for Anders Lindegaard to do on his debut, so I won’t pass judgement on him just yet, but the defensive partnership of Evans and Smalling is one that is eventually expected to succeed the one of Rio-Vidic and they hardly put in a challenge to their superior’s selection. Neither played particularly bad, but United are far less assured at the back without Vidic or more importantly Rio, and there is still work to be done with both players, despite showing massive potential.
Fabio had a good game before going off at half time, and it seems that he and Rafael share more that just the same face, but also the drive to get forward and take on their opposite full back. While his time will come, whenever Patrice Evra decides he’s had enough of fighting stewards, the same could not be said of Gabriel Obertan, who after one and a half years at Old Trafford, finds himself no nearer the first 11. The impending return of Tony V will only further distance him, and despite showing glimpses of exciting talent, they are far outweighed by his knack of running down blind alleys and giving the ball away. The next few months will surely decide his fate, but he needs to take opportunities like Saturday’s game with both hands, and it would not surprise me if his next game was the 5th round clash against non-league Crawley. And, let’s not forget that our three most promising youngsters are currently out on loan gaining valuable experience, which will help them massively in their bid to get into the first team next season. If you aren’t sure which players I’m talking about then why are you even reading this?
5. Fergie needs to end his ‘beef’ with Wes Brown. We all know that Wesley Brown is the hardest man in all the town, but for whatever reason, or whatever Wes said to Fergie behind closed doors, he has been stuck in the reserves recently, only making his first appearance in two months as a sub against the Saints. Rafael Da Silva is now regarded as our first choice right back, and combined with the rest of the back 5 has helped keep 7 clean sheets out of 10 games. However, given his inexperience and likelihood of picking up injuries due to his full-throttle approach to football, it is important that we have an able deputy to the little Brazilian. And none come more able than Brown, who played almost every game at right back during one of United’s most successful years in recent history.
John O’Shea played in Rafael’s place on Saturday and even captained the side, and while I’m taking nothing away from his importance to the team as a squad player, I have a feeling that the general consensus amongst United fans is that Wes Brown should command more first team football than the Irishman. When faced with the task of marking Florent Malouda at Stamford Bridge, or Cristiano Ronaldo at the Bernabau (sorry – I’m getting ahead of myself – but it could happen!) who would you pick at right back in Rafael’s absence?
Follow Liam on twitter @Liammott89