United’s 29 game unbeaten run was abruptly ended at Wolves on Saturday in a fairly dull affair that was certainly not the result of some kind of match-fixing conspiracy.
Nani’s early strike turned a nightmare start (Rio’s untimely warm-up injury) into a dream one, and for a moment it seemed that this could yet be United’s most fruitful trip away from home this season.
Fast forward to half-time, and for that matter you may as well have skipped to full time, and Wolves were ahead after more poor defending from set-pieces, and United looking unusually tame in attack. Credit to Wolves, they battled hard for 90 minutes and made life difficult for United by constantly playing the long ball to Kevin Doyle, who easily had the better of Jonny Evans.
So what did we learn from our first defeat of the season apart from the fact that Wolves fans are one of the most unoriginal bunch of supporters this side of the Watford Gap?
1. We are too reliant on Rio Ferdinand. The moment Rio’s late withdrawal from the team line-up was announced, the collective groan from United fans inside Molineux could be heard back in Manchester. Not just because of the fears over Rio’s continuing fitness problems, but also because it has become all too apparent that a United side without him is far less likely to win a football match. ‘Simples’ as he would tweet.
I have always believed that there is no better centre back in world football than Rio, and while I acknowledge the fantastic ability of Nemanja Vidic you will never convince me he is superior. What separates the two is also the reason why Rio is now United’s most important player; and that is his ability to lead a team. Vidic was given the captain’s armband by Fergie at a time when it seemed Real Madrid were sniffing around in the way that only Real Madrid do, also around the same time that Rio was absent from the team more often than not. Logical choice then? Perhaps, but if you are ever sat close to the pitch at a United game, you will hear a man with a distinct Peckham accent bellowing orders to the rest of his team mates, including his captain.
Without his mere presence United are far more vulnerable as a whole, and if he had not picked up the calf strain that will worryingly keep him out of the derby, we would not have lost this game.
2. Records are there to be broken. Losing to Wolves could win United the league. A ridiculous statement on the face of it, but losing the pressure of remaining unbeaten, coupled with the glaring need for improvement in away performances is just the kick up the back-side that United need. Not even Gary Neville would argue that we have deserved to go so long without defeat, as we have narrowly avoided losing matches where in all honesty we deserved to be beaten. This loss could have come at just the right time, as we seem to have been papering over the cracks so far this season instead of filling them properly and with some huge games coming up over the next few weeks, it may be a blessing in disguise to lose now and identify exactly what went wrong for us against Wolves.
3. Michael Carrick is not the answer to our midfield problems. In recent games where United have struggled against supposed inferior opposition, there was a feeling, that I myself bought into, that United’s midfield miss Carrick massively when he doesn’t play. However Saturday’s game proved that this is not true. Carrick is widely acknowledged as a ‘player’s player’ who rarely gives the ball away and occasionally breaks up opposition play. But what else does he actually bring to the team?
It would be ridiculous to blame this defeat on Carrick, especially as he only played the first 45 and I don’t think he had a particularly bad half at that but consider this; if Carrick was to leave in the summer, would United miss him? Maybe we as United fans have been spoilt with some brilliant midfielders over the years, and maybe the current employees in the engine room will provide us with enough to win a record 19th title but I for one am not used to settling for ’average’ when it comes to United players. If only we had an all action midfielder, with great ability on the ball, who can also take free kicks and had curly hair…
4. Nani does what he wants, when he wants. Luis Nani is fast emerging as the most dangerous wide player in English football. The tactical phrases ‘show him inside’ or ‘put him on his weaker foot’ are unlikely to have featured in Mick McCarthy’s pre-match team talk because Nani doesn’t have a weaker foot and is capable of doing anything from anywhere. Saturday‘s genius left-footed rocket took his goal/assist tally to 9/13 for the season so far.
He has become one of my favourite players at Old Trafford, and I will defend him against anyone who claims his comic dramatics over-shadow his extraordinary talent. For a long time Nani has unfairly lived in the giant shadow of his famous £80m compatriot, but while the two do share some similarities, they are very different players. Nani rarely uses sheer speed to burst past opponents like Ronaldo does, but instead weighs up the full-back before almost hypnotising them into shifting their weight and creating an opportunity to go past them. What happens next used to be anyone’s guess, but more often than not he is now providing a good cross or producing a pile-driver of a shot with either foot.
At times he still has the ability to infuriate, which has now been discovered as the reason for Dimitar Berbatov’s rapidly receding hairline, but he is improving all the time and this will surely be his first season to reach double figures in the goal department. Greedy? Maybe, but you don’t become one of the world’s best players, which I fully believe he can, by just doing what is expected of you.
5. Park & Valencia can not come back soon enough. Old Trafford’s finest South Korean and Ecuadorian respectively are due back in the team at any moment it seems, and while Park has been missing for a relatively short time, the return of Valencia will be ‘like a new signing’ as Jamie Redknapp will most likely comment. Even though Ryan Giggs continues to defy logic, age and any other possible restrictions on his career, he unfortunately cannot play every game and will surely be saved for the bigger games towards the end of the season. Not that Park and Valencia aren’t big game players, but in a tight game like Wolves away United would have benefited from some direct attacking from both wide areas, whereas Giggs now plays more of a playmaker role.
The most interesting decision that Fergie will have to make will be where to play Nani once Valencia is back in the team. Valencia has only ever played on the right during his time in the Premier League, and last season Nani was often switched to the left to accommodate him. But this season has seen Nani have great success in his seemingly preferred position on the right, and is now one of the first names on the team sheet. Should he be re-positioned to welcome Valencia back into his old routine? I’m not sure.
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