Date: 4th December 2011 at 12:24am
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The first of many?

After the disappointment of losing to Crystal Palace in the League days gone, it was important that whatever team Sir Alex Ferguson put out away to Villa showed signs of improvement and to pick up all 3 points to stay hot on the heels of league leaders, Manchester City. Changes were made from the side that drew with Newcastle, Anders Lindegaard took the place of David De Gea in goal, with Ryan Giggs and Fabio Da Silva making way for Phil Jones and Chris Smalling. Jones took position in the centre of midfield in front of a strong United back line that has looked suspect at times this season. United were dealt an early setback when Javier Hernandez went down unchallenged just outside the box. It later transpired that he tore ligaments in his ankle, leaving him out of the side for 3 to 4 weeks. Coupled with the fact that Michael Owen and Dimitar Berbatov are also out injured leaves a front line that seems somewhat lacking in options. After going off to applause all round, Valencia was brought on to replace him, with Nani being pushed up to the front partnering Wayne Rooney. Despite the setback, United found themselves in control of play, although failing to test Shay Given in the process. However that changed when good play down the left let Nani put in a low cross which allowed an unmarked Phil Jones to side footed volley to get the first and only goal, as well as opening his account by claiming his first goal in the league. A finish of quality, although Villa will have rued the poor defending considering 3 defenders failed to pick up on Jones heading for the area. The game continued with United generally in control without creating clear cut chances, but keeping Villa from making anything meaningful either. Valencia saw his 30 yard effort brush just over the bar leaving Given with no chance. In fact the first half became notable for the appearances of the physios with Hernandez going off early, and being called into action again when Given required treatment that saw him depart the game prematurely, giving a rare 8 minute injury time before half time. The second half continued in much the same vein, although Villa began to up the tempo and tried to threaten at the other end. The injunries continued to occur as Jenas was replaced by Heskey who nearly brought the game level almost immediately, heading wide from a corner. However, United never truly looked troubled, comfortable and professional throughout but perhaps lacking the finishing instinct to put the game beyond the hosts. Certainly, United could have scored 2 or 3 more, with Nani, Rooney and Young all having chances, and Welbeck having his goal rightly disallowed in the final minutes of the game due to being offside, a result of Rooney leaving it a fraction late to play him through when running at the Villa defence. So a solid performance overall, a clean sheet but with another injury concern, limiting options up front. Although a good performance throughout, there may be some thoughts as to the failure to put the game to bed sooner, but 3 points and what appeared an improvement in performance will certainly be looked upon optimistically. With that here are five things that may be taken from the game.

1) Injuries up front

With Berbatov, Owen and Hernandez all injured, up front has been left with Rooney, Macheda, Diouf and Welbeck. Although Macheda and Diouf are options, possibly presenting them with an opportunity for a run in the first team, with more regular appearances, I stick by my statement that greater benefit would be gained either elsewhere or on loan temporarily. If either of them were to be of greater benefit to the side, most would likely agree Macheda would get the nod ahead of Diouf but to expect either of them to be given large roles in the coming games may be somewhat far fetched. In fact in all likelihood, Nani or Young may be given greater freedom up front if it was decided Welbeck would not start. However, for the time being it is safe to assume Welbeck and Rooney will be the default partnership for the time being.

2) Phil Jones – a debate over his role….

First and foremost it should be noted that Jones’ performance in the centre of midfield was a strong one, generally went about his business effectively and was able to get involved in play in different ways. His goal was well taken and he deserved to get his goal tally started given his penchant for attacking from defensive positions. However, some have commented on his use as a midfielder possibly disrupting his development as a defender, his intended role. One comparison that I read was that to Alan Smith, who went from striker to midfielder and at times suffered for it, although one could argue his huge leg break also had an impact. Although for Jones this may not apply yet, the danger could well be there, particularly if his preference is at the heart of the defence and it could be argued that there is far greater benefit for him to partner Vidic at centre back than constantly changing position and giving him different roles.

3) Strong defensive display – encouraging

A point that ought to be commended is the display from the defence. Certainly when Vidic is leading the back four, a level of organisation is brought in that has been noticeably lacking when he has not featured this season. Against Villa, the same applied, with a strong commanding displaying and with Rio Ferdinand refused to allow much past them, leading the hosts to struggle for any meaningful chances. Smalling as well was impressive at right back, continuing the impressive form he has shown this season and Evra found himself rarely troubled on the left. Although Villa appeared Villa did not appear to push forward particularly aggressively, sitting back often and lacking creativity, the cohesiveness of the back line in not gifting them any chances was certainly a point worth highlighting.

4) Valencia – improved performance

Lately the form of Valencia has appeared a little off. He has struggled at times to break through on the right side when selected this season, perhaps he has not been at peak fitness particularly given the favoured selection of Nani and Young on the wings as well as injury. As well as this one could argue the clear one footed nature of his play sometimes limits his impact as a traditional winger that is not as pleasing on the eye as that of Nani. However, against Villa he appeared more confident, able to run at the defence more and make a nuisance of himself when on the ball, providing a threat when given the chance. He could well have found himself on the scoresheet with his 30 yard effort in what could be described as an effective display. Perhaps another issue is the fact he does not appear to go at defenders that much, almost stepping back slightly, but one hopes that with a greater run in the side in the coming weeks, a continued rise in form will hopefully be seen from the Ecuadorian.

5) Final note: Lindegaard getting games and the view to the Champion’s League

If there was a game in which to rest De Gea it would appear Sir Alex Ferguson chose wisely, with Lindegaard given very little to do at times. Considering Lindegaard has given Ferguson little reason for him not to give him game time since he was signed, then it makes sense to see him between the posts from time to time. A good reaction save was made from a header late on preventing an equaliser and apart from one indecisive moment regarding a back pass the Dane was relatively untroubled. Finally, all thoughts now will be turned to the final group game against Basel. After this solid performance United will be encouraged going into the game on the back of a win, but it is of utmost importance that United going into the game not looking for a draw but to win to ensure comfortable progression to the next stage. One hopes that events will pass as required.