New Year’s Eve and the birthday of one of the most successful and celebrated managers in football. Manchester United played host to Blackburn Rovers, a side in which their manager, Steve Kean, had been the subject of many taunts and calls for his head by the club’s own fans. Many other managers had publicly backed Kean but their struggle for form subsequently left them languishing at the foot of the table. A trip to Old Trafford may not have been one they had been looking forward to. As for United, a side that had been ravaged by injuries of late had a mix and match look about them as they took the field. Michael Carrick partnered Phil Jones as central defenders, while Park Ji-Sung and Rafael Da Silva in the centre of midfield. There was no place for Wayne Rooney in the side altogether (put down to a lack of fitness), so DImitar Berbatov, Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck all started for United. The bench was a strong of teenage names, with the returning Anderson and Lindegaard the only established players on the bench. The game started well enough, United were very much in control, although creating little. A slow and fairly steady start. An unexpected twist. 15 minutes in and Dimitar Berbatov is judged to have brought down Samba inside the box, and the resulting penalty was swiftly put away by Yakubu to give Blackburn an unlikely 1-0 lead. The first half continued in much the same way as it had started, although United began to show a little more urgency in their play. However, they could not break down a resolute opposition that meant going in at half time down by a goal. Half time saw the ineffective Hernandez replaced by Anderson, who moved into midfield and although the centre looked better for it, things went from bad to worse as Yakubu beat Carrick and Jones and grab a second. Immediate response as Berbatov headed home from close range after Rafael’s shot. Game on. United surge forward, with Valencia down the right hand side being a constant source of attack. 10 minutes later and the equaliser is achieved as Berbatov fires home first time from Valencia’s pass. The search for the winner begins. United kept possession as Blackburn allowed little space for manoeuvre, defending effectively in numbers. With United continuing to press for a winner, it was not until the last 10 minutes of the game that it was settled, but in an unbelievable manner. Blackburn won a corner, the kick came in and a half hearted attempt to punch it away by De Gea was not enough as the ball was won by Hanley, beating the United defenders on the line to give Kean’s side a shock 3-2 lead. From there, despite having possession, United failed to respond effectively, causing a shock on Ferguson’s birthday that would have left him in no mood for celebrating. One hopes that the side regroup with lessons learned for the trip to Newcastle. With that, here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) Time to give Lindegaard a longer run?
Throughout this season, I have defended David De Gea, citing his inexperience and his acclimitisation to a new league and style of play as a major factor to the quality of his performances. Sure enough, early on he was shaky, leaving many to doubt whether or not United had truly got themselves a quality goalkeeper, given the price tag (reportedly) of £18 million. However, his performances improved, displaying strong shot stopping and a high standard of distribution. Certain aspects clearly needed development but it was all part of a process. Now it would be ridiculous to state his career is finished or that he will not be good enough in goal for United, I still believe that with time and patience he will find himself ready to sit behind the United defence. However, one could argue the time has not yet come, and in the meantime there is an adequate understudy to take over for a while at least. Lindegaard has been consistent whenever called upon this season, and has given little argument to be kept out of a starting place, perhaps explaining Ferguson’s tactics of changing them from time to time. Has this logic been harmful? The side has been chopped and changed enough this season without also varying the goalkeepers regularly. Certainly one must admit that De Gea, although clearly highly talented still does not take command of his box as he should and looking particularly prone when it comes to corners. Perhaps it is time Lindegaard got a run in the team for the time-being.
2) Blackburn took their chances
With minutes to go, and United 3-2 down, and interesting statistic popped up. United had had 4 attempts on target as opposed to Blackburn’s 3. For all the possession, the corners and potential United had going forward, all they had to show for it was the solitary extra attempt on target and being a goal down. One must admit Blackburn worked hard, defended well and took their chances as and when they were presented to them. For United, it summed up a frustrating afternoon where they could and should have done better. Even considering the number of injuries, the side that was put out should have been capable of better but struggled to breakdown a resilient Blackburn side.
3) Park and Da Silva do not make a midfield partnership
This as well as the pairing of Jones and Carrick in the centre of defence displayed the lack of depth in the United side a the present time due to injury. Some have suggested that Carrick and Da Silva should have switched but initially the selection made sense as Carrick would appear to be strong defensively than the much more attack minded Rafael. This will give weight to the argument that some sort of strengthening needs to take place in January, not necessarily to revolutionise the squad, if only to bring quality and a little more depth to a side that is clearly being hindered by injury at the moment and leading to the use of players out of position. In fact, the day could have been the ideal occasion to use one of the youngsters on the bench who would be playing in roles they were accustomed to playing, Pogba for example. The team selection is not the sole reason United failed to win on the day, given the possession the side put out simply should have done better, but it did highlight the issue of depth in the squad at present.
4) Berbatov – full of energy and posing a threat
After his hat trick against Wigan, cautious fans were quick to point out, perhaps correctly, that the one hat trick against a struggling side does not prove his worth to the side when one considers his time at the club. However, his performance at Old Trafford on Saturday was definitely one of the better ones on an otherwise disappointing day. Despite conceding the penalty, in which there was a tussle between both players that ultimately led to Berbatov bringing Samba down, he made up for it with a well taken brace. Certainly one cannot accuse the Bulgarian of lacking energy as he tracked back to defend as well as posing a threat up front. The issue going back was his marking of Samba, a clear mismatch that called for someone else like Jones to deal with him as Berbatov struggled to get the better of him all game.
5) Return of Anderson, where was Rooney?
Before the game, Sir Alex Ferguson explained the decision to leave out Wayne Rooney, stating that he had not been training well during the week but that hopefully he would be ready for the Newcastle game. This statement suggested a lack of fitness, but the decision to leave him out clearly backfired, as having him as an option on the bench would have at least provided more depth to a side that failed to breakdown the opposition effectively. Finally, the return of Anderson from injury was seen. Naturally he would not be starting so soon after recovering and it was a gamble to include him but it felt necessary to bring him on for the second half. The midfield certainly looked better with him involved and the standard of play increased, but alas his efforts were to no avail as United dropped points and gave Manchester City the advantage in the title race. Happy New Year, indeed.