Having collected six points from the first two games of their Champion’s League group, Sir Alex Ferguson knew that victory at home to Braga on Tuesday night, would put them extremely close to qualification.
Given the way in which the situation got sour last season, Sir Alex will have been keen to stress the importance of each and every opponent in Europe and the need to win as many games as possible early on to allow swift progression and possibly, a better draw in the knockout stages. With that in mind, and a fixture with CHelsea coming up on the weekend, a strong side was selected, with Evra and Ferdinand the notable absentees in need of a rest. To start, David De Gea took place in goal, with Michael Carrick and Jonny Evans sat in front of him. Alexander Buttner took place on the left and Rafael Da Silva on the right. In midfield, Darren Fletcher, Shinji Kagawa and Tom Cleverley were played, along with Rooney, Hernandez and Robin Van Persie in what was a diamond formation.
The match kicked off in what has become a common occurrence at Old Trafford in recent weeks, with Braga taking the lead through Alan, as the striker beat Buttner to Viana’s cross to put his side a goal up. 0-1 and a disastrous start for United. Braga continued with their game plan, using the width of the pitch and keeping possession. After 20 minutes, a shell shocked Old Trafford was further stunned, as Alan was picked out with a pass into the box, beating his markers to slot home from a few yards out. 0-2 and United needing to do it the hard way.
It only took 5 minutes for United’s troubles to get cut in half, as Van Persie out on the left tried to turn his way past a defender, only to get brought down, as Kagawa took up the ball in space with the referee waving advantage as the Japanese midfielder chipped over a ball to meet Hernandez in the box to head home off the goalkeeper. 1-2 with plenty still to do.
Braga stilled showed signs of danger going forward as the half went on, with the home side beginning to find their feet and link up more effectively. Hernandez was involved in much of the play, going close soon after scoring United’s first, and having a goal ruled out for offside, although replays showed Kagawa, who was played in by Van Persie, was indeed onside. Indeed, the score remained as such, 1-2 and changes on the way.
The second half began with Nani replacing the injured Kagawa and an expectation of greater width in the United line up. Indeed, that is what fans got, as Sir Alex reverted to a 4-4-2 look as United began to pile on the pressure, looking for a way back into the game. With a sense the momentum was shifting, the game was brought level just after the hour mark, as Van Persie’s corner found it’s way into the box and a slight scramble allowed Jonny Evans to get a weak shot away that was enough to beat the goalkeeper.
The home side did not slow down as they went in search of a winner, and 10 minutes later they came close as Hernandez showed persistence in staying on his feet, charging forward and finding Nani in space on the right, who drew a good save with a strong shot. However, minutes after, Cleverley collected the ball out on the right, and looped in a tempting cross that met Hernandez near the six yard area to head home strongly and to give his side a 3-2 lead.
With the game reaching it’s final stages, Braga provided moments of tension, nearly capitalising on a lazy pass from De Gea, but the home side were able to see the game out as it was to take their tally to nine points in the group to leave them in a healthy position going into the second half of the stage. With that here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) Comeback Kings – but it cannot last
United seem to have made a habit of going behind at Old Trafford this season, only to stage a comeback to take the game. For the neutral, this likely makes for a more interesting prospect, but United fans will likely bemoan the way in which the side concedes soft goals early on, only for the quality of the attack to save the day. Tuesday night saw a similar scenario to that against Tottenham in a recent game, where they went behind by two, except in this case United were able to get back into the game and come away with all the points.
Ultimately, the side need to win, regardless of whether they fall behind early or not, but constantly allowing the side the advantage by starting slowly or losing concentration at the back will cost the side sooner or later. The fact is the defending needs to be solid and the team need to begin brightly for the days when the attack will not be able to compensate for any lapses. The need to keep clean sheets is just as important as what happens up front, for the days when only the solitary goal can be gained and tight margins will need to be held.
2) Michael Carrick – not a central defender
Stating the obvious of course, from the last time Carrick took place at the heart of the defence. In truth, one cannot go and blame Carrick as such, given that it is quite clear this is not his position and is likely a mistake that the manager will own up to. The logic in putting him in, given the shortage of defenders at the present time, and the need to rest Ferdinand considering upcoming fixtures is understandable. He put in a decent effort in a defence that looked a little fragile on Tuesday night, and ultimately it did not cost the team, and on that basis it may have been considered a risk worth taking.
3) Using the youngsters may not have helped either
With Carrick starting in defence, some may have wondered whether this would have been the ideal time to use one of the young players United have coming through their ranks at present. Given what happened last season and the relative lack of experience of some of the bright talent, I do not think it would have been wise to put them in a European game where United still have work to do. Now, many may say they need to get the experience somewhere, but considering their lack of experience domestically, one might think it better they learn their craft in the league before trying their hand at European competition. It is quite possible that some of the names coming through the ranks may find themselves future starters in the United team, but bringing them in too early in the Champion’s League is perhaps a policy upon which caution is urged.
4) A sub-par team performance – particularly in a diamond
As mentioned before, using the diamond is a relatively new idea at Old Trafford, and one that may not always be the best. Considering Old Trafford has quite a wide pitch, it makes sense to use it as much as possible to one’s advantage, which is what Braga did quite well in the first half, to good effect. With United playing a narrower diamond system, they seemed to get beaten fairly easily when the flanks were used.
As well as this, the team seemed to find it difficult to connect at times. Passes went astray, the football was not as fluid as it could have been and although there were some threatening attacking moves, the weakness at the back made for some worries throughout the match. United did get better as the game progressed, particularly when Nani was brought in and a wider system was used again, and there were some good performances, particularly from Hernandez.
Others struggled. Buttner, for example, showed he needs time to settle and make his way into the team on a night when he appeared to lose control of the ball easily and give the ball away. Cleverley, despite his wonderful cross for the winning goal, had one of his quieter nights also. However, these are only two examples on an evening where the slow start in particular could have cost the match early on and a struggle to cope with what Braga had to offer in the opening exchanges.
5) Do not forget about Hernandez
With Welbeck, Rooney and Van Persie proving to be an effective attacking trio in recent games, one may be forgiven for forgetting about Javier Hernandez, the Mexican striker who made only his fourth start against Braga. If ever there was a moment to remind Sir Alex of what he was capable of, Hernandez grasped it with both hands and made it known that he has a role to play at Old Trafford. The young striker was lively throughout, involved in much of the attacking threat and being rewarded with two goals, and arguably should have had three, after Kagawa was ruled offside in the first half when replays showed otherwise. With a game against Chelsea looming on Sunday, it is unclear who Sir Alex will opt for to lead the line, but one can be sure Hernandez will be in his thoughts after what was an impressive outing.