Comebacks and overturning deficits have been a recurring theme for Manchester United so far this season. Fans have often seen their side start slowly and finding them a goal or two down before picking up the tempo and finding a way back into the contest. This has not had consequences too often so far, with the 2-3 defeat to Tottenham being the most notable example where the situation has not been redeemable, after going 0-2.
The main concern, aside from starting without any real purpose, is the regularity with which United’s defence have been conceding so far, contrasting to seasons past where clean sheets were more common. This, of course has meant games are more entertaining, both from a neutral perspective and from that of the fans watching said games, often making for thrilling encounters as the minutes run out. With that in mind, would a change be seen on the trip to Carrow Road? Would the defensive issues be solved?
Lining up against Norwich, Sir Alex started Anders Lindegaard, with Rio Ferdinand and Chris Smalling in central defence. On the left and right, Patrice Evra and Rafael Da Silva took place respectively. In the middle of the park, Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs were paired up, with Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia on the wings. Up front saw Javier Hernandez and Robin Van Persie leading the line.
The first half was a goalless affair in which both sides had their moments of brightness. The visitors started the game the more confident, as the home side sat deeper. Attacks via the wings provided little success and although Ruddy was forced into saves, he did not find himself too busy in the first period. There were chances to take the lead, most notably through Robin Van Persie as a long ball flew into his path, but the striker could not get a foot to the ball to direct it home. As United probed, Norwich organised behind the ball, refusing to break down and in doing so refusing to allow many clear cut chances through. The home side also found opportunity going forward before the break, with Snograss and Tetty getting chances among others as the sides went in at half time, in a stalemate.
The second half kicked off, with a chance early as Young played in a ball which found Van Persie, but again the Dutchman failed to make anything of it. At the other end, Norwich caused United’s defences problems from a corner a few minutes later. Both sides began looking for ways through as a tight game looked to be the case.
The hour mark approached and a breakthrough was made, Norwich finding a way through. Hoolahan played in Garrido on the left, who then played in a cross to the near post, which found the head of Pilkington. The resulting header came off perfectly, as the ball looped over Lindegaard and nestled into the opposite corner, to send the home fans into rapturous celebrations.
With little sign of urgency from the away side, Sir Alex brought the changes with 20 minutes remaining, Scholes and Welbeck replacing Valencia and Hernandez. Protecting a lead with time running out, Norwich again set up deeply, ready to defend their advantage. United continued to look for a way through, but were frustrated in their efforts to break down a well organised defence. WIth little in the way of clear chances produced, the final change was made, with Rio Ferdinand making way for Anderson.
With United pushing forward, it was Norwich who would find the best chance to score again, on the break with Howson in on goal he put his effort far wide. United came close with minutes left, Van Persie’s free kick forcing a fine save from Ruddy after the ball came off the feet of his own defender, and Anderson forced a save in the dying moments. However, Norwich were to hold on and claim a 1-0 victory in an impressive showing. The defeat meant United fell to second in the league, one point adrift of Manchester City,
With that, here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) Norwich deserved the win
For all the complaints and criticisms that fans provide in the wake of a defeat, it is easy to forget that the other side must also take some credit for the way they set up. Going forward, United were relatively ineffective on Saturday, with few clear cut chances, and the ones that were created passed by without much trouble for Ruddy. Part of the reason for this was United’s own failings in breaking up the Norwich defence, but the other side of it, is that Norwich were simply very well organised.
Before they scored, they lined up well behind the ball, and dealt well when there were periods in which they did not have possession. Then, when they had the chance, they pushed forward and looked for ways through themselves. It is not as if they spent the entire game lining up to defend, but were extremely effective when they needed to be. Everyone did their job and played their part. Going forward, they threatened, with Pilkington rising for a well timed header from Garrido’s well placed cross.
Of course when they had the lead, they sought to defend it rather than take many risks, finding an ideal time to break with minutes to go and providing the perfect opportunity to put the game beyond doubt, only to squander the one on one opportunity. But it mattered little as United failed to break down a resilient home side in claiming another big scalp alongside Arsenal earlier in the season.
2) One player not to blame in a lacklustre performance
In a poor performance, it can be easy to point the finger at one player above all others as being the main reason for a defeat. If one were to trawl through Twitter, perhaps the name most often mentioned as an example of the poor play on this occasion, would be Ryan Giggs. Admittedly, I do not think Ryan Giggs is particularly fit to be starting games any more. He has his moments and can have a part to play, but one must wonder if there is a sentimental aspect to his selection at times when other more youthful options are in the squad. Either he is seen as someone still capable of producing on a regular basis in the line up, or it is a damning indictment of the lack of confidence in the current crop of midfielders. It is not as if rotation is a reason either, given United’s early qualification in the Champion’s League and exit from the League Cup, Sir Alex can afford to use the likes of Anderson, who has been on a good run of form.
As well as this, pairing him up with Carrick in midfield meant there was little tempo in the midfield, and given that the wingers were not producing either, United found themselves frustrated going forward. But that is besides the point, because although I have reservations about Giggs starting regularly these days, he cannot be solely blamed for what was a fairly poor performance from United on the night. For example, Van Persie was wasteful up front, provided with a wonderful pass from Giggs that gave him a golden opportunity to score, but he tried to fire home with his left and ended up missing the ball entirely. Javier Hernandez was fairly quiet for much of the game, although this is likely in part due to the lack of service from the wings and questions may remain regarding United’s defence. Ultimately, it was a performance that would not rescue them after falling behind and as one would expect, this time there were consequences for not asserting themselves on the game early.
3) The wingers – a source of frustration
United are well known to enjoy the fruits of using the flanks as a source of attack, and in Ashley Young and Valencia, one would hope a reasonable degree of threat would be possessed. However, of late, this has not quite been the case. Regardless of what fans think of Nani at this time, both Valencia and Young are also underwhelming at the moment. Young may be forgiven having recently returned from injury, but there have been moments where Valencia simply seems a shadow of himself, looking as though he has just returned from an horrific injury. The Ecuadorian did not go at the defenders with the same sense of purpose as fans have been used to, crossing poorly and generally proving to be unproductive. He was taken off early, replaced by Scholes after an ineffective 70 minutes. One hopes that his confidence and aggression is found again soon, or United’s wide play may continue to have problems.
4) Rooney – most influential?
So far this season, the one accusation that some have levelled at United is that with Van Persie, they have become a “one man team”, reliant on the Dutchman’s efforts when they have fallen behind. It is not one I support, although he has been extremely important so far this season. Other players have had their influence, recently, Javier Hernandez coming off the bench for example. However, in what was a lacklustre outing, one player missing that may have been detrimental, is Wayne Rooney. In a game such as this, his effect was missed. Dropping deeper into midfield, one would think he would have relished the chance to take control in the midfield and be creative getting forward. IN a game where United’s tempo was not what it should have been, he would have been a useful name to call upon, particularly as the game drew to a close.
Were it not for injury he would have started, and although United could well have lost regardless of his availability, United’s attack would have been more potent had he been there.
5) Questions over Hernandez as a starter
After his performance and the impact he had coming off the bench against Aston Villa last week, Javier Hernandez effectively “selected himself” having won the game for United coming back from a 2 goal deficit. This week, his impact was not to be felt as United slumped to a 1-0 defeat in what was a fairly limp effort going forward. Of course, based on this, some may question whether Hernandez is only to be used as an impact player, a “super sub” when all is not well and he provides another option to steal late goals when they are needed. Given that, for much of this season, he has been coming off the bench, and given the frankly poor service he received up front on Saturday, I think it would be unfair to judge just yet. He needs a run of games as a starter, and when the rest of the side is firing appropriately, one can see whether or not he has the same effect as he does coming off the bench.
When games are not going their way, Hernandez can be close to anonymous, he thrives off good service and a chance in the box to make something, and on this occasion he was left wanting. United had their chances and Hernandez was not as involved as he could have been when they did, but one cannot expect an awful lot when the rest of the side is fairly blunt as well.
For all the faults that can be identified from this game, it was simply a case that Norwich set up well, and took the chance when it presented itself and did what they had to do to pick up three points. Sometimes one has to step back and acknowledge, they were the better team on the day. And they were.