The game against West Ham had the air of those typical midweek encounters at Old Trafford; slow burners with United dominating possession but not really penetrating and taking their chances as they become comfortable in the narrative of a winter’s night at the Theatre of Dreams.
It was one of those on Wednesday except it wasn’t much of a slow burner as Robin van Persie scored the fastest Premier League goal this season to put the Reds ahead after just 32 seconds. The Dutchman netted his 12th of the campaign which turned out to be the match-winner as United couldn’t turn their other 22 shots into the West Ham goal.
The Hammers trip to Old Trafford was the culmination of what was believed to be a tough month for them. They had played Manchester City, Spurs, Newcastle and Stoke in November and only lost at White Hart Lane. The season does not get any easier for them though as December features matches against Chelsea, Liverpool, West Brom, Everton and Arsenal. Sir Alex Ferguson would have recalled that the last promoted club to leave Old Trafford with a league victory – Bolton in 2001 – were managed by Sam Allardyce, with Kevin Nolan on the scoresheet.
Given that United had conceded the first goal in nine of their 13 league matches coming into this one, Van Persie’s opener should have helped to settle any early nerves. Nevertheless, it seemed to do the opposite as The Reds obviously aren’t used to going ahead so early on in a game with the manager calling it “strange”.
It wasn’t plain-sailing for United though, as Andy Carroll volleyed off target as the visitors tried to respond in the first half, while the on-loan Liverpool forward was culled for an uninterested display. Allardyce replaced Carroll with Cole and the substitute made an immediate impact – setting up Matt Taylor for a chance that was wasted and drawing a crucial close-range stop from Anders Lindegaard.
As the home faithful grew restless another substitute, Modibo Maiga, hit an angled drive over the bar, but West Ham could not force an equaliser.
Despite it not sounding like a classic, here’s five things we learned.
1) Rafael has arrived
The Da Silva twins have been at United so long it is somewhat surprising that they are only 22-years-old. Unfortunately for Fabio, a string of injuries and the irremovable object that is Patrice Evra has made it difficult for him to break into the first team on a regular basis but Rafael has enjoyed his best spell in the absence of his brother who is on loan at QPR. The Brazilian has featured in every game this season and started all but one which is testament to his form and maturing performances. Sir Alex has name-checked Rafa for praise a few times this season and did the same on Wednesday.
“I think he’s maturing also, he’s 22 years of age now, he came here as a young kid and was in the first team at 17-18 and, of course, he made a lot of rash mistakes because he was such an enthusiastic boy but he’s maturing now and he’s learning from all that,” said Sir Alex.
The superlatives didn’t end their with fellow defender Jonny Evans claiming that Rafael has been “outstanding all season” and “sets the tone” for the rest of the team.
2) It’s time for Young to grow up
His name is quite deceiving as Ashley Young is 27-years-old and should be at the peak of his powers but instead plays with little consistency and seems to always choose the wrong option of late. With Nani’s future up in the air, Giggs turning 39 today and Valencia out through injury, it is the perfect opportunity for Young to show his worth as our first-choice winger and justify the transfer that had a large number of Reds scratching their heads last year. From a distance Young seemed a good player for Aston Villa and was the outstanding player in their four-man midfield which also featured Stewart Downing, James Milner and Gareth Barry. All have moved on to bigger stages with varying degrees of success and it was thought Young would benefit from the higher calibre of players at United. But the England international has failed to develop his game and he lacks the confidence that he enjoyed in his first few months at the club. He was only a substitute and came on for Tom Cleverley but his appearance was still frustrating as his decision-making was poor and he lost possession needlessly in dangerous areas. Young has shown brief spells of his abilities during his time at United but instead of improving over time, he has regressed into mediocrity.
3) We can keep a clean sheet
Michael Carrick got it spot on when he said the biggest positive was the fact that United didn’t concede. United have prevented the opposition from scoring just three times in their opening 14 Premier League games so far this term, three less than title rivals Manchester City and Chelsea. However, Carrick was pleased with the team’s defensive display – drawing particular attention to the performances of Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling – in the face of West Ham’s imposing strikers.
“It was by far not a classic. Obviously we weren’t at our best and the flowing football that you want to play and the chances that you want to create didn’t quite happen,” Carrick told MUTV.
“But we got a clean sheet which was quite pleasing and I thought we defended well.
“They had a couple of opportunities and when they put balls into the box like they did, those can fall to anybody. But overall I thought we defended well – we didn’t play as well as we could have but we won the game and managed to keep a clean sheet.
“A clean sheet is the biggest plus that we can take from tonight. They pumped a lot of balls into the box, asked questions and made us defend.
“Our two centre halves were terrific. West Ham had two big guys – as Carroll goes off, Carlton Cole comes on – and it can be tough. But we got the clean sheet. It is something to build on because the performance needs to be better.”
4) Anderson can fill the void
After a man of the match performance against QPR, Anderson followed it up with a solid showing against West Ham as his energy and enthusiasm ensured West Ham’s midfield three of Mark Noble, Kevin Nolan and Mohamed Diame did not dominate in the middle of the park.
The last two outings are a glimpse at exactly why the club shelled out £18 million to bring him to Old Trafford from Porto back in 2007, and a window into what still might be. With Paul Scholes, Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick all tending to sit deep, United have lacked energy and physicality in midfield which Anderson has provided of late. He carries the ball forward and follows his passes with runs into the area which have troubled defences, adding an air of unpredictability to United’s attack. Ever-willing to get on the ball and take players on, Anderson offers something different for United and as part of the three-man base to the midfield, freed up Michael Carrick to influence proceedings.Anderson excelled at the start of last season when partnered with Tom Cleverley, who strangely, is the most similar of his other midfielders. The two started against West Ham and their quick passing from the off led to van Persie’s early opener.
Without tempting fate, Anderson has had spells like this before and has not produced over a sustained period. If he can steer clear of injury and take a leaf out of his compatriot, Rafael’s, book he may even be in with a chance of regaining a place in the Brazil squad as Big Phil Scolari returns to manage the Seleção.
5) It’s that time of the season
After an exciting start to the season with comebacks aplenty, United may be turning the corner which could lead to the first spell of good performances throughout the team. With the squad numbers growing (only Nemanja Vidic and Shinji Kagawa aren’t training with the first team), Sir Alex will be able to pick his best team soon and with a settled team comes confident and convincing performances which is usually the case at the turn of the year. Sir Alex concurred when he said: Ferguson said: “It’s a big moment for us.”With no international football and our last [Champions League] group game next Wednesday, it gives us a further chance to concentrate on the league.”
“We’re coming to a really important time in the season where our defending, if it improves, will give us a great chance. ”
So, expect less of those exciting turnarounds and more clean sheets in the coming weeks as the Reds get the right balance.