After the non-affair of Wednesday’s 1-0 over West Ham, was it too much to ask for a drama-free game at the Madejski Stadium? The answer from the Manchester United defence was a resounding ‘yes’ as the Reds fell behind after just eight minutes when Hal Robson-Kanu lashed in but hit back thanks to an excellent finish from Anderson and a Wayne Rooney penalty.
Reading reclaimed the lead when Adam Le Fondre and Sean Morrison both headed in from corners.
United then swung the pendulum back in their favour through neat finishes from Rooney and Robin van Persie, who also had a shot that crossed the line which was wrongly disallowed.
United came into the game knowing a point would be enough to return them to the top of the Premier League table.
The Reds, playing at tea-time, had been buoyed by the results of the day’s earlier games in which Manchester City only drew 1-1 at home against Everton, while Chelsea were beaten 3-1 by West Ham at Upton Park.
The Madejski Stadium has already hosted its fair share of goal-fests this season and provides more questions than answers about the overall quality of this United side.
The first half saw all seven goals scored, some which were down to good link-up play but were mainly, in United’s case, down to awful defending.
Reading did not take any points from the game, and without being patronising, they deserve their share of the plaudits for displaying a competitiveness and strategy that was so close to causing an upset and earning them a share of the spoils too.
That being said, here’s five things we learned from the game:
1) Vidic’s return cannot come soon enough
After witnessing the defensive frailties and lack of a hard, no-nonsense centre-half, the travelling fans sang reminiscently about Jaap Stam and Wes Brown. What may have slipped their mind is this type of player is still at the club and he comes from Serbia. “It would be nice for him to play on Wednesday, the best way is for us to leave it to ‘Vida’ himself. He has the experience to know what is best for him and when the time is right for him to come back into the team.
“He would be short of match practice but I wouldn’t be averse to playing him on Wednesday,” said Fergie about United skipper Nemanja Vidic at Friday’s press conference. After enduring a torrid 18 months, in which the Serb suffered a calf injury that kept him out for over two months at the beginning of last season, the 31 year-old then ruptured cruciate ligaments against Basle in December that prevented him from playing again in the entire campaign.
Vidic returned in pre-season but after only five games he complained of feeling tightness in the knee again and after a further examination was forced to undergo surgery in the middle of September. He may return on Wednesday and after the defensive shambles at Reading on Saturday, the news will be music to the ears of Manchester United fans.
The marking during the two corners in which Reading scored from was poor and there were mismatches all over the place; Patrice Evra v Jason Roberts being the prime example. United fell behind for the 14th time this season and have already conceded 21 goals in the league, just three goals shy of the 24 we conceded in the entire 2008/09 season. This has been United’s worst defensive performance in 11 years. Coupled with the shoddy marking was Anders Lindegaard’s shaky performance. After claiming a clean-sheet just three days prior, you would have thought he would be more comfortable in dealing with what Reading threw in his direction. However, this was not the case as he failed to communicate with his defenders on a number of occasions and his handling was generally poor. It wasn’t all down to the goalkeeper though as Fergie claimed the first half showing was “the worst defending of this season.” He also followed it up with the now tired line which goes “we need to do something about it.” That ‘something’ may indeed come in the shape of Nemanja Vidic as United can ill-afford to continue to lose goals in this fashion.
2) Fergie made the right call on Rafael
Rafael was taken out of the action to be replaced by Chris Smalling, but in truth any one of the back five could have suffered the Brazilian’s fate. The 22-year-old was hooked after half an hour after being run ragged by Nicky Shorey and Jobi McAnuff and was booked for a foul on the latter after receiving no defensive cover from Wayne Rooney who was on the right side of the attack. Rafael was visibly upset at his substitution as he felt he could have recovered from what was a testing 30 minutes but his manager disagreed. “Rafael had been booked – I don’t think there was any danger in him being sent off because it was an innocuous challenge but we really needed to get height into the team,” said Ferguson.
“The boy [Rafael] was disappointed coming off. He has been one of our best players this season.”
So Fergie is basically saying he took Rafael off as he had already been booked and that he also wanted to add height to the defence due to Reading’s continuous threat from Nicky Shorey’s crosses. His substitution may do him good in the long term as Sir Alex may have removed him so he is available to play in the Manchester derby next week. Smalling was calmer in possession and dealt with Reading’s aerial threat very well. Smalling also aided United offensively as he added width to a relatively narrow attack. What also helped Smalling is he was not left to deal with Shorey and McAnuff on his own as Rooney was clearly instructed to get back and help his full-back which he did and the second half defensive performance was much more assured as a result.
3) Evra’s back
“When you play for Manchester United any year you don’t win the title you feel like you haven’t done your job.
“I am not special. If I end up on the bench it will be because I didn’t play well. I accept that. Even if we lose I will always blame myself.
“This year the boss will give no presents to anybody. It should be difficult for him to pick his eleven players.
“Maybe last year there wasn’t enough competition on every part of the pitch.”
These are the words of Patrice Evra who has obviously accepted the challenge thrown to him by the manager when he signed Alex Buttner in the summer. Now Buttner was never a direct replacement for Evra as the Frenchman’s experience and overall ability ensures his position as first-choice left-back. But it may have served as a timely reminder that he was not guaranteed this position. His positional play has improved and he is no longer being caught out after going forward. His attacking know-how has also developed which has led to two goals already this season and he followed that up with an assist on Saturday after linking-up wonderfully with Ashley Young for Wayne Rooney’s second of the afternoon. Should he continue to balance this attacking guile with defensive discipline, Evra will be back to his solid performances circa 2007-09 in which he was arguably the best left-back in the business.
4) Jones is not a midfielder
Phil Jones said of his recent injury woes that the worst thing was watching his team from the sidelines. What he probably meant was he hasn’t enjoyed watching others cement their place in the team as he still searches for his best position. Rafael has made the right-back position his own this term and Smalling has deputised well for the Brazilian there too. His much-vaunted partnership with Chris Smalling from the under-21s was never given a chance to blossom, and Jonny Evans’ re-emergence further limited his opportunities.
So a home was found for him in midfield, he started there at Anfield last season, and was also selected there for England against Spain. It was not a new experiment, the position was one he played in frequently for Blackburn Rovers, but again whether his long-term future lies there is open to interpretation. What he offers United is youth and energy, which compliments the more strained older legs of Ryan Giggs or Paul Scholes.
In his opening season in the Premier League and the Champions League, Jones made 29 starts. Of these 14 came at right-back, nine in central defence, and six in central midfield.
He is a tenacious and tireless defender who tracks, closes and tackles with the urgency and intensity required without losing himself in the moment. Whilst he has certainly shown his expertise as a footballer of late, Phil Jones remains a skillful, ball-laying defender rather than the all-quarters dynamo many have claimed. Against Reading he gave the ball away on numerous occasions and could not find the final ball when he found himself in an advanced position behind van Persie. Michael Carrick showed his expertise in the role throughout with clever passes, one-touch football and the forgotten skill of intercepting and reading of the game. Jones needs to improve drastically in all of these areas if he wants to play in midfield. But does he? When asked if he saw himself as a defender, rather than a utility man or midfielder, Jones replied:
“That is definitely where I play my best football. I like to see the game in front of me and read the play. When the manager asked me to move into midfield at Blackburn it was strange. I didn’t expect it. It took a few games to adapt to that role and the positions I should take. But if I was asked to do that here, I would feel comfortable with it.”
5) Rooney and van Persie are getting there
Wayne Rooney has had his fair share of strike partners since moving to Old Trafford eight years ago. At first he enjoyed learning from fan favourite Ruud van Nistelrooy, he then formed a brilliant understanding with Louis Saha whom he says is the best striker he’s ever played with. He was then partnered with Carlos Tevez, a move that many doubted as their attributes were similar, but the two went on to win two league titles and reached consecutive Champions League finals together. Then came Dimitar Berbatov who Rooney surprisingly had the best games-to-goals ratio in all his partnerships at United. His latest accomplice comes in the form of last season’s Premier League top-scorer and Rooney seemed to relinquish his goal-scoring duties to van Persie and the Dutchman duly obliged with 13 goals already. Rooney has suffered from injury and illness this term which has meant less playing time and when he has been playing he has been deployed mainly at the tip of a midfield diamond. In this position he has been more of a provider than a supplier and is joint-top with Juan Mata in the assists charts with six.
Sir Alex Ferguson has been happy with Rooney’s contribution but would prefer if he found the net more often. “He can contribute to the team’s success fine but we would rather he scored more.
“He’s going through a period that all strikers do, he’s not scoring and it will change once he starts to score regular,” he said.
Against Reading, Rooney and van Persie’s link-up play and general understanding seemed better and this was epitomised in van Persie’s goal which came to him via a clever flick from Rooney. Rooney’s two goals showed that the goals can be shared amongst the two of them and he can begin chipping in as the games mount up in the busy festive period.