Squad rotation hampered the team’s performance
Once the title was secured against Aston Villa two weeks ago, the only remaining target left for United was to aim for 96 points, thereby achieving the highest total for a season, currently held by, ironically enough, Chelsea. Following last week’s hard-fought draw with Arsenal, that objective slid out of reach, a fact that many felt would prompt Sir Alex to offer some of United’s youngsters a run-out with the first team, notably Nick Powell and Adnan Januzai. With neither making the bench, Sir Alex instead chose to offer game time to various squad members. It’s an understandable policy, but the problem with so many changes inevitably disrupts the team and United only threatened fitfully before half-time and barely at all in a dismal second half. There’s little doubt that Sir Alex utilising his tombola to select the team, combined with United having effectively nothing of significance left to play for, resulted in a very disappointing performance, something even Sir Alex conceded after the match.
A rivalry that has lost all its passion
In their respective press conferences yesterday, both Sir Alex and Benitez were encouraged by eager journalists to comment about each other, hoping to spark further life into a resentful relationship that has prevailed for some years. That their comments were fairly neutral and even, to some extent, bordering on positive was typically ignored by the press, desperate to slant their words into an acidic rant. It’s a state of affairs that sums up the contests between the two teams at the moment. Despite a couple of high-scoring games earlier in the season, recent contests visibly lack the spice of previous encounters and today’s game was no different in that respect (albeit heightened by United having won the title already). This is largely due to Chelsea’s failure to challenge for the league in the last couple of seasons, being usurped by City as United’s main rivals for the Premiership. If Jose Mourinho’s return to Chelsea does happen as is being reported, the two clubs’ objectives are likely to be much more closely aligned, and we can expect to the clashes next season to be far more passionate.
Our right wing is not getting any better
In the commentary for the game against Aston Villa, Sky’s Alan Parry commented on a piece of United’s play with the phrase ‘good ball from Valencia, who’s had his usual excellent game’. Transport that observation to any of the last three years and it fits perfectly; in this season it stands out as a comment so staggeringly inaccurate you wonder if Parry has bothered to watch any of United’s games this season. Sir Alex obviously thinks the best way for Tony V to hammer himself back into form is by continually selecting him, like a despairing driver repeatedly turning the key in his broken car, praying it will suddenly splutter into life. Occasionally it’s a technique that can work – Van Persie rediscovered his mojo in a similar fashion – but with Valencia it’s only emphasising how much his form has deserted him. And it’s getting painful now.
There’s a greater issue too. United’s greatest asset is undoubtedly their team spirit – you have to wonder what certain players, Hernandez for example, think watching Valencia, wretchedly out of form, continually play for all or most of every game. Hernandez – who admittedly occupies a different position but tactics, as shown today, can be adjusted – has been given less than ten minutes in the last two games. United’s squad is renowned for accepting team rotation but continually been ousted by a player in the worst form of his career could begin to erode team harmony.
Time to go now Anderson?
There was good news for Nani in this game. He may not actually be the most frustrating player at United. For several years, fans have craved a box-to-box midfielder, possessing strength, pace, creativity and a passing range that can at least echo the majesty of Paul Scholes. Each transfer window has delivered a resounding failure to provide such a player – and the most infuriating thing is he already exists in United’s ranks.
Anderson, who was once regarded with such promise in his early years, surely patrolled Old Trafford for one of the last times today. In a strangely quiet first half, Anderson was the bright spark, epitomising, at times, all those qualities we demand from a central midfielder. Though his passing was wayward on occasion, there was drive in his play, a certain dynamism that only he can provide. But it many ways it was simply a snapshot of his United career – so much potential, but ultimately with no product to show for it, and then the weaknesses take hold. The tiring, the sloppiness, the unacceptable laziness. The inclination to stand admiring one of his passes rather than move into position and accept possession again. As is tradition, he was substituted not long after sixty minutes, an occurrence that has happened so often the Brazilian has probably started to think matches only last for an hour in England. When he does leave the club, as it looks like he might, his epitaph will be a simple one: what should have been…
The most crucial player of the season is…
Forget the best player of the season for a moment. United’s most crucial player of the season is a simple choice. Van Persie’s goals have been a vital factor but United possess plenty of ammunition in reserve. Rafeal has been brilliant but there are other right-backs who could have filled in. De Gea has been outstanding but it remains at least arguable United could have still won the league without him. None of this is applicable to Michael Carrick. If he had suffered a prolonged injury during the season, such is the fluctuating form and reliability of the rest of the midfield, there’s a good chance United wouldn’t be indulging in some trophy-lifting during this season’s climax. Such has been his metronomic brilliance, his absence from the line-up immediately raises doubts about our engine room. And so it proved today – despite our unfamiliar midfield three providing the odd cameo of neat interplay, there was a clear lack of fluidity and control through the centre.
Anderson and Cleverley flitted in and out, and, as a midfield anchor, the enthusiasm of Jones robbed him of his positional sense, his gallops up-field leaving gaping holes at the back Juan Mata, in particular, slotted gratefully into. Carrick’s passing and calmness is always going to be missed, but his under-rated ability to shield the back four was also notably absent today. It’s an issue that will surely be addressed in the summer.