In a few words, disappointed but philosophical. Hopes were high at Old Trafford but ultimately the forces of history – make that 67 away matches against the top four without a win – were too powerful to overcome, despite our recent progress. And you know what I’m going say – 6 out of 9 points from the last three fixtures will do. And it is progress.
My rosy glow from That Week still lingers but it’s a touch brown and crinkly round the edges, because we did not give of our best on Saturday. Logically it’s over-ambitious to believe that we could have taken United, but we’ve never had a better opportunity. I’m always uncomfortable with the familiar phrase, ‘I’d have settled for that before ….’. Whilst it contains the worthy truth of pragmatism, it also smacks of a lack of ambition, a denial of what it is possible. So I suppose two weeks ago I would have ‘settled’ for 2 wins from the last three games, but having seen two of them, I now know more about what is possible, and that is the phenomenal potential of our team.
On the field the game was won and lost down the flanks. It was inevitable that with so much attention and praise lavished on Bale from all quarters, ranging from this humble blog to the national media, he was due a poor performance. For once, Superboy was brought down to the level of the rest of us mere mortals. A reminder both to him and to his adoring Spurs public that he is young and inexperienced will do no harm in the long run but it was painful to watch. I suspect Rafael had a dose of kryptonite down his shorts.
On a few occasions he stood idly as the game passed him by, his lackadasical approach at odds with the fierce concentration of recent weeks. He was at his most culpable for Nani’s goal when he not only failed to track back but could also see his man ahead of him yet still failed to move. His failings were compounded by Assou Ekotto on the opposite side, where he was repeatedly caught out of position and whose decision-making was dire at times, leading to the vital penalty that broke the stalemate. United may have made their pressure tell as the game went on but that ill-judged and desperate tackle was the outcome of the pressure that Benny had been under since kick-off. It eroded his sense of sound judgement to breaking point.
However, it was more complex than both full-backs having bad games simultaneously. United played five across the middle. This meant that we were usually outnumbered 3 to 2 in the centre of the pitch and were also stretched by their two wingers, ultimately to breaking point. This latter led to Bale and Benny staying wide too.Whether this was their inexperience, made worse by Benny being out of his usual position, or from the manager’s tactical advice we will never know. It meant two things. One,without sufficient protection from Modric and Bentley, both were exposed one on one too frequently. Two, there was a gap between them and the centre backs. Time and again, United slid the ball into these channels for Berba or their ever-willing attacking midfielders. King and Dawson had to come across to cover, thus leaving space behind them in dangerous central areas. Wilson and Hud failed to slot into those gaps.
As a result, United had more room than they should have, and the fact is, it was no score at half time primarily because of their profligacy in front of goal. We have to defend as a team, and this was not the case on many occasions.
Fergie also became the first manager since Bale returned to the team to combat his attacking prowess. Valencia is hardly known for his defending but he can at least stay out wide and get in the way, and also he kept Bale occupied with his forward play. Then, with three in the middle Fletcher could ease across to provide the next barrier, and should we get through, the 12 year old full back is nimble and fast. Our lot didn’t help out much and seldom gave him a decent ball or an inside pass.
Fergie and Harry, the two wily, shrewd and battle-hardened campaigners up against each other, and Fergie outsmarted and outmanoeuvred Redknapp. There’s also an argument to say that we were hamstrung even before the kick-off. Redknapp took the risk of changing a winning team by bringing back Palacios and shifting Luka to the left. It did not pay off but frankly I would have done the same. The defensive cover Wilson offers would have been perfect, in theory, for Old Trafford where we would have less of the ball and hit more on the break compared with previous games. We should be comfortable with that formation.
As it turned out, Palacios was rusty after two games out and did not get going until the second half, whereupon he was moved to right back. There is less reason for this other change to the winning team. The reasons looked good on paper – BAE is fast, Kaboul isn’t, Nani likes to come inside onto Benny’s good foot. In practice, Benny played like a man in unfamiliar surroundings, which he was. With the lack of cover I have already mentioned, it fatally weakened the team. It’s been said that Harry rates Kaboul at right back. Kaboul himself this week says that’s not his position. This all smacks of serious confusion, and once again it is my solemn duty to point out that we have a quick international right back out on loan, a decision that to my mind is a massively wasteful use of our squad.
With Bale out the picture, it highlighted the paucity of our attacking options. It was wonderful to see Lennon again and he looked bright enough in short bursts but once on the field we did not give him the ball. Ridiculous. Defoe has not looked at all sharp since his injury, although the contrast between those United passes into channels and our failure to deliver anything much for JD to feed upon over the last few games could indicate a problem for us in the next few, vital matches. The joy of the derby victories has obscured this to a large extent, but it’s worrying.
King was again excellent, still a master of the penalty box but my man of the match was Gomes, not his busiest afternoon but he was impeccable. Otherwise, Hud was invisible and Modric poor.
One bright note was the way in which we responded when Luka switched to the middle and Wilson went to full back. The team immediately looked more comfortable and started to move the ball around with pace and confidence. United’s tactics were better than ours but they can’t be everywhere and we began to suddenly realise that we had space if we chose to use it. Nani’s great goal and Wilson’s foolishness put paid to that, but it shows that we do have a plan B if things aren’t working, something that could not be said with confidence at the start of the season.
And that attacking balance should be just right for Saturday. It’s in our hands, and I could not ask for more at this stage.