One of the toughest things for a football fan is the contextualisation vs isolation of understanding a football match, but if any one game was able to show even the most feeble minded person (yes even those on Sky Sports) that we are in a great moment it was the away loss to Chelsea. Take a game where we had lots of possession but were as sharp as a wooden spoon in attack, as we were on Saturday, and plonk it in December or January and the knives would be out for van Gaal; but place it after a run of six wins and some pretty damn good football and everything is gravy. Let us not sit here and pretend there was no discontent. Though a lot of us could see the progress van Gaal was making early on there will always be the simple minded who cry 4-4-2 as if the most basic of formations which requires 11 athletes (something we do not have) is the answer to any footballing conundrum. As this game was placed where it was though, our poor finishing has been overlooked and our dominant possession game has been lauded and suddenly everyone is excited for next season and the philosophy. Context. In these pieces though I am not too bothered about context, that’s why some of the players highlighted in this weeks 3 villains might be of a surprise considering they have been the best three performers over the past month, their challenge is to make sure that in the context of the last few months of the season this was just an isolated slip-up. The three heroes on the other hand have generally been missing of late and not been involved in our winning run, their challenge is to take this isolated success and carry it forward into the last five games. So without further ado, here are my 3 heroes and 3 villains in our away day loss at Stamford Bridge.
He really did that? To the champions elect? After not playing for weeks? Yeap, he reminded me why all the hype was there in the middle part of the season. He’s comfortable on the ball and is able to do what van Gaal wants from him in terms of bringing the ball out into the space opened up by the movement of the midfielders. It is something that Rio Ferdinand was so good at but under the Ferguson regime was not utilising nearly enough. It is something that we see an awful lot from Gerard Pique at Barcelona and though it is unfair to make such comparisons considering I saw tweets claiming that the runs he went on before his strikes at goal in each half were ‘Messi-like’ I think I’m thinking more rationally than some out there. They were pretty damn exciting runs though. I can’t remember how many times this season I have sat in front of my keyboard and lambasted the passing accuracy of the likes of Phil Jones and Jonny Evans in particular, but 91% from the youngster only gives me confidence that in time he will eclipse them both. 3 interceptions, 1 bloc k and 5 clearances tells the real story of why Chelsea didn’t get a sniff of the ball for 90 minutes, despite what the Mourinho arse lickers in the London media would have you believe was a rope-a-dope tactic by the one-time van Gaal apprentice.
There was a lot false stuff written in the media (I know, shock right!?) about Luke Shaw not celebrating if he scored against Chelsea because he was a fan of theirs as a kid. Without going too deeply into how ridiculous this is, the facts are, he had a chance to go to Chelsea last summer but he chose to come to the biggest club in the country. That shows the belief he has in his ability, his ambition and where his loyalties now lie. Now, did all this shite light a fuse under him and make him play the way he did? Possibly, but now Luke’s challenge is to prove that this type of performance is one he is capable of over a long period of games. He wasn’t very efficient in his take-ons but the volume of them is something that should encourage us. He took on players down the left hand side four times and this is the type of level that his predecessor hit weekly as a minimum. Patrice Evra overlap runs were some of my favourite memories over the last few years and it is something we need Shaw to do more of. You are at United now, go and show these fullbacks and wingers who is boss! He also created three chances in the game which is what you expect from a Manchester United fullback. On the whole it was a great return to the pitch for Luke, but he has to take this on because if his performances dip Daley Blind will take his spot and not many people will lose sleep.
I mention Smalling last here because he is the exception to the context vs iso theme I thought was relevant to Saturday, mainly because I think he has been playing well since February. He is currently our best defender and was the first to noticeably take on van Gaal’s philosophy. The way he marshalled the back 4 against Liverpool was particularly impressive and because of this his performance against Chelsea wasn’t that big of a shock. It seems strange that in a game where we had 71% possession away from home against the best team in the country that my heroes are all defenders but as I mentioned when discussing Paddy McNair’s performance, the reason we had all that possession was not because Chelsea sat back. They tried their damnedest in the first half to get at us but they couldn’t get past our half way line, and Chris Smalling played a major role in that. He won 5 out of 6 aerial duels, 4 out of 5 tackles, 3 interceptions, 1 block, EIGHT clearances, all whilst only committing two fouls. That is incredible! What is even better is that despite his defensive focus and the pressure he was up against when winning all these challenges, he managed to pass the ball with an accuracy of 94%…. YES NINETY-FOUR PERCENT! THE TEAM AVERAGE WAS 91%!
Now, along with the others in this section Young was not ‘bad’ but there was something I noticed on Saturday which go against the grain of what he has been doing these past weeks. Whether it was by design from the coaching staff or because he thought that was the best way forward I don’t know but here goes. In the past few weeks Young has mixed up well with how he attacks the fullback he faces. Though he has shown the fullback inside and then headed for the byline to either cross with his left or attack the penalty area on occasion in each game recently, the majority of his attacks (and hence why the defender doesn’t expect the byline attacks to come, leading to his success) are cut-ins to cross with his favoured right foot. He hardly did this on Saturday. Time after time he headed for the byline but was so unsuccessful and uncommitted in these attempts they didn’t even warrant official statistics. This is why I highlight the coaching staff. Did they think that the often cumbersome Ivanovic would be susceptible to unsuspecting attacks down the line due to expecting the traditional Ashley Young cut-in? Well, had he mixed it up a bit then perhaps they would have been unsuspecting but he didn’t keep Ivanovic guessing at all, it was byline, byline, byline… Ivanovic is too big and powerful to let him know where you are going every time, and as a result the recently great Young was largely ineffective.
Now I don’t want to overstate ‘the job’ that Zouma did on Fellaini because I didn’t actually see him do anything but chase Fellaini around for 90 minutes. Zouma only beat Fellaini ONCE in the air and Fellaini beat Zouma FOUR TIMES. Fellaini actually also created two goal scoring chances in the second half and passed the ball with an accuracy of 89%. But, I just didn’t have the feeling he was on it. He did all the usual Fellaini stuff but as I mentioned a few weeks ago when we played Aston Villa, in a game where you are absolutely dominating possession do you really need him in there? He didn’t have any shots or headers on goal which is what would have made his presence worthwhile and if he isn’t doing that perhaps he should have been the one to go off rather than Juan Mata. Mata didn’t have the greatest impact himself, but does fit the 71% possession, keep the ball, out pass the opponent to create chances ideology a bit better than the big Belgian. I just want to reiterate that Fellaini didn’t play bad, and he didn’t get hounded out by Zouma, but for the same reasons he shouldn’t have played at all against Aston Villa, he should have been brought off against Chelsea once the staff saw how dominant we were on the ball. Against Everton however… I’m picking him.
As mentioned, it was a quiet one for Juan and I would have liked to see him stay on the pitch in the final moments but he can’t really complain about being yanked off in favour of Januzaj. Falcao was creating a fair bit of trouble for the Chelsea centre backs and but for a shot cannoning off the post he would have had a good day at the office so it would have been unfair to take him off. Though Juan was neat and tidy, his crosses were pretty poor with not one of his set pieces hitting a man in red. He also only managed to have one shot which was also off target. It is excusable and I put it down to it being his first trip back to a stadium he graced for a good few years, and though Chelsea fans are in general verminous, not even they could help but love Juan Mata. For me this was just a blip and I fully expect him to take it out on Everton next weekend.
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