Story of a Match: Man Utd
It is amazing to see how far we’ve come when, on a Saturday night, I sit here disappointed that Norwich haven’t taken points from Old Trafford. Most expected us to go to Manchester and get turned over, but I suspect most Norwich fans expected it to be a bit more of a challenge for the Champions. All too frequently we get written off. In the end, a 2-0 defeat doesn’t tell the story of this match. So how did it come about?
Norwich went into this game with the same lineup and roughly the same shape that picked up back-to-back wins against Bolton and Sunderland. While Lambert was tinkering around a lot in the early games, he seems to have settled on this winning team and rewarded their performances with more starts. It’ll only breed confidence, and it was a good move.
Our success in the game, at holding off some world class players, giving Ruddy a pretty easy match and generally being comfortable for 70 odd minutes, came through this shape. Lambert had clearly done his homework and presented United with two banks that were very tough to break down. With the lads all being hard working, sticking to their jobs and totally disciplined, we stifled United play before it had a chance to threaten.
Above you can see all the interceptions made by Norwich in this game, mainly clustered around the 18 yard line. Time and time again United tried to work their way through and one of the back four was there, picking the ball up and clearing it. It was an impressively solid backline, especially when you consider what Rooney and Nani have done to other teams this year. The patience and discipline shown by the defence, Johnson and Fox was the foundation of the whole afternoon. With those players doing their job, we were free to try and get the ball to Morison or one of the wingers.
It wasn’t just the back four and two holding midfielders that kept their shape today…
As you can see, Wes’ sphere of influence was different to Monday night vs Sunderland. While on Monday he was quite forward, almost given a free role to hit both flanks and dictate the play. Against Man Utd today he was much more central and deeper, helping the midfield do the dirty work and breaking up play. This side to his game isn’t as glamorous or creative but it was vital. The side effect to this, however, was that Morison was more isolated up front than he was vs Sunderland. That was always going to be likely. Home against an average team is a different ballgame entirely to away vs the champions, and Morison was always going to have a long ol’ slog up front, but it does show the versatility that Wes brings to the team.
While the whole team played as a well drilled unit, there are a couple of individual performances that deserve highlighting. The first is of Morison, who led the line admirably.
Above you can see the headers that Morison put himself on the end of, against highly rated defenders Jones and Evans. He was a useful outlet when the defence was forced to hit it long, and he was able to turn these long balls into attacks on more than one occasion. By contrast, once he actually got into the box, he had lead in his boots. His finishing looked either tired or nervy, possibly both, and so was his decision making. It is unsurprising, doing a thankless task in the unexpected heat, and I was surprised to see him stay on past 65 odd minutes as he seemed visibly tired. But that isn’t to take away from his performance – he did his role perfectly for the team, and some dodgy passing and finishing in the box won’t detract from that.
At the back, the entire defence had a blinding performance, but I want to highlight the renaissance man, Russell Martin. He was dropped after one game against Wigan in which he looked shaky and nervous, and he didn’t have a great game against MK Dons in the cup. However, since he has been put in at centre back beside Leon, he has been outstanding, an absolute revelation.
Above you can see his passing and intercepting stats from today’s game. With excellent distribution and positional awareness, he didn’t need to actually make a tackle in the entire game. He read it perfectly, always breaking play up, challenging for headers and then passing the ball to another yellow shirt. He was like this vs Bolton and Sunderland, completely composed and at ease beside the always impressive Barnett. It seemed like he was going to be a stop gap at CB while we await the return of several players from injury, but with this form it’s going to be very hard to drop him. By putting in a performance like that at Old Trafford, he’s shown just how valuable he is to the side. An absolutely superb game. Worth also noting the brilliant game Tierney had to his left, too, keeping Nani so quiet he was subbed off.
It is a shame that a game can be defined by these, but they impacted the course of our game dramatically.
The rather crude, very pixellated image above is the chance Bennett was presented with after just 4 minutes. Following a lovely one-two, he bore down on goal, seemed to hold onto it a touch longer than he needed, then tried to find Morison in much the same way he found Barnett on Monday. The red line was the ball he played, and it was always a tough one. Against Sunderland, the Black Cats’ defence was running towards their own goal, so they were always going to be wary of getting a touch on the ball. Here, Jones was facing Bennett and therefore in a much better position to cut out any pass. And so it was, as the ball which tried to thread between goalkeeper and centreback, was easily dealt with. The smarter ball, it is easy to say in hindsight, is the yellow one, peeling back for Johnson and Hoolahan who were entering the box.
A similar position came up second half, when Morison strode into the United penalty area, seemed to hold onto it too long, and then tried to thread it through to Wes. A ball played earlier when the United defence was running towards its own goal is much more dangerous and harder to deal with, but the decision making was poor. 99 times out of 100, both of these chances are heading to the back of the net.
Aside from these two, the obvious chance missed by Pilkington really stung. One on one with the keeper, it wasn’t a case of a bad decision, just a loose finish. It happens to the best of players and maybe nerves got to him, but it was a shame as you just knew we were going to get punished. Pilkington then hit a shot that was deflected onto the post and somehow didn’t go in; you just knew it wasn’t his day. A belting performance from him who was getting into all the right positions.
It’s easy to see how this will get reported. Championship naivity vs Champions’ inspiration. They will look at our misses, say something about we need to learn quick and you can’t miss these chances in the Prem, then focus on how poor United were today. The fact is, they were poor because we made them poor. The team was superb to a man, playing with belief and ability that you would never have dreamed of 2 years ago. They are a team going places and to be sat here giving a positive match review after a 2-0 defeat just shows how proud of the team us fans are. A great performance we can build on vs Swansea.