Story of a Match – Man Utd (H)
Gutting. That’s the only word that comes to mind. For the 2nd time this season we’ve lost a game to the reigning champions and one of the best teams in the country, and my immediate thought is that we didn’t deserve it. If anything shows just how far we’ve come, it’s that. So how did it come about? How did we push the champions until injury time before they finally put us away?
Sir Alex mentioned it after the game, but it was clear quite early on that Norwich had settled upon a tactic of getting the ball wide and putting crosses in for Holt and Simeon to get on the end of. I would imagine the aim of this was to unsettle the much-criticised David De Gea by peppering his box with high balls, and hope that Holt was able to unsettle Evans and Rio at the same time.
We put in 32 crosses in 90 minutes, or one every 3 minutes. This is notably high, even for us. We threw in 26 against Swansea, 23 vs Bolton, 20 vs Sunderland, 16 vs Chelsea and just 14 vs WBA. The growing influence of Andrew Surman on the left and the continued excellence of Pilkington on the right are providing useful outlets, and it’s fair to say that Bennett has been more effective in recent games than he was earlier in the season. Our width is beginning to be a bigger part of our game, rather than just trying to play through the middle or use set pieces. Today was evidence of that with Surman and Pilkington doing a good job of both protecting the fullbacks as well as going forward and getting balls into the box. It was from two crosses on the right hand side that we had our best two chances of the first half, with Naughton first putting Pilkington in and then Holt going very close with a glancing header.
In the first 10 minutes, though, we weren’t that effective. We sat back more than I would have liked and let Man Utd play deep into our half, and it was no surprise to see this result in a goal with Scholes nipping in at the back post. It was mentioned in Kriss Hanner’s preview that United are prone to being rattled if you really press them and refuse to give them time on the ball, as Newcastle did to great effect, but it took us 10 or 15 minutes to really do this. Once we did, though, we were more than in it for the rest of the half. We really began to press from the front with Holt and the excellent Jackson harassing Rio and Evans, making them rush passes or pass it back to DDG who’d hoof it long. We were on top as the half wore on and deserved to go in level. Half-time saw a tactical change, though.
Above is a comparison of our first half passing. While Man Utd edged us for passes completed, they were mainly in their on half or central midfield, with a few balls getting out wide right. Very little from them was getting into the box and we were dealing with it fine. For us, we were spending a lot of time in their half and especially out left, but we were also having the problem of not getting enough into the box. The key chances for Holt and Pilkington aside, the defence was largely able to mop up the crosses because they were coming from deep. In effect, they were facing the balls as they came in, rather than running towards their own goal and dealing with balls drilled in from the byline. By removing Simeon and putting on Wes, the aim would have been to get Pilkington and Surman further up the pitch and behind the fullbacks, able to then cut the ball back for Holt and oncoming midfielders. Wes would have been the extra man in midfield to a) help get the balls out wide and b) provide stability with two players further up the pitch.
It didn’t quite work out that way though. In the first half we played with pace and intensity and this was lost for parts of the second. This isn’t to say we weren’t as good, but our chances were less frequent and Holt looked a bit more isolated until he got another striker partner in Wilbraham. In fact, when you look at it, Holt received the ball less times in the 2nd half than he did in the first.
In the first half he picked up the ball 20 times, in the second half this was reduced to 12. Obviously the key one came in the second half as he lashed in the equaliser, but he spent larger periods of time without the ball and working his nuts off to pressure the back four and cover lots of ground. When the ball was won by the midfield, he tended to be more isolated or not in the right place to take advantage of it, because the wingers still weren’t high enough up the pitch to provide support.
All of that is because this outlet had been removed. Jackson had a great first half, providing a useful option especially on the left hand side. He was able to harass defenders and used his pace to great effect on the out of position Phil Jones. Several times he worked an opening down the right and got a cross in, and this wasn’t really replaced in the 2nd half, so Holt spent a bit too much time on his own.
Despite this, we still managed to carve out some openings and Man Utd were never comfortable. While the game was a touch quieter, it was always likely to come alive as time wore on and we threw more and more caution to the wind to get the equaliser. The introduction of Wilbraham changed things as he provided a linkup man and target for the defence and midfield. Continuing a run of good sub appearances, Wilbs came into a game with us losing and looked effective and not out of place. Indeed, it was his rasping shot from 20 yards that DDG tipped over the bar, leading to the corner that we eventually equalised from. Once we pulled it back to 1-1, things were always going to get tough as United were woken out of their stupor and began to pour men forward and create the chances they’d been lacking all game. Welbeck could have scored 2 before Giggs finally put the ball in the net, and just like the Scholes goal, it highlighted the importance of concentration in midfield.
With the first goal, Fox is clearly tracking Scholes as the ball is played out wide. However, as the winger hesitates, Fox pays more attention to the ball than the man and eventually loses track of the ginger menace, and as a result Scholes has the simplest of tap ins.
For the second goal it is Wes who fails to keep hold of a midfield runner. Here, both Scholes and Giggs dart into the box anticipating the cross from Young. Wes tries desperately to keep up, as does Drury, but Giggs has that extra yard ahead of them and meets the cross at the far post. This isn’t to claim that both goals are individual errors from those midfielders. Man Utd are a top side for a reason and the players who scored the goals are among the best to ever play in this country – their movement and intelligence off the ball is peerless. It just reinforces the need for concentration in keeping hold of your midfield runner.
10 Things I Think I Think
- Drury again looked completely assured and comfortable. Incredible consistency from the old man.
- Further good showings from Zak and Ward.
- DDG had probably his best game of the season and was key to United holding on.
- Scholes is like Neo from the Matrix. He gets the ball and everything just slows down. It’s incredible to think he retired, but he’s come back and has never looked out of place. Incredible vision and he just makes United tick.
- The back and forth between the crowd was the best it’s been all season.
- Simeon was excellent again, and is really taking his chances in the first team.
- Wilbs coming on ahead of Morison was a clear message to the latter.
- Surman is putting himself in POTS contention with his current form.
- For large parts of the first half that was as good as I’ve seen us play all season. Some brilliant approach play, especially between Fox and Surman.
- Fox, for all the comments about him lacking a defensive side, put in more tackles than anyone else on the pitch. I think he had a point to prove out there.
The better team lost. It was a gutting way to lose and we inflicted it on enough teams last year. Man Utd’s manic celebration showed just how much they valued the win, and they realised they were in a battle. It’s a cliché but those are the games that win championships, and it was a huge result for them. For us, it was a huge performance. It feels like strides have been made in recent games against Chelsea and United and we’ve proved just how much we belong at this level. Despite the result I felt immense pride in just how well we played today. Scant consolation, but consolation nonetheless.