It was just like old times, with a Dutchman scoring the goals to net three points on the continental stage.
A nervy start was complimented by a fittingly nerve jangling finish, with United working hard and dictating play well enough to abscond Romania with a perfect start to this season’s Champions League in tact. There is still a degree of angst and uncertainty that accompanies away days to these parts, even with the space between the once vast dots that made teams like Cluj the most unknown of quantities filled in. Television and the more saturated media makes it easier to know just what makes Cluj tick, but the trip requires no less concentration and respect.
The minnows threatened to throw a spanner in our spokes, their early strike momentarily casting doubts as to how straight forward this supposedly routine trip was going to be. When they found the net I expected to see the plucky home side stage a camp out on the edge of their 18-yard box underneath the stars. Fortunately we wrested control back quickly, broke them down shortly after and controlled proceedings from then on.
An absence of traditional wingers, a compromise more than a tactic given the paucity of options out wide, made us a bit unpredictable and, when well on top, very hard to combat. Our midfield quartet moved freely across the line, darting in and out of dangerous wide berths, often starting wide and cutting in, pulling the Cluj defensive set up all over the place. It was clever and well executed if designed for that purpose. Most pleasing was the overall work rate and application from every player on the pitch. They dropped back, filled in spaces and competed for everything, with the likes of Cleverley, Anderson, Rooney and van Persie in particular doing a stellar job to stifle and spoil our opponents in midfield.
Two from two, we go back to back with wins I class as “ok performances.”
De Gea – 7/10
A sweeping move was capped by a smart finish that both surprised and beat the Spaniard close to his body in what was virtually his first involvement in the game. I’m not sure if he could or should have done more. Repeat viewings suggest he might’ve been able to but was fractionally late to move.
Fortunately for us he made up for it later with a few nice, timely and telling saves. He tipped over the bar mid-way through the second half (his body language afterwards was quite telling and amusing. It was not anger, just disappointment the shot wasn’t closed down. Maybe a bit of relief, too, as he sat on his goal line having just kept the lead in tact) and pawed a goal bound effort around the post as the final seconds ticked off the clock. This is becoming somewhat a trend: his ability to pull out clutch saves in important moments.
Was still reticent to leave his line a bit too often, with a close call after 3 minutes (a flicked header in traffic that sailed wide), but was otherwise sound in controlling his area and the air. A handful of collects under intense pressure were the highlight of a more noticeable calm from the young man.
Rafael – 7/10
I’ve long chuckled to myself thinking of our slowly-but-surely-becoming wonderful right back as his green skinned, reptilian namesake Rafael, the gruff, combative and bad tempered Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. The similarities extend beyond the name and color. It seems odd that Raf, the turtle that is, considers himself all tough and hard. It’s slightly ridiculous because he’s a turtle. In much the same way it’s funny to see this small, feisty and dangerously over excited Brazilian think ‘I’m going to take you on, giant centre forward/pacey winger/advanced defender/raiding midfielder’. But don’t we just love his attitude.
You’d be hard pressed to find a player more improved in terms of consistency, composure and output than Rafael so far this season. His ability to read the play, cut out danger, compete, hassle, harry and show positional and tactical nous is superb. After the stops and starts early in his career, where he would be equal parts potential and liability, he has become a vital cog at both ends of the park.
Stood up to deny several raids and showed outstanding desperation late on to charge down a long rang rasp that could’ve caused problems. Showed he was more than prepared to get forward, but understood that without a winger he needed to be back on point as soon as possible.
Another great performance.
Evans – 5/10
Was part of a nervy rearguard that again slipped into ‘something, anything is about to go wrong mode.’ Its this sort of attitude, the one we’ve fallen into where we’re petrified to make or be involved in a mistake, that’s making our defence so vulnerable. Our mental muscle was once a great strength of ours, now it’s a frailty. Evans, all our defenders and we need some confidence back.
Was unnecessarily sucked to the ball for their goal, putting himself in no position to get involved or affect that build up play, just as he was for Dempsey’s strike v Tottenham. I like that he’s trying to do the right thing, but I’d prefer he keep his cool and stay in a place where he makes himself the right sort of obstacle (read: not a witches hat).
Was helped no end by a commendable commitment by our midfielders and strikers to get back, support and drop into holes thereafter, as everyone did their bit to play a sort of half court press whenever Cluj advanced beyond half way. Perhaps that’s part of the problem. We look exposed when teams can run freely at our big guys. If you allow an opponent easy ball in and through midfield they’ll always be likely to cut you up and create. Its something we need to work on, but it begins with selection.
Was replaced by Wootton with about 10 minutes to go in a move that didn’t seem to be anything sinister or more than an opportunity for the youngster to show his wares on the European stage.
Ferdinand – 5.5/10
The lasting impression of Rio’s game was when he awkwardly collected an opponent in mid air with a stray boot to the midriff with about five minutes to play, receiving a yellow for his troubles. That’s not a criticism so much as it is an observation of the fact he didn’t do a hell of a lot wrong all night. He was reasonably tight, marked well, closed down space and read the play. Long story short: he was fairly unobtrusive in carrying out his duties.
It’s a huge period for Ferdinand, with crucial games to come thick and fast over the next six weeks. We need him fit and on good form to get the sorts of results that’ll be important come the end of the season. Relief could be on the way in the form of Smalling, with news he might be fit to feature in the coming weeks. The ability to rest Rio will do his long-term form and our prospects the world of good.
Evra – 4/10
I don’t think it’s a case of Patrice getting beaten more these days, but rather not winning as many contests as he used to. We used to take for granted his ability to win direct battles, now he’s lucky to halve them. A lot has been made of the man who menaced him getting subbed off, thus making his job easier from then on, but to be perfectly honest the cross field ball that took him out of the play in the lead up to their goal was phenomenal. He was likely fractionally too far infield, but the ball had to be marvelous to beat him.
The question I ask is ‘would we get more from Buttner?’At the moment, based on the early season exposed form of the two, I’d have to say yes, we would. Will Sir Alex go with the Dutchman for the tricky trip to Tyneside? I’d be surprised if he did.
The worrying thing about Evra at the moment isn’t application or execution, as he is absolutely trying as best he can, but rather a hesitation to do what instinct once compelled. Saw a few mix ups in which he attempted an athletic cut out, leaping high win a ball, but but ended up missing the lot, as well as an incident on the broadcast side in which Rooney corralled a runner in an attempt to engage Patrice’s intervention for a 2-on-1. The Frenchman didn’t commit, opting instead to stay with his direct opponent, which created an overlap and opportunity for Cluj to attack when Evra was forced to commit and was bypassed by the ball carrier. It’s these moments of self-preservation that are becoming all too common.
Rooney – 8/10
We’ve seen why this man is so important to our cause over the past week. Three games in that time, three times in my best three on the park. Against Newcastle he ran the show from midfield. When dispatched after half time against Spurs he turned the game in our favor. In Romania he roamed about the pitch doing any and everything for the cause. He played up top for a little bit, withdrawn for a period and shielded our back four in tandem with Fletcher for good measure.
Was involved from as early as the first minute when he linked up with Hernandez dangerously but couldn’t find the return ball to fire a shot, and then again at regular intervals to either create for teammates or have a go himself. Backed himself to shot from distance on occasion, but sadly the closest he came was an early shot on the turn that dipped awkwardly and had to be turned behind. Later on he had a shot deflected wide and a long-range free kick sail safely to the goalkeeper, but it was encouraging nonetheless that he was seizing the opportunity of openings to shoot.
His most profound involvement was his provision of the two telling balls for van Persie to sweep home, with the second being a good example of ambition and invention meeting completion in perfect harmony. But his movement in midfield, willingness to sacrifice his own game and complete a number of different roles exemplified his versatility. Most pleasing was a series of clever link ups with van Persie, each of which impressed a growing understanding between the pair. There were some teething problems when they seemingly swapped positions early in the second half, with both far too deep, but that was sorted quickly enough.
Fletcher – 7.5/10
United’s no frills, give it your all, man of action midfielder. If Rafael’s early season form sees him as the most improved, then Fletcher’s return to the senior outfit would surely be the best story. It’s not great that he’s simply back, but rather his performances are becoming more and more comfortable. With games and time on the pitch he finds his rhythm and range, with the outing in Romania another small step in his comeback to the Fletcher we know and love.
Was charged with protecting our back four and patrolling the base of our midfield, a job for the selfless and disciplined team man if there ever was one. He tracked back and tackled (shock! I’d forgotten midfielders could do this in the middle of the park in recent weeks) and plugged gaps on transition to good effect, giving our midfielders an option should they wish to start again and our defenders a first ball should they require a release. Like Ferdinand he did his job well because he wasn’t all too prominent.
And, most pleasingly for him, the beard he’s working on is beginning to look the goods.
Cleverley – 8.5/10 (Man of the Match)
Tough call for MVP, with a back and forth deliberation staged via inner monologue for most of Wednesday. Van Persie took his goals well, grafted and was a menace. Rooney worked tirelessly and sacrificed his own game, providing the two balls that van Persie duly dispatched, but Cleverley was a symbol of persistence, creativity and hard work that typified a determined away win.
What I loved most about his game was work rate and willingness to be involved. He would receive the ball and immediately compel a teammate to present, or play a ball that demanded a run from them. Then, just as quickly he would take off to provide an option in the next phase of play. His passing was patient, considered and always trying to create. When it worked it was simple and advanced the play, when it didn’t it was commendable and worth a try. He was willing to dictate play and control the tempo of not only midfield but the game as well.
After we went behind his speed and movement on and off the ball intensified, with a good through ball poked quickly under pressure to RVP who could only fire straight at the keeper. Shortly after he was prominent in a sweeping and persevering piece of play that took the ball from one flank to the other in search of an option. That was his game: mature, responsible and probing use of the ball and his teammates. Whilst his mandate and intention was to create, if there was nothing likely on he would calmly play the ball out of congestion and start again.
If he didn’t have the ball he tracked back or advanced himself into intelligent positions, tackled when necessary and always wanted the ball. Showed great poise, touch and vision countless times in the middle to control and distribute, linking a few times with Anderson and Rooney to navigate danger efficiently and effectively.
His performance was typified late on when he burst through midfield, slightly overcommitted on the touch and was fouled. On the way down he scampered to protect the ball from an oncoming Cluj defender, unaware he’d won a free kick.
Anderson – 7.5/10
There is no player I enjoy watching do well for Manchester United more than the inconsistent and sometimes rather brilliant Anderson. Far from the finished article, he’s been dining out the reputation of player he could and might be with time since his arrival from Porto in the Summer of 2007.
His status has been staked on early games in which he foiled and destroyed the likes of Fabregas and Gerrard, but more reserved games like this one do more for his confidence than the scalping of a world-class opponent. He wasn’t required to do the spectacular, he wasn’t expected to perform the Hollywood play or engage in the marvelous; he was simply asked to play a part and perform a role.
He worked well with Cleverley, both mimicking one another’s preparedness to start out wide and drift in with possession. He found himself advanced on a handful of occasions, opting to shoot on most of them. Sadly his efforts amounted to little, with punched or volleyed attempts snatched at, but I liked the endeavor.
Got forward with possession on more than one occasion and exhibited the type of flair he can be known to possess (a header to control the ball and beat a man in midfield, followed by a steadying touch and run through their midfield line springs immediately to mind). His final involvement was a good one, too. With our defence under pressure and looking anxiously to the clock and referee for the sweet release and relief of the final whistle he coolly intervened deep on our right hand side, won the ball, tip toed over a stricken attacker and ran out of defence following a shrugged tackle.
The only time I can remember him being wasteful was after 23 minutes, when a played a look away ball from an advanced central position to our wide right, perhaps forgetting that was the position he was playing at the time. If someone were there it would’ve been a great pass.
Van Persie – 8.5/10
From Ruud to Robin, a Van is still the man when United swan on into Europe.
RVP started the game looking to create and play slightly off Hernandez and got deeper and more withdrawn as the game progressed. He nodded (or shouldered) fortunately in for the equalizer and showed too much class and composure to intelligently guide the ball into the net for what would be the winner. He had a handful of other chances, too, and could have easily ended up with 3 or 4 on night had it not been for a combination of wasteful finishing and a pesky goalkeeper. It was good to see him get reward for his graft, though, something that had been missing for a few matches.
Like all United players on the night you could not fault his application and work ethic. For most of the second half he dropped into midfield, allowing Rooney to drift closer to goal, and he found himself as part of a staunch and determined back six as the game wound down. Earlier he was up top on his own, after that he was out on the left hand side… Like the others he played in three, four and five positions on the night, performing in each as well as he could.
His attitude, just like that aforementioned work rate, was second to none. His ability to traverse close quarters was on show when he dropped into midfield, with an incident where he controlled and nonchalantly dribbled through two Cluj midfielders only to dispatch a simple ball to his right evidence of his attitude towards the team cause. It was that perfect combination of outrageous skill and just doing the right thing.
What I love about the way he plays isn’t so much his readiness to get involved (that is great, by the way), but rather his ability to duck off the back of packs into acres of space. As yet we’ve not seen a tangible reward for this cunning, but I can assure you it is coming. On multiple occasions he slipped out the back door and stationed himself in the vast and inhospitable space of the opposition penalty area, picked up by Cleverley, Anderson, Hernandez and Rooney during the game.
A couple goals, some brilliant linking in midfield and a great performance. Not a bad night.
Hernandez – 4/10
It wasn’t the best of nights for Javier. As he usually does he ran around, tried to get involved and always presented as an option. He had a few half chances that he snatched at or couldn’t quite latch onto, and he provided balls for teammates that came to naught (one in particular showed great awareness, with van Persie launching it straight at the keeper), but just couldn’t get himself going in any meaningful way.
It’s a crucial period for Hernandez, with Rooney back to fitness and likely to be featuring he will be resigned to more appearances from the bench. It’s now up to him to fire when called upon and make the most of what will surely be very limited chances. I maintain the improvement to his game has been outstanding, fingers crossed it can continue and he can get back to the sort of form we saw in 10/11.
The only United player to have featured in every first team fixture kept that record alive with a late cameo. As has been his lot in recent weeks his job was to use his size and speed and compete for loose balls, hold up the play and simply see out time. Did this well enough, with a few nice touches in between.
It’s good to see him display such a willing and team orientated attitude. Before the arrival of van Persie he might well have suspected to be a key figure in our starting line-up. Despite our plans having changed he’s no less willing to play his part and wait for his turn.
Wootton – 2.5/5
Came on and looked confident and comfortable on the ball. Pleasing to see such a young player with an assertive and noticeable presence. Wasn’t given too much to do immediately, but had to be calm when the final waves of pressure broke against our defensive wall. In that frantic melee of players, all of whom were scraping for a spare yard, he made sure the box was congested and no one was unmarked. Good experience to come on and see the final few minutes out.
3 – Cleverley
2 – Van Persie
1 – Rooney
9 – Scholes
7 – Kagawa
6 – Rooney
5 – Valencia, Van Persie
4 – Cleverley
3 – Nani, Ferdinand, Anderson
2 – Welbeck, Rafael, De Gea
1 – Carrick, Buttner, Evans