From the moment I saw Fred the Red on the touchline signing autographs I thought we were in for a strange night. And so it was.
Less confusing and more pleasing was the sight of Wayne Rooney wearing the captain’s armband. An early birthday present, perhaps, but something that should be considered no less of a momentous milestone. I believe he’s done it before, but as I always contend with Maltesers: more is never enough.
Fergie, with one eye on Chelsea at the weekend, decided to gamble on both selection and formation, continuing to experiment with the derivative of the diamond set up that has produced some quite stunning (both good and bad) football. A starting berth was given to Hernandez, with the clubhouse leader for support striker Danny Welbeck having signed his scorecard with a superb display against Stoke sitting anxiously in the stands. The Mexican had it all in front of him, with the stage to stake a claim no more important for one individual than it was for the Little Pea.
Whilst the gaffer was prepared to gamble he wasn’t entirely convinced upheaval was the best option, opting to play Michael Carrick at centre back, a position the converted central midfielder has done a few times already this season. As the night unfolded I think Wootton would’ve been the better option; both in terms of aptitude and the opportunity to get some experience.
Rooney was given license to roam and Cleverley and Kagawa were moved out wide with Fletcher given the selfless task of playing at the base of midfield. The point? An experimental/evolving/new formation is one thing, but rolling it out with players unfamiliar with those positions against an opposition from the continent is perhaps asking too much. We started slowly and were made to pay. Fair play to Braga, they created and took their chances clinically in the early going.
Either way, after Alan’s prompt strike, which made Vertonghan’s opener for Spurs feel like a stoppage time winner, and his follow up saw us two down on 20 minutes, it was beyond pleasing to see the character of these comeback kids show again. Behind? Not a problem. Well, not not a problem, because it is a bit of a worry. Hopefully they can fix it, whatever it is that is leading to our early and regular concession of goals.
We’ve been rather Jekyll and Hyde this season. But which one do you want to see? Elegance or aggressive unpredictability? I think our better side is Mr. Hyde. When we’re stuffy and try for elegance we come unstuck, that’s not to say we aren’t a skillful side or possess skillful players… but when we’re on the ragged edge, playing on instinct and driven by adrenaline we’re as hard to stop, irrepressible and impressive as anyone.
David De Gea – 4/10
This was David’s fourth game in succession. Interesting given the ups and downs from half to half, let alone game to game. Still, I endorse the policy of consistency in selection and faith in a particular keeper to do the job.
He had conceded twice in the first 20 and was rarely any more than a spectator thereafter. There were a few hairy moments in transition, but the defenders ahead and Fletcher did a decent job quelling them before a real good chance could emerge. Buttner was beaten in the air for the first, with De Gea’s outstretched and desperate hand not outstretched or desperate enough, whilst Carrick was easily turned on the touchline in the build up to the second.
When you’re allowing such opportunities you’ll be asking your keeper to pull something out of the very top drawer. For example, when a striker shoots inside the near post from about 5 feet away poor old David, or any goalkeeper for that matter, will do well to stop it.
One of his final involvements was a lairish and spectacularly ill-advised back pass that could have gotten a lot worse than it did. A mark based on involvement more than output, as he was required to provide much of the former and as such couldn’t deliver a whole lot of the latter. Whoever is between the posts at Stamford Bridge will make for interesting reading.
Rafael – 7.5/10
Another performance that involved lots of invention, ingenuity, taking the game on and controlled aggression from the Brazilian. It was on this ground 3 seasons ago that the young, brash and off the leash Rafael flew too close to the sun, getting himself red carded and heavily compromising and ultimately ending our Champions League campaign. Admittedly, Braga possessed no threat the quality of a Ribery or Robben, but the fact is he’s more mentally and technically equipped to handle such players.
His reading of the play was flawless tonight, intercepting and advancing several attacks by dashing and darting in front of his more static opponent, often playing a first time ball into a run from a teammate. The pleasing thing? Sometimes it was demanding the run. Early in the first half he did this with van Persie, at the start of the second it was Rooney who was compelled to take off up the line.
Again and again he was prepared to try something; to make something happen himself. He moved freely up and down his flank, but never neglected his defensive duties. He was on point to save Fletcher’s blushes when the Scot played a lazy ball that was intercepted, further endorsement of his development and ability at both ends. His linking and close control in tight places was another good sign, with one in particular with Rooney seeing a one-two traded and a raid into the box, but there were plenty of similar raids orchestrated by the pair. It was all pro and no con, however. With another lax ball late in the first half across our box taking a number of players out of the play and making us potentially vulnerable on the counter. Only a small bugbear, though.
Jonny Evans – 7/10
He’s getting a taste for this scoring lark, isn’t he. His reaction to van Persie’s slightly under hit corner, which dropped short and fizzed dangerously into traffic was the stuff of an instinctive poacher. First to react, opportunistic in the extreme, he quickly turned it in and wheeled away to celebrate even faster. Do you think saying it was a bit jammy; the bounce, roll and deflection will dampen his mood? Not at all. Nor should it. More to the point he was solid in his designated role.
Quick to sense and snuff out danger, he produced a few key wins in one on ones and one cut out in particular saw him end a promising attack on their end and start one on ours. His work in aerial contests was good and his ability to keep cool and see out time after we’d gained the lead was commendable.
One couldn’t help but feel he thought himself spread a bit thin given his partnership of Carrick and stewardship of the back four; of which he was our most senior defender. His reaction to their second goal said it all, really. Hopefully Jones and Smalling can return to ease the load.
Michael Carrick – 4/10
It’s a disservice to Carrick to be too critical of his games at a defensive post. That he does them at all speaks volumes of his versatility and preparedness to step into the breach. If not for injuries he’d be spared the challenge. He looked like a prisoner on day release when he was given the opportunity to stride forward with the ball, his breaching of half way freeing him of his responsibility to the cruel mistress that is defensive incarceration.
His involvement in their second goal typified why someone like Wootton would’ve been a more suitable inclusion for the rested Ferdinand. Overcommitted, under prepared and too reactionary when turned, Carrick was a virtual statue, nothing more than a fixed imposition for the attacker to evade. If anything at all Wootton likely would’ve been more comfortable. Naturally he was unable to impose himself and his passing game on the contest like he usually does, resigned to simpler and more boring involvements.
He had a few good moments, using his vision to sense and extinguish danger as the clock ticked closer to full time. But for a few awkward and troubling moments he was reasonable but not totally dependable or convincing.
Alex Buttner – 4/10
A bit of a down game from Alex following his stunning bow against Wigan and serviceable run out in the Capital One Cup tie against Newcastle. It wasn’t that he was particularly good or bad; he just couldn’t quite make or leave his mark. Leapt over for the opener, he was unfortunately caught under the ball, and out of position for their second. He didn’t appear overly troubled by his opponent(s) and showed one fleeting glimpse of the quick feet that saw him score v Wigan, but Evra wouldn’t have too much to worry about if we are judging this game in isolation.
A step inside and shuffle from one foot to the other allowed him to surge towards the box, where he went down after tripping on the ball. There was a sort of confused and halfhearted appeal for a penalty, but it was rightly waved away. He had a few opportunities to cross, but his final ball and distribution was fractionally off. A classic example of a player finding his feet in a new country, team and set up. He’ll be better for the run.
Darren Fletcher – 8.5/10 (one vote)
Couldn’t have been more disciplined, better behaved and dedicated to his duties. Had the energy and willingness to shield the back four, block holes in transition, play balls to the advanced and defer attacking to those asked to do so.
Barometer is an oft-used term in sports, but Fletcher could definitely be called one for United. A no frills, hard working team player, the Scot gives his all for the cause every single week. He gave Braga no space, watched closely and intelligently closed avenues for attack and was never caught out of position. When a team falls behind as we have been doing, especially so early, the margin for error becomes that much smaller. You can’t afford another lapse or window of opportunity (see Dempsey, C and his goal at Old Trafford). Fletcher was crucial in ensuring we stayed the course and leaked no realistic chance once we’d found a way back into the contest.
The flashiest piece of play he was involved in was a solo run down the touchline, evading one and trotting away from another. At the end he realized no suitable or sensible option was ahead, so he turned back and started again; and that’s Fletcher to a tee. He is more than meets the eye, but does the job required of him efficiently and effectively.
Shinji Kagawa – 5/10
It was an odd old game for Kagawa. The Japanese was slightly off color, subbed at half time after taking a knock, appeared fractionally off the pace, played a few wayward balls, seemed a touch timid and tentative at the contest but still created the first with a lovely clipped ball to the back post and should’ve had a second assist after he was incorrectly adjudged offside, his squared ball to Rafael would’ve been tapped into an empty net.
He moved cleverly at times, but looked a touch lost. Just as I was ruing that frustrating juxtaposition of effort and output he provided that aforementioned ball for our route back into the game. As the half wore on he mishit a pass that required Evans intervene to hold possession, then he played a ball under no pressure well behind Buttner.
His evening was cut short at the interval when he succumbed to a knock on the knee.
Tom Cleverley – 8.5/10 (two votes)
Early on when he was out wide he struggled for impact. Understandable, as he was removed and withdrawn from the action. He was still involved regularly, winning possession and distributing well, but with Young and Valencia not involved and with Nani on the bench him being stationed wide was necessitated. Both he and the team probably lost out, with his potential influence somewhat stunted. But more on that later.
His first telling involvement was a lovely ball into van Persie, who had pulled off his marker into the box. Similar to Rooney’s ball for the Dutchman against Cluj the result was sadly not the same. As the second half began we saw Cleverley figure more often. With Kagawa removed and Carrick withdrawn, he and Rooney struck up a fairly impressive yet autonomous partnership. Neither depended on the other to do damage, but each conducted their business brilliantly.
Funny I should be so dismissive of his early form out wide when it was his quite magnificent wide play that caused all sorts of problems in the second half, with the phenomenal cross that won the game the culmination. What was lacking in that first period was a commitment to that role, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. His ability to be a part of a midfield that held possession and dictated rhythm was instrumental in our winning the day.
In the second he took up dangerous and bright positions, spots that made a nuisance of himself. Initially he combined well with Nani, something he would repeat for the Portuguese to tee up van Persie. Later he broke down the wing and fizzed a tricky ball into the box that Braga’s keeper could only spill. He was the catalyst for a lot of the tempo and pressure that was eventually made to pay.
In the dying embers he worked both ways, covering Rafael, who himself was drawn inside to track another run. It was a top game from a player who is turning potential into consistency.
Wayne Rooney – 8/10
Tireless and hard working, the roaming role agrees with Rooney. Less impressive than he has been in recent outings, but by no means anything worse than “very good.”
Early on the highlight was his vision and awareness, his ability to receive and quickly distribute a reason we established a bit of a foothold in the game after going behind. He moved well across the box and covered in midfield when required, his tracking of breakouts and closing down of counter attacks determined and unwavering. His control of the ball under pressure and in diminishing space further proof of his aptitude in the role. Countless times he was able to quickly offload after attracting a crowd, move on, receive and return possession. He was using the attention he was getting to the betterment of the team.
He was, along with a busy van Persie, attempting to instigate and create as much and as often as he possibly could. A flicked ball into the path of Hernandez and another to van Persie after taking up the central channel in the first half was evidence of this.
Before our equalizer he did brilliantly to recover a ball in a contest, dash forward and deliver just tantalizingly close to Hernandez’s leaping header. The warning signs were beginning to show, with Rooney at the heart of his fair share of promising raids. In the end he saw out time, clocking a full 90 and another good performance.
Robin van Persie – 7.5/10
One of the funny and surprising things I’ve learnt about van Persie is just how incredibly hard he works. After a minute he was stood on the defensive goal line, executing a clearance out of danger and into touch. I never thought him lazy, but I’ve been taken aback by just how much ground he covers. Last night was no different.
His set piece and wide delivery was characteristically top drawer, with crosses and one free kick dropped into threatening areas, such as the goalmouth, and onto Evans and Hernandez’s heads. Additionally he played more troubling and dangerous balls played into tricky areas. His work in the build up to our first, in which he stepped inside two tacklers and took a foul was key, whilst his control and distribution was its usual high standard. He was again involved when Kagawa was called offside for what would have been our second, deftly finding the Japanese with a slide ball. Another lofted ball from midfield set Hernandez through on goal, with another incorrect offside call robbing the Mexican of a chance to score.
On one occasion he beautifully controlled and shrugged a would be tackler before playing a lovely ball to a sadly offside Kagawa. He was somewhat let down by a lack of communication when played in by Cleverley, with both time and space ample enough to control and shoot; instead he chose to loft a header goal ward, missing the target under perceived pressure.
In the absence from Carrick in midfield it looked at times like RVP was assuming that role. He dropped deep regularly and, like Rooney, used the panic created by his time on the ball to feed players in better or more isolated positions. His shooting was fractionally off, with most shots coming on his weaker right boot; still, he was taking up good positions and finding the space.
Javier Hernandez – 9/10 (Man of the Match)
It is without hesitation that I declare this Hernandez’s best game for the club. After Saturday’s game I spoke of his limitations as a player, and whilst they still exist, didn’t he make a right mug of me. It was frenetic closing down and running melded with end product, goals and build up play. He ran and carried, hit targets by foot, one in particular at the end of a superb run down the touchline and inside out pass to Nani and was a persistent threat in the air. He finished with two goals to his name and but for some shonky offside calls could have ended up with as many as four; it certainly wasn’t through lack of trying or poor positional sense.
From the opening seconds, during which he chased like a man possessed, Hernandez looked like a man on a mission. That mission: to show he isn’t a spent force at Manchester United. The number of good, positive and intelligent runs he embarked on, with so few offsides called or his fault is part of the reason he was so effective. Often penalized for taking off just a fraction too soon his reading of the ball both in the air and on the ground, and his understanding of when and where to direct his run, made him quite unstoppable.
One run in particular, where he sprang to life quicker than anyone and sprinted across the box to meet a cross from van Persie, deserved a goal. It typified precisely why this performance was as good as it was. An understanding of his teammates and the ability to coerce passes out of them and into his path was better than it ever has been.
This is just the performance both he and the club needed. He made way for Giggs with just over 10 minutes to play, having responded brilliantly to Welbeck’s efforts on Saturday. Had he failed to deliver it would’ve been a long way back in the immediate term.
Nani – 6/10
I thought him not bad when he came on. Moved deliberately, was primed to run and carry and provided some telling width. Importantly, despite my comments about Cleverley doing well out wide, Nani coming on allowed him to move inside and get involved more often.
His first involvement was a nice run and his combination play with Cleverley was nice and tidy. You know what? I just liked his intensity and attitude; his ideas weren’t all winners, but he was providing them. He did play one Hollywood pass that gave them an opportunity, with the dinked ball not what the situation required.
Giggs – 2.5/10
This kept Giggs’ rather curious statistic of an appearance in every other game (I should know, I have the spreadsheet to prove it) in tact. It was notable for nothing special, but for one moment of heartwarming nostalgia. On 83 minutes and an opponent approached one another. Giggsy feinted as if to pull back, but stuck a foot out and won the ball brilliantly, turning out of trouble and retaining possession. I quite literally said “there you are, Ryan!”. Fingers crossed that one exceptional, infinitesimal and rather inconsequential moment can kick start a season that will be more than meaningless cameos.
3 – Javier Hernandez
2- Tom Cleverley
1 – Darren Fletcher
11 – Rooney
9 – Scholes
8 – Van Persie, Cleverley
7 – Kagawa
5 – Valencia
3 – Nani, Ferdinand, Anderson, Rafael, Welbeck, Hernandez
2 – De Gea
1 – Carrick, Buttner, Evans, Fletcher