Manchester United 3 (van Persie, Cleverley, Rooney) Sunderland 1 (Campbell)
1. Six points clear. Courtesy of yesterday’s victory, Manchester United will be top of the table at Christmas this year. Five wins on the trot since a defeat to Norwich City has been a fantastic return. We might not have been firing on all cylinders so far this season, notably with our defence, but it has been enough to see us in a fantastic position during the festive season.
Another three goals today from van Persie, Cleverley and Rooney took our tally to 43 goals already this season, ten more than Manchester City. Yet, our goal difference is only one better than our rivals. Our potent attack has been extremely exciting to watch and it has saved our blushes many times this year, but our defence has to improve.
The goal conceded yesterday was sloppy. Nobody closed down Sessegnon when the ball broke to him and he had all the time in the world to dink a cross over for ex-United striker Fraizer Campbell to nod in at the back post. It was lazy defending and a real shame that we couldn’t keep a clean sheet really.
2. Super 60 minutes but complacent finish. For some reason this year, Manchester United have been very slow at getting into games. We have conceded first far too many times and only our traditional late surges have got us out of sticky situations. However, things have been very different in our last two games.
Against Manchester City and Sunderland, we came out of the blocks firing. With Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young fit, our natural wide play has really been working for us. Last week at the Etihad, we set up on the counter attack and were ferocious and clinical, City couldn’t cope with it. Yesterday, I’m not really sure how we only won 3-1 as we could have easily scored five or six.
However, we looked a completely different team when Tom Cleverley was taken off for Ryan Giggs. With Michael Carrick coming off at half time, we were relying on the attacking thrust of Cleverley to drive the team forward through the middle. When he went off, a pedestrian partnership of Scholes and Giggs allowed Sunderland to work their way back into the game. Sunderland looked like the team that was going to score and when we should of been attacking, trying to improve our goal difference, we were unnecessarily on the back foot.
3. The importance of Tom Cleverley. To my mind, Cleverley has made himself an integral part of the team this season. Our best performances – Chelsea (A), Newcastle (A) and Manchester City (A) – have all come with Cleverley starting in the middle.
We don’t have anyone else like him in the team. His forward thrust and desire to have the ball bring such a fresh dynamism to our midfield that we don’t have in his absence. I am a firm believer that our best midfield partnership is Cleverley and Carrick – they balance each other perfectly with Cleverley’s attacking approach matched by Carrick’s pragmatic sweeping role.
Having Giggs and Scholes finish as our midfield two showed how poor we were when we didn’t have that pace through the middle. The defeat at home to Tottenham is the best example of that being exposed. Cleverley really is an individual midfielder at United and we certainly play better when he is on form, so hopefully he will remain injury free and really get a run of games in the first team.
PS – What a fantastic finish for his goal.
4. Captain Nemanja. My how we have missed our captain. A watertight defence has morphed into a leaky cauldron in his absence. He was greeted by rapturous applause and a rather loud rendition of ‘Nemanja oooohh, Nemanja oooohh’ – and rightly so.
We have missed our leader at the back. Despite the ever improving performances of Evans and the prolonged stability that Ferdinand provides, neither strikes fear into an opponent like Vidic does. The Stam of his day, Vidic makes strikers quiver at the knees just by the thought of playing against him.
My expectations for this season and Vidic are not overly huge – he has only played ten games in two years due to injuries – but if he can work himself back to full fitness over a long and steady period, he really would be like a new signing.
5. The sweet song of Rooney and van Persie. 12 times Rooney and van Persie have started together in the Premier League, Manchester United have won all 12.
Is there a better strike partnership in Europe? There certainly isn’t in the Premier League. Few could of expected how quickly Rooney and van Persie would have clicked but they are already firing on all cylinders. Both are scoring and laying assists in almost every game and United are reaping the rewards.
Hypothetically speaking, would anyone be able to stop United if Vidic returned to full fitness and the Rooney/van Persie partnership continued its fruitful beginnings? I’d doubt it.