We are a funny lot of supporters. Had Oviedo’s crisp and actually sensational volley not been saved by an excellent De Gea in the dying embers of the match, one suspects that the tone and the sentiment would have been wholly different to the reaction that a narrow defeat has garnered. Of course, a draw is better than a defeat, but had we been eulogising our late come-back (again), perhaps we would have been glossing over some quite serious issues.
But before we tackle some of those issues, let’s just dwell for a moment on the positives of the game, not least the goal from our top scorer, Steven Naismith. Just as I hadn’t ever expected to write after Thursday’s draw in Russia – “Eto’o should have played Hibbert in just then” – I doubt after his early performances in a Blue shirt of Everton, that I would expect Naisy to have scored 4 in our opening 7 League fixtures, but there we have it. And they’ve not been shinners, they’ve been excellent finishes. The ball from Baines was exquisite, the arched back-in-flight leap was like a salmon rushing to the spawning grounds, and the finish crept in under the bar. I am so pleased for him. He works his little socks off, his excellent runs, much admired in this column in the past, creating spaces that today did not get filled so much by his team mates as by an excellent Blind for United, who really shone I today. I think there’s a non-PC joke in there somewhere, more by spelling than pronunciation, but as I am always PC, I won’t look for it.
We should also commend Besic, who is getting better every game, and the ever dependable Stones (get well soon lad); and Jags had a good game too. Hibbert is not everyone’s cup of tea as he approaches the dregs of his career, but he wasn’t exposed by a player in Di Maria who is going to rip one or two full backs in this League a new one most weeks. He did well, and I’ll never forgive Luke Shaw as long as I live for bringing him down rather than letting him score at Old Trafford. Of all places it could have been to score his first ever league goal! Perhaps it’ll have to wait for Goodison, and God help the structure of the Old Lady if that ever happens. Meanwhile, we caught another glimpse of Ty Browning, a boy-man who looked terribly nervous, but just needs reminding he’s actually rather good, and he’s made his first two league starts away at Anfield and OT. Not bad.
But before I get carried away with what went well, and we must remain positive, even when we’re looking up the table from 17th, we do need to reflect on a few issues that today has highlighted.
The first is tactical. Notwithstanding Blind, who is only one player after all, United were vulnerable straight down the middle, as we proved when Naisy and Leon combined for the latter’s shot to be saved well by De Gea. We seemed to only go down the middle to a frustratingly inept (today) Lukaku, who must be twice the size of McNair, but who had one of the easiest games he’s probably ever had, and I’m including Academy games. So when Rom is off form like today, change it. I would have loved to have seen McGeady move more centrally and use those twinkling feet of his to misplace a pass down the centre of the pitch rather than to do so out wide all the time. Mix it up a bit lads, drive at defences, don’t always try to go round them at the back down the sides. We need to do this as teams are getting wise to the way we play and double up on the flanks the whole time, and we have to have more than Plan A, and more than Plans B and C for that matter.
The second is player form, and it won’t surprise anyone that the focus of this piece after today, is Tim Howard. I’m not sure what possessed him to kick the ball upfield when we had a man down, the ball then being recycled for United to go back ahead through Falcao. Hoof it Tim, in to the stands on this occasion, let Pienaar be treated, and then they’ll give us the ball back at the throw in. Meanwhile Pienaar looked off the pace as you’d expect as he’s missed over 6 weeks, Baines looked a bit one-dimensional at times, McGeady made poor choices, and as stated, Lukaku was enduring one of those afternoons when everything bounced off him. He hardly got a sniff on goal, but he was largely feeding off scraps. But as for Howard, is it time to rest him to give Joel a chance? If Joel can’t get a game when Tim’s playing this badly, then he needs to go in January and we try and buy a better back-up.
The third, is luck. And this is where I guess we get in to fierce debate, because you either believe “you make your own luck” or you believe that luck is cyclical, and things will change. I believe the latter at the moment, not that I deny any element of the former, but individual player mistakes have made so much difference to us this season, but also after Howard’s clanger today, Di Maria scuffs his shot which magically turns in to a through ball that Phil Neville would have been proud of. The only difference to Phil’s was that it was to a player on the same side. Add to the errors and misfortune comes injuries. We now have Coleman, McCarthy, Mirallas, Stones, Barkley and Distin (or is he just out of favour?) as major injury absentees, and we just can’t cope with that, as very few teams would.
But I am positive. I am slightly worried, but I’m still positive, and Blues we need to be positive together. This last few weeks has seen us getting at Roberto, who’s unrelenting positivity grates a little bit when you’re 17th, but he’s got a plan, he’s the man in charge, and we need to support him. We need to reflect on the out-of-form players, and recognise they won’t get better by us lambasting them (Ok, I know I’ve been critical above, but I’m only reflecting on the reality of today’s match) and again give them every encouragement when they’re back on the field against Villa on the 18th October. We have 5 fixtures ahead which are decidedly winnable, and we need to win at least 4 of them to start to get us back to where we need to be.
I’m up for the fight and I suspect Roberto and the boys are as well. Especially Naismith.