6 minutes after entering the fray – a wild 6-pack appears!
What has Premier League turned into? I was eagerly awaiting for this weekend’s clash on Old Trafford, where Manchester United hoped to prove their claim to the top three by beating Southampton. Judging from the stats – eleven games undefeated for United and five for Saints – I figured that both sides will be interested in clinching the game with a magnitude worth of six points. The strings of good performances by both clubs, combined with excellent positions they occupied in the league table promised at least a little excitement – especially since it was also a direct confrontation of the two Dutchmen with quite a reputation. Something was bound to happen, right?
No. Not really. It was in fact the most boring game in this season’s battle for EPL title: the battle that, by the looks of it, will be fought only by Chelsea and Manchester City, because there’s no way either of the Sunday contenders could touch the oil-fuelled giants in blue shirts with this kind of performances. And nobody can really blame one of them: based on quite cheap signings and almost anonymous, Switzerland-based ownership by Katharina Liebherr, Southampton doesn’t really aim for anything more than a spot among six or seven best teams in league; a spot that would yield them a qualification to Europa League. Saints were also away: enough to justify the extreme caution from them.
But the United… It was all about them. They were the side to break the deadlock; after the summer full of transfers and new hopes under Van Gaal’s supervision, they were expected to show attacking quality. But they couldn’t; they wouldn’t; they didn’t. Immediately after the game, Wayne Rooney came out to talk to the press, saying that they were the better side and they deserved to win. The captain of the only Premier League team this weekend to not register a single accurate shot on opposition’s goal just said that. Sorry Wazza – you got played and you should’ve known better. A draw was within your grasp and that would’ve been a fair result; however, you and the rest of the lads, moyesed yourselves.
Giggs’ smile says it all: this photo was taken before 75th minute.
MU has 37 points now – exactly the same amount they’ve earned last season at the same stage, before the massive transfer money was spent. They’ve scored 34 goals (under Moyes: 35) and conceded 21 (under Moyes: 24). And not only that: in fact, the main reason Red Devils are still in the game for Champions League spot is David De Gea and his golden hands that already attracted the interest of Real Madrid. This underwhelming process repeats despite United’s first absence from European competition since 1989-90 season. Whoever though van Gaal’s team could benefit from dropping continental voyages the way Liverpool did last season – Sir, you were dead wrong.
Against Southampton, the ghosts of Moyes returned with full force. Unable to disrupt the clever cooperation of Wanyama and Schneiderlin, United were forced to knock the ball to the flanks and try crossing aimed at Robin Van Persie’s head. This makes sense only for one reason: because in the span of two years between 2013 and 2015, Van Persie has turned from a top Premier League goalscorer into a striker that doesn’t do any dangerous runs whatsoever. So the team crossed the balls towards him instead: would’ve been great if not for a quiet presence of Jose Fonte who was simply faultless and would probably make a better purchase for Liverpool than the erratic Dejan Lovren.
While Fonte was keeping RvP in his pocket, it was time for Angel Di Maria to step up. And boy, how he did! The Argentinian, who has been an assist machine earlier this season, has registered a staggering number of 0 accurate shots, 0 crosses delivered, 0 key passes and 60% pass accuracy. In the first half, he managed to horribly misplace the free-kick pass that by all means should’ve been dangerous; he was also late to one over-the-top ball from Luke Shaw and equally late to another good pass which he finally took control of – only to cross the ball right in the hands of Fraser Forster. The manager kept him around for 72 minutes; way too long, considering all the contribution. Is this Özil syndrome showing here?
Apparently, FIFA doesn’t care. But, since they also have David Luiz there…
At least Di Maria wasn’t alone in his misery. Wayne Rooney, the player who will hit the noble age of 30 this year and should be at the peak of his footballing powers, never got a sniff against Koeman’s lads. Used again in the middle of the park, he really didn’t looked like the man with 300k wages and the supposed influence on team’s transfer and tactical policy. Because if he did have an influence on these – he would definitely bench Van Persie and bring Fellaini in the middle while he himself would play as MU’s #9 – exactly where he always belonged. Instead of that, he’s being slowly retrained to a role he has never, ever played in his career; the role nobody is even sure he’s suited for. At the age of 30. Sigh.
Make no mistake about it: unlike games against Newcastle or Fulham from the last year, this was far from a disaster. However, the main reason why United lost only 0-1 was Koeman’s reluctance to pressure the opponent further than just on visitors’ half of the pitch. If Saints were more brave – and, judging from their fitness level at the end of the match, they could afford it athletically – they might’ve won couple balls further up the pitch and set MU’s goal on fire more than just once. A good glimpse of what might’ve happened came when Smalling got closed down by Pellè so well, he passed the ball to Ward-Prowse and only thanks to his lucky star intercepted it back when Saints’ lad tried a through ball. If this happened against David Silva or Hazard – instant death.
Koeman waited patiently – but, when the chance came, he couldn’t contain himself.
The actual kill came much later, courtesy of Dusan Tadić, who was surprisingly dropped from the starting 11 in favor of Eljero Elia. The Serbian had a killer start to the season but faded away in last two months on 2014 and eventually started getting subbed more and more frequently. This year, he looks like he made a resolve; first, he led Southampton to victory against Arsenal and now, he followed Pellè’s strike and rebound to bury it in the back of the net despite Smalling’s best efforts. But none of that would be possible if not for Phil Jones’ absurd trip to the opposition’s half, which he finished playing the role of a winger and getting a cross collected by Forster. The ball from goalie soon went far forward to Tadić and the rest was history. Where was the responsibility, Mr Jones?
To cheer United up a bit: they really do have an easier run of games in the second half of January and in February. This is also going to be a test: whether this tactic and these players can bring something more than just crosses in the box and passes to Juan Mata, whose finishing ain’t anywhere near the level MU needs right now. Currently, clogging the middle of the park with three “money” players doesn’t work as well as their transfer fees would suggest, so the implementation of Herrera or Fellaini seems necessary to upgrade the quality of tackling and interceptions. Right now, Red Devils rely heavily on a wing play and the runs made by their wing-backs – too heavily, even with Antonio Valencia in a really good shape. Can the clashes with QPR, Leicester and West Ham fix this issue?