Villa Park has been a happy hunting ground for United over the last twenty years. The last time Villa triumphed in the league was the famous 3-1 victory in 1995, after which Alan Hansen uttered his fateful “you’ll win nothing with kids” line. It seems remarkable that the home side have not beaten us once since the dawn of the careers of the ‘Class of ’92’. It’s hard to remember going there with less confidence or more in need of a win than we did on Sunday, and the Villa fans certainly felt that they had a better chance of breaking the long winless run that at any point in recent years. Sitting well adrift not just of the top of the table but also the top four, a third straight league defeat for United was unthinkable. With RVP ruled out for a month and Michael Carrick and a host of important members of the squad also missing the starting line-up was chosen more out of necessity than choice. In theory we were there for the taking.
And yet what followed was not the beating that form and the first ten minutes of Villa pressure suggested, but as comfortable a win and complete a performance as we’ve seen in the league all season. After Danny Welbeck’s early close range finish United were in total control and the second goal, just minutes later, effectively ended the game as a contest. Three nil could well have been six or seven. It was a curious match to assess simply because it’s hard to know just how good we were. Villa were utterly abject, both in terms of personnel and tactics, and played into the hands of Moyes’ preferred reliance on width and crosses into the box. It’s hard to imagine that Antonio Luna has had a worse game in his life, but time and time again the home side allowed Rafael and Antonio Valencia to double up on him and it was that area of the pitch from which the first two goals originated. Going forward Villa’s passing disintegrated as the game went on, delivery from set pieces was atrocious and Christian Benteke looked isolated and disinterested throughout. From the moment the first goal was scored they stopped pressing in midfield and Ryan Giggs and Tom Cleverley had the time and space to run the show.
However, despite our opponent’s failings, David Moyes should take a number of positives from the victory. Jonny Evans and Phil Jones were immaculate in the centre of defence, the latter providing the aggression and battling qualities that have been Nemanja Vidic’s forte throughout his career, and the former mimicking the anticipation and class of Rio Ferdinand. The midfield issues may require Jones to return to a midfield role in the short term, but for me this should be our first choice defensive partnership for the medium to long term. Those legends are clearly in decline and now is the time to place full trust in the players who will take us forward in the next five to ten years. Also patently obvious was the impact that Rafael has on the team’s attacking threat. As fine a defender as Chris Smalling is he plays, at right back, like the centre back filling in that he is. Aside from more height at set pieces he offers next to nothing offensively and he and Valencia often resemble strangers thrown together at the last minute. Play Rafael, a vastly improved defender in his own right, and he and the Ecuadorean become an extremely difficult to contain two-pronged attacking force. Given that the manager’s tactical system relies on delivery from wide areas he should fully appreciate the value that an accomplished attacking right back can add to his armory. Throw in another high quality performance from Wayne Rooney and further evidence of Adnan Januzaj’s rare talent and there was plenty of value to build on as we move into a period of winnable matches around Christmas and the New Year.
Moyes will also have been delighted by the match winning performances of Antonio Valencia, Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley. The former was unplayable, a throwback to his peak 2/3 years ago, Welbeck the clinical poacher that we all thought he could be and Cleverley the positive, imaginative creator and goal scorer that we saw at Watford and in his early games at United. As encouraging as their contributions were they provide more questions than answers, their dominance the antithesis of the large majority of their performances over the last 17 months. All three have taken heavy, and justified criticism, not (largely) for a lack of talent, but for their perceived inability to make the most of their gifts. Valencia had become the rampaging right winger unwilling to rampage, Cleverley the midfield creator unwilling to take a risk with a pass or a run, and Welbeck the striker unable to finish. And yet here they were doing those very things. The question for Moyes, therefore, is why this has happened and what he can do to recreate it?
The answers are likely to be multi-factorial. For all three confidence has a huge influence over their performances. If we are totally honest none of the three have the talent to be world class footballers, but they have enough to make significant contributions in the Premier League at the peak of their powers. The puzzle for Moyes is how to coax them out of their shells and encourage them to express themselves, something that he’ll find hard to do within the context of his rigid tactics and formations. It’s a riddle that Sir Alex Ferguson couldn’t find an answer to in his last season so it will present a formidable challenge. In the case of Welbeck it can’t have helped having no consistency of playing position, being rotated and asked to fill in up front, behind a striker and wide on the left, a position that is totally inappropriate for his skill set. For Cleverley the major difficulties have been rotation and the constantly changing midfield partners, complementing each of which requires different roles. However, regardless of these obstacles, both have performed below the level required of them. The latter has admitted that many of his contributions have been “average” this term and he was left out of the team for an extended period at the back end of last season. For Valencia the issues are less complex, with a total loss of faith in his own abilities and the burden of the number 7 shirt being the only possible explanation. The second issue was addressed when he reverted to the number 25 shirt prior to the Community Shield in August, and there have been signs that he is regaining his willingness to take opponents on, but his crossing has remained woeful. Suddenly, for all three, the stars aligned on Sunday. For each of them the next few months will define their futures at the club. With RVP and Michael Carrick injured and unlikely to be able to play twice a week when they return, their performances could also define the club’s season.
Setting the result and quality of the display aside, perhaps the most pleasurable event of the day was the return to first team action of Darren Fletcher after his long battle with Ulcerative Colitis. A largely invisible illness, only close family and friends witness the true impact such conditions have on quality of life and just how debilitating and distressing the symptoms are. In Tuesday’s printed press Fletcher described just how close the he came to not only having to give up on his career but also the everyday things that people take for granted. For a period prior to his operation he was essentially housebound, unable to play with his children in the park or take a simple trip to the shops. Medication proved unsuccessful and surgery became his only possible route to freedom from symptoms. It was a risky procedure with no guarantee of success, but succeed it did. The determination, bravery and dedication that Fletcher has shown to return to top level football is absolutely remarkable. We all hope that he can return to the level on the field that he achieved at his peak, and God knows we need him to, but for now we should be grateful that he’s recovered his health significantly enough to lead a proper family life and contribute to the team at all. The cheers from the United fans for every touch were richly deserved.
The performance and result were a welcome boost after a trying week. Aside from the blow of Van Persie being ruled out for a month, igniting further debate about the training methods being employed under David Moyes, credible rumours surfaced of a rift in their relationship spanning the last few months. Journalists disagreed about the likelihood that he’d seek a move either in January, which strikes me as highly unlikely, or next summer. If I’m honest I have some sympathy with him. Setting aside the conjecture about training, Van Persie rejected at least one more lucrative offer to play under Fergie, with a view to winning league and European titles. Sir Alex admits that he told both RVP and Shinji Kagawa that he had no plans to retire in the near future, and it would be churlish to pretend that this wasn’t a significant factor in their choice of destination. Suddenly Fergie is gone, the club botched the summer and form has slumped under a new manager, who he may not have a great relationship with. At 30 the player could be forgiven for wondering whether he can wait for a rebuild before getting a realistic shot at further titles and the Champions’ League. It has also been suggested that David Moyes is giving prominence to Wayne Rooney, something which was perhaps further demonstrated by his comments this week about how Danny Welbeck should view him a role model and model professional. Unquestionably the manager’s handling of Rooney has revitalised the player, but RVP’s place in the pecking order has been usurped by an individual who spent all summer trying to force an exit from the club. We also know that Van Persie is willing to kick up one hell of a stink if he thinks his ambitions can’t be met, and having died laughing as he publicly deconstructed his former club it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that he could do the same to us. We can’t know how the club would react to that, but I don’t imagine him to be a player whose effort levels on the field will drop even when unhappy and I’d be astonished if United would sanction his release in the short term, so this is one to file until the summer at least.
Notably the club have started braying about how much money they have to spend on new players again. David Moyes informed us all that we had been very close to making a huge signing in the summer, but that the player chose to go elsewhere. One can only assume that he is referring to one of Cesc Fabragas or Gareth Bale, neither of whom we came very close to signing at all. Since the Moyes/Woodward accession there has been a whole lot of talk and very little action. Given the disaster of a summer transfer window, for which excuses are still being made, all at the club would do well to keep shtum, stop trying to appease the fans and go away and quietly sign some very good footballers. If not, they risk losing the credibility and goodwill that they still have left. On a similar note, a manager admitting that he kept a player on the pitch for longer than was planned on his return from injury so as to avoid a negative reaction from the fans makes him look quite silly, especially when said player then goes on to get a significant injury.
Villa were the right opponents at the right time, and the confidence gleaned from that victory carried over into Wednesday’s win at Stoke. An abject first half from both sides in difficult conditions was followed by a much improved display from United in the second. Although the tempo of our passing and movement improved, a breakthrough for either side looked unlikely until Ashley Young momentarily forgot how rubbish he is and thundered a toe punt in from 25 yards. This prompted a wave of tweets ridiculing those who don’t rate the player, as if a goal suddenly made him a player of United quality and a less annoying human being. Young didn’t have a bad game, which is not something we could say about Anderson, who lasted a whole 57 minutes on the pitch. It’s bizarre to see some fans still making excuses for him. Six years, people. Again our centre backs, Evans and Smalling on this occasion, excelled, providing further evidence that the greater mobility of the younger players is a better bet than creaking legs and minds. Much like Villa, Stoke were awful and we shouldn’t get too carried away by these results, but three wins in a row is most welcome and a home game against West Ham at the weekend gives us a good chance of extending that run. A semi-final against Sunderland is another positive and leaves United with a very decent chance of reaching a first final under David Moyes, most likely against City. Eek. Of course, we couldn’t have a day go by without some bad news, with Wayne Rooney being ruled out of the game at the Britannia with a groin injury. Already without RVP over Christmas and New Year, the loss of our best player this season would be potentially hugely damaging.