1. Sensational Smalling
Fast running out of superlatives for this supremely gifted young United centre-back. The question is not is this lad any good, its fast becoming how good… twice now in quick succession he has featured live on ITV and they’ve certainly not (despite the channels many flaws) failed to realise just how blessed they’ve been to witness the next potential English defensive superstar. It’s not ridiculous hype, this kid is very much looking the real deal and today’s coming of age performance in a potential cauldron of fire was immense.
He put his body on the line today – Numerous blocks from thunderbolts on the edge of the box were met with barely a flinch and his anticipation/bravery when going in for headers were amazing. When you then take into account this lads fast developing distribution, (actually more positive on the ball than most of our midfield) it becomes clear that this lad could arguably be the perfect modern centre-back, although he has to continue putting in this level of performance against much better opponents than Marseille.
Signs are he is more likely to get down and dirty than Rio and that he is superior in possession. He is purposeful with the ball, likes to keep the game moving forwards and attempts to find team-mates with long raking passes rather than just dwelling on the ball to appear skilful and then just laying it back to the goalkeeper under pressure. What he needs to demonstrate is that he has the same defensive prowess of Rio against high calibre opponents and that his reading of the game is as good as the guy he is meant to replace, one can’t argue with the fact that the signs are looking good at the moment.
2. Midfield Breakdown (Literally)
After an initial 20 minutes in which some of our midfield play was reminiscent of that away leg against Inter a few years back at the San Siro, we were soon found wanting once again as we have so often been this season in the centre of midfield.
It was painful to watch and the culprit wasn’t the much maligned Darron Gibson who is so prone to blame that even if he was selected on the bench and the team lost, many detractors would find a way of producing evidence the lad produced a fart which distracted the players on the pitch and therefore he should be sold. I personally thought he did very well in the initial stages, was forward thinking both on the ball and off it (good movement to support the lone striker and made sure Nani always had an easy pass inside). He looked sharp and up for it but sadly his partner’s were so off the boil that the possession required in order for him to make a success of his role was non-existent and he was rendered ineffective for the majority of the game. It doesn’t matter how good a goalscoring attacking mid you are, if your game relies on others feeding you with possession… you are going to suffer, if they’re not up to their job. Lampard is the most similar player to Gibson and as they are both not play makers, they suffer in a team that is not cohesive and rely on their colleagues to run the game whilst they go about scoring goals… clearly after the 20th minute, that did not look like it was going to plan and he was unfortunately hooked off for Scholes.
Fletcher started off brightly, full of archetypal verve and dynamism. Once a few errors were made on the ball, almost trying too much… he went into his shell on the ball and relied on his industry off it to mask what was fast becoming a mediocre display. He was over-hitting long passes and when running with the ball unable to release players in forward positions with his weaker foot instead having to go back and forcing his defenders to retain possession for him.
That said he wasn’t as bad as Michael Carrick who put in a dreadful dire display. I’m a big fan of Carrick ‘s usefulness in the premiership and yet I’ve always questioned the scope of his ability with regards to being an international class creative midfielder due to his lack of footwork in tight spaces and general lack of mobility on the ball. Despite these shortcomings its been clear that many misinterpreted or misunderstood what his role was at United; that of a defensive midfielder who would read the play, break it up and keep playing moving forward through a simple efficient pass forward to a more creative player nearby. This latter definition is how I measure a good Carrick game. If he does that, I’m more than happy and it is down to the likes of Scholes & Anderson to provide the creative input.
Tonight however, he put in a non-shift similar to that night in 08/09 when we were destroyed by Barcelona. Completely clueless, always passing it back, scared of the ball and relying on the likes of Vidic and Smalling to bail him out. His defensive positioning was generally sound as per usual but with Anderson out for a potentially lengthy period.. I am rather worried with regards to our aspirations in the Champions League if the likes of Fletcher and Carrick don’t get their act together.