Finally, Premier League football is back for a prolonged run after a mixed international break for England. The national team’s performance in Poland was very poor, to see Michael Carrick that poor was a little hard to accept.
Tom Cleverley was a player who got a bit of a slating in the papers but I felt he did alright; he was the best United player to start the game, but England looked sluggish and couldn’t get to grip with the conditions.
Playing Defoe up front on his own is something that we can’t do, he’s not a player who can hold the ball up – it’s something I’ve noticed when United have played Chicharito as the lone forward, the ball is given back to the opposition too readily. These are the type of players who like to get in behind of defenders; England were crying out for Danny Welbeck, or dare I say it, even Andy Carroll, someone who could hold the ball up and bring other players in. That’s England’s strength, with Gerrard and Wayne Rooney able to burst forward. I read somebody gave James Milner the man of the match – they must have been watching a different game to me!
Though I felt we needed Danny in the game, I half expected that he wouldn’t start, but I was surprised that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain didn’t. He’s a player who can go past others, Milner doesn’t strike me as that kind of player and I just felt that the combinations were a bit off, with the style of centre forward in Defoe and the bursting deeper players we had. The conditions didn’t help and the original postponement was farcical; to see the rain coming down like it was, puddles on the pitch, and they had a roof! FIFA and UEFA were blaming each other, but did nobody think to consult a weather guide? If the forecast is bad, close the roof! And then when they finally did play, they had a closed roof! The pitch wasn’t good and it really dampened (no pun intended) my own enjoyment of the game.
One international game I did enjoy was Portugal against Northern Ireland, I thought Northern Ireland were fantastic, and Jonny Evans was immense. If he can carry on that kind of form, particularly considering the identity of the opposition players the other night, he’s going to go on to be some centre half. They worked so hard as a team, but Jonny stood out and it was great to see.
He will have a different kind of test against Stoke – something I spoke about on the podcast for this website this week – a physical, aerial test requiring lots of competition at set pieces. When Stoke get free kicks around the box, or corners, they come alive, putting a lot of pressure on the opposition. United will have to be well organised and attack the ball; we don’t have the biggest side, so it means someone like van Persie might have to help out, just like Rooney or Carrick. It’s something we learned against Everton; we need to have our best headers of the ball against their best headers.
It will be a tough game against a side who like to compete – Tony Pulis has done a fantastic job, but it’s a bit different from when I used to play against Stoke. They were known as a great footballing side rather than the direct style they are renowned for now; they’ve added Charlie Adam to add even more potency to their set pieces for this season.
It’s important, for me, that United try and play as much as they can in Stoke’s half; the high pressing game that served us so well at Newcastle needs to come into it. The fans react to that and it makes a difference. With the system being so successful at St. James’ Park, Sir Alex might well just go for the same again with Rooney dropped into midfield. Whether we play a diamond or a three behind van Persie remains to be seen; personally I’d like to see Carrick alongside a holding midfielder, and the best one we have is Darren Fletcher. When he played against Cluj he was excellent – his passing ability is under-rated, and I think he’s proved, despite his illness, that he can still provide something like the energy we’re used to seeing from him.
There are spots up for grabs in the side as it seems almost impossible to name our strongest XI; it would be nice to have a consistent side, particularly in defence and in goal, but with the evolution of the game being as it is, it is natural that new faces come in almost every game to liven and freshen things up. It’s just when it gets to 6 or 7 changes when it becomes too much. New players like Kagawa and van Persie need time and runs in the side in order to establish that consistency, or at least so we can see how they play and so they can get used to the other players.
United were pioneers of the squad game and though most teams do it, we tend to do it more than others. The 1997-2003 midfield was so successful and that was mainly down to just five players; these days it’s as much down to injury worries as it is selection, why we can’t seem to field a settled side! Saying that, we do at least have some good news on that front, and Phil Jones is one who could do the holding role in midfield, particularly in Europe or against sides who play in a more continental style such as Chelsea. There’s admittedly not much to go on but so far in Europe this season, although we seem to have cut out the errors from last season, I don’t think I’ve seen enough to suggest we can overcome someone like Real Madrid, who are my tip to win the Champions League this season. They’ve got the hang of Barcelona, with their ever improving record against them as proof of that.
Naturally, at this time of year, talk turns to Sir Alex and the length of time he has served at the club, and then of course after that, his potential successor. Not that I expect it to happen, as he is a number one in his own right (and I expect him to go to Italy) but Pep Guardiola is doing nothing at the moment, and it might be nice for him to come in and give some of his own thoughts. His experience, even on a short term measure, would be particularly beneficial for the academy players; with United’s youngsters being smaller and more mobile, Guardiola has a fantastic, superb track record at managing and helping develop those kind of players.
To close on United, and return to thoughts about our injury problems, it’s also good to see Chris Smalling back in the fold. He’s a fantastic player who was doing so well until he got injured; it was that type of injury which cost us the league last season. I’ve talked about the number of days of injuries that we had accumulated last season compared to City’s being a defining factor – though, to be fair, we’ve probably surpassed City’s total last season already this campaign!