Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Ace of Spades

photo by thunvia PhotoRee

December 13 / Old Trafford / Manchester, England

Let's call a spade a spade: Machester United's win over Arsenal tonight was a solid if unspectacular match that afforded the type of result the Manager had in mind when he made out the lineup sheet. Benching the team's leading scorer, and replacing him with an effective five man midfield, Sir Alex went with his favored continental approach, a more conservative and controlled offense preferred to the faster and funner, but also looser 4-4-2 formation. In the end, the move paid off in spades with a 1-nil victory that moved United back to top of the EPL table with a game still in hand.  Although not offering much in the way of action to excite the neutral or casual fan, the Red Devils' victory last night over one of their bitterest rivals is sure to bring a smile to the face of any Manchester United supporter.

Herewith the keys to the match, as seen from my seat:
  • United packed the midfield with five players on defense, with both Nani and Park working tirelessly off the ball to support Anderson, Carrick and Fletcher in the middle. This tactic, while ostensibly contributing to the stop / start nature  of the game, disrupted the Gunners' usual attacking flow of passes, and never allowed them to get on track. I can't remember a game for either team in which there were so many incomplete passes, the result of the constant, pressured defense both sides featured. By stacking the middle, United also forced Arsenal out wide to attack from the flanks, with the Gunners reduced to offering long crosses in the general direction of an isolated and beleaguered Marouanne Chamakh.
  • United's entire back four played a blinder, with Vidic and Ferdinand repeatedly heading away or otherwise deflecting Arsenal's crosses, and generally leaving their mark (literally in the case of Rio) on a battered and ineffective Arsenal offense, including golden-boy of the moment, Samir Nasri.  Rafael and Evra shut down the Arsenal threat on both flanks, and the Gunners became increasingly frustrated by their inability to get clean shots from close range on Van der Sar -- who only made four saves all evening. Rafael had yet another star turn in a season in which he's quickly making the right back spot his own, adding the names of Arshavin and Nasri to the list of "elite" wingers he's put in his back pocket over the past year.
  • Anderson looked a man among men in the middle of the pitch, with youngsters like Jack Wilshire bouncing off him as if running headlong into a brick wall. His Man of the Match performance, to my eyes, showed a drive, urgency and focus that seemed lacking from the young Brazilian starlet last year.  Since his return this year from both knee injury and car accident, Anderson is playing as a house on fire, as if he has a point to prove, which in a sense he does. If he continues to play with the same intensity he has exhibited in the last four games, he'll begin to ease some of Sir Alex's midfield selection problems.
  • On offense the verdict is more mixed: I thought there were moments when Rooney dropped too deep, leaving no one in the box to attack the goal, but overall I thought the lone striker -- penalty effort aside -- showed good industry. Nani was once again both creative and terrific, and Gael Clichy may need burn therapy after the scorching he endured from the Portuguese wideman during the course of the evening.  Park’s winning header was better in retrospect than it looked live, and with his sixth goal of the campaign he's made good on his earlier promise to turn his season around. He's become tied for the third leading scorer on the club this season with his late barrage of goals, and on current form he'll be extremely hard to replace when he disappears later this month to play in the Asian Cup.  Moreover, I worry about what his form will look like after almost two months away from his United teammates.
In closing, there are several other thoughts which are insistent on making their way out of my convoluted mind and onto the pages of this blog, including:

Dirty, Dirty Arsenal: Contrary to conventional wisdom, the "clean" and "soft" Goon squad committed 17 fouls to Man United's eight, and collected all four yellow cards issued on the night by referee Howard Webb. Arsenal's play was ugly throughout, and resulted in the statistics above, a fact of which Le Professor should not be particularly proud.

Excuses, Excuses: Forgive me, but blaming your teams' poor play on the pitch at Old Trafford seems the height of poor sportsmanship. Leave it to Le Professor and @Jack_Wilshere to come up with yet another logical reason to explain yet another Arsenal loss to Man United. I have one word for you boys: comical.

Lucky Fletch: Darren Fletcher almost boiled over last night, going so far as to run directly at Howard Webb and all but push the referee over in an effort to complain about a missed foul. He was fortunate not to receive a booking of his own, and while the Scot seems to have plenty of passion this year, he also seems to be missing the composure, maturity and influence his play showed last season.

At Least it Wasn't a Snood: I think that was Wes Brown on the bench last night, but it was virtually impossible to tell given that 98.2% of the player's body was covered by a down parka, with just a pair of eyes visible. Brown looked only slightly less ridiculous than Arsene Wenger in his floor length down coat -- who ever heard of such a thing, and why would he want to wear it? Be a man, Arsene -- Owen Coyle would have been out there in a sweatshirt, shorts and a pair of low socks.

This is a cold -- but snoodless -- and happy farlieonfootie for December 16.

Game Day Beer Review: Blue Moon Winter Abbey Dubbel Ale (5.6% ABV) Pours a clear copper color with minimal head. Muted notes of toffee on the nose, but very faint for the style.  Winter Abbey Ale has a too thin and carbonated mouthfeel, with some muted malt flavorings that fade into a barely noticeable wheat finish. There's just not much to it; this is a dumb-downed version of an abbey ale for the masses, and resembles no other dubbel I've ever had: C+

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