Ronaldo and Neville injured, Giggs not fit, United playing 4-5-1, away at the JJB Stadium, a Wigan side looking to turn their season around…not the best of omens for a team looking to win the Premiership title.
But Manchester United have been a different side this season, confident and resilient, and when push came to shove in the shape of an early goal (nothing van der Sar could have done about it), Manchester United were strong enough to regroup, regain control of the game and then after the break, change gears and overwhelm their opponents in the manner we are all accustomed to seeing.
This was the United of old – tackling hard, playing fast, creating opportunities and most importantly, taking them when it mattered.
Manchester United starting lineup
* 01 E Van der Sar
* 06 W Brown
* 05 R Ferdinand
* 15 N Vidic
* 03 P Evra
* 20 O Solskjaer
* 16 M Carrick
* 22 J O’Shea
* 18 P Scholes
* 08 W Rooney
* 09 L Saha
* 29 T Kuszczak,
* 11 R Giggs,
* 14 A Smith,
* 23 K Richardson,
* 25 D Jones
United were playing a 4-5-1, with Solskjaer on the right wing and Rooney on the left.
Paul Jewell had a good plan – a fast, aggressive, almost gung-ho start, try to sneak through a goal and then when United were able to start controlling the game, play on the counter. It got them a goal too, but Wigan had no backup plan, nothing to hit United with once Rooney and Solskjaer found their feet in the game and especially after Giggs was introduced.
The first goal by Baines (who should get to the bench for the next England seniors game) was perfectly executed – not much you could do about a kick that goes exactly where Baines wanted it to go. Scholes should have closed it down but it for that amount of skill, it was a deserved goal (although it did seem ‘lucky’ at the time).
It took all of 10-12 minutes for normal service to resume at the JJB stadium, with Manchester United controlling the game and attacking constantly, albeit without much penetration.
Rooney showed that he was back in form with an excellent turn and shoot in the 24th minute – chests down the ball in the penalty area, surrounded by players, back to goal, looks right but finds Baines closing him down, so dribbles a bit to the left before turning and shooting on goal. Kirkland was beaten, only the top bar saves Wigan.
The amazing thing about Rooney, and I guess all great players, is how quickly they are able to release the ball, whether it’s a shot on goal, a pass or a cross. Rooney’s cross for Saha’s second goal was a lightening quick movement, and while Rooney didn’t really find his passing range today (too long or too short, too slow or too fast), he did provide two assists, the second one being for Solskjaer’s goal (a wonderful flick, have to see the video to understand it).
The ref got several decisions wrong, booking-wise, with Ferdinand booked unfairly for a legal challenge on Heskey whereas Rooney was felled two-three times but every time the Wigan player avoided a booking.
Before the first goal Saha had a gilt-edged chance but missed it completely – he had the defender and keeper beaten but could only shoot it wide of the far side goalpost from less than 8 yards out.
But once Vidic had headed in the first goal, it was inevitable that Manchester United would score again and win the game – Saha had looked out of form all the game and had been caught offside far too many times but he showed his class and athleticism by controlling Rooney’s cross with his feet and in the same move tapped it in, ending the move on the floor.
After that it was all over, United had several chances to score and eventually a one-two between Solskjaer and Rooney left Solskjaer with the ball at the edge of the penalty area and Ole beat the first man, before shooting past the second and into the net. Made it look so easy that the first time I saw it I thought Wigan had just let him go through.
Overall, Wigan played poorly in defence, and that’s one thing they’ll have to look at. They don’t defend in packs like Reading do, and that will have to change otherwise lesser teams than United will be able to sneak in goals and leave Wigan fighting for survival.
In the absence of Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs, Fergie made Ferdinand captain. Future captain in waiting? It could be a case of over-analysing, but with Paul Scholes and Solskjaer on the pitch you would have thought the armband could have gone to them.
Wigan lost Jason Roberts (Blackburn), Pascal Chimbonda (Tottenham), Graham Kavanagh (Sunderland) and Jimmy Bullard (Fulham) over the summer – that, plus the fact that the Premiership is much stronger this season, has contributed a bit to Wigan’s poor start.
There was a fair penalty claim in the 84th minute, when De Zeuq made a knee-high leg block on Giggs, ball had already gone, but the ref didn’t bother giving a penalty. Strange ref, really.
Vidic is a more defensive, more reliable version of Ferdinand. He’s tactically solid, hard working and takes his defending duties very, very seriously. Ferguson’s two January recruits (Evra as well) have proven to be excellent signings – maybe someone will remember that the next time they berate the manager?
The 4-5-1 formation meant that Saha would be caught offside, but even when Rooney moved to the centre and United played 4-4-1-1 Saha was being caught, and the biggest problem I’ve seen here is that with the Wigan midfield not posing many problems to Scholes and Carrick, Saha rarely bothered tracking back. He needs to move back a bit more; wasnt getting as involved in the game as he usually does.
Not much to complain about, except that Brown taken off instead of O’Shea. O’Shea had a yellow card, plus Brown is a better right-back. So what gives? Maybe O’Shea was kept on because he was defensively more solid, or because Ferguson wanted to save Brown for the next couple of games.
Whatever the case, I’m still rooting for Brown to be a regular right-back – he has the pace and the attacking verve to pull it off.
Edwin van der Sar – Not much he could do about the free kick, and apart from that had a fairly uneventful match. Vidic, Evra and Ferdinand kept him safe, although he did have his customary collision with an opposition player that left him winded. It’s times like those that his age shows.
Wes Brown – Played for the first 45 minutes and showed that he is good enough to play in the right-back position. Should be tried there for England as well (even though Phil Neville does a more regular job their for Everton (as captain too), but Brown is younger and a long-term prospect).
Rio Ferdinand – Imperious as captain, unfairly booked and looked at ease against Camara and Heskey.
Nemanja Vidic – He’s the sort of player who takes a knock every game but gets back up, dusts himself off and keeps on going. Strong, spirited, and a good header of the ball. Wouldn’t change him and Ferdinand for anyone else (Gallas has some ‘personality’ issues).
Patrice Evra – Getting better and better, and has learned to tackle. More importantly, has learnt to pass the ball along the ground instead of shooting wayward crosses. It means that he cuts inside more often rather than hugging the touchline (like Heinze), but a valuble player to have nevertheless.
Paul Scholes – United’s reliance on Rooney and Solskjaer meant that Scholes was mainly a conduit through which all moves went through, and he played his part extremely well, starting moves and eschewing elaborate playmaking for simple one-touch passing. He’s back to his best.
Michael Carrick – Getting better, although he needs to tackle instead of backing off whenever an opposition player a couple of feet away from him has the ball. Should learn, but with Liverpool coming next Sunday he better learn fast.
John O’Shea – Solid and dependable. Broke up the attacks but became a passenger once Wigan went into their shell.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – What would we do without him? 5 goals already, and at this rate both him and Saha will be scoring 20 goals this season. With Ferguson intelligently rotating his players, and with Rossi due to return in January and Smith back in playing form, we just might be able to pull this off, ya know. By the way, his goal was the first bit of ‘real skill’ that we saw from Ole that went in as goal.
Louis Saha – Off-colour but good enough for his customary moment of brilliance which led to United’s second goal.
Wayne Rooney – Sir Alex Ferguson went a bit overboard (fairly, considering how protective he is of his players and how the media have hounded Rooney recently) when he said that this was Rooney’s best game this season, but after the Fulham game, this was certainly his most convincing performance. Played a mad dog at times in the second half, and deserved a goal. Man of the match in Ronaldo’s absence.
Ryan Giggs (sub) – Made the difference in the second half. His assured presence on the ball and willingness to take on the opposition (in contrast, Paul Scholes prefers to sit back and pass it through) put Wigan on the backfoot and from then on they never recovered.
Looking to the Future
FC Copenhagen visit Old Trafford on Tuesday and Manchester United won’t go all-out in that match, with a potential 6-pointer against Liverpool to be played next Sunday (at Old Trafford).
Cristiano Ronaldo, Darren Fletcher and Gary Neville were not in the squad due to the injuries they had picked up in international duty, but all three should be fit for the Copenhagen clash and will undoubtedly return to the squad.
If Ronaldo returns against Copenhagen, it will be the first time since Fulham that Manchester United are able to field Ronaldo, Rooney, Giggs and Saha together in the starting lineup. With Scholes in there as well, plus Solskjaer the ever-reliable sub, you have to fear for the opposition. The only missing link now is the second midfield berth, and while Carrick will play against Copenhagen you have to hope that he stops backing off and starts tackling more.
If you haven’t already, make sure you catch the clips of all the goals from the game.