After every dismal result that United have suffered this season, there has been a common argument to fall back on; one that has been used by both the club itself and the fans (myself included). It’s this: it’s still early. The season has only just begun. There’s a long way to go yet. Let’s see what the league looks like at Christmas.
United faced Shakthar Donetsk at Old Trafford knowing a win would see them through to the knockout stages as Group A winners. Following successive home defeats the pressure was on David Moyes, but as he has done so often in Europe this season- the manager delivered, albeit with a fairly uninspiring performance. 1-0 was enough for the Reds, thanks to a Phil Jones goal in the second half, here’s how the players rated:
David De Gea: Had little to do but did it well, the only time he was tested was by shots even Anders Lindegaard could save. 7
Rafael: Bombed forward with gusto as you’d expect and didn’t make the sort of defensive errors which occasionally blight his game, a good night at the office for the young Brazilian. 7
Rio Ferdinand: An easy night for the experienced defender, yet still managed to get caught in possession- although he did get himself out of trouble. What should’ve been a match that convinces Moyes his mouthy defender still has a lot to offer probably raised more questions about his ability to be relied upon this season. 5
Jonny Evans: I’ve never bought into this “Evans is the greatest defender ever” line but there’s no denying the Northern Ireland international was outstanding at the heart of the Reds defence. 7
Alexander Buttner: Didn’t make any glaring errors and looked like someone who deserved to be playing for United which is a huge achievement for the erratic left back. 6
Phil Jones: Got his goal, put in some important tackles and stifled the opposition in a way Michael Carrick would be proud of. His energy was exactly what United needed to overcome a Shakthar side that could easily have left Old Trafford with at least a point. 8
Ryan Giggs: We all know the Welshman is a legend, who’s the most successful player in the history of association football, racking up over 900 games for the Reds, but he was anonymous tonight. 5
Ashley Young: Tried to influence the game, should’ve took at least one chance he had, but despite the overjoyed reaction of the crowd when he was subbed, Young wasn’t that bad. 6
Adnan Januzaj: The young saviour of the team had a fairly quiet night by his own standards but never gave up trying and there were a few nice touches to entertain the crowd. 6
Shinji Kagawa: I was looking forward to seeing Kagawa in his preferred role against fairly mediocre opposition and to be perfectly honest, it wasn’t the most memorable performance. Looked to open up the Shakthar defence but didn’t really happen for him. 6
Wayne Rooney: Lots of shouting, lots of effort, another failed chip and plenty of puffing. We’ll miss him when he’s gone next season. 6
Subs: Robin Van Persie: Getting back to fitness, just about. 6
Tom Cleverley: Did what he does most games, which isn’t a lot unfortunately. 6
Antonio Valencia: Came on as sub apparently, although I barely remember it. N/A.
It had been a tough week for all at Manchester United. After back to back defeats to Everton and Newcastle, David Moyes was under yet more pressure as the words “crisis club” reared their ugly head.
So it was of the utmost importance that United regained some confidence with victory and top spot in their Champions League group as they hosted Shakhtar Donetsk. For the game, David De Gea started with Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans paired up in front of him. Buttner and Rafael started on the left and right. In midfield stood Phil Jones and Ryan Giggs with Ashley Young and Januzaj on the wings. Shinji Kagawa was just behind Wayne Rooney, spearheading the attack.
The first half was a scoreless affair in which United looked, at times, like the side lacking in confidence many claim them to be. The visitors looked more assured, more composed as they set about pushing forward chasing the victory they needed. It was telling that in the first half, Donetsk had by far the greater number of shots, although despite this, it was United who arguably had the best chance to take the lead, when Ashley Young was played in on the left, with only an advancing goalkeeper to beat, but his attempted chip went agonisingly wide.
United started the second half a little more brightly, with plenty going down the left, although chances were spurned rather cheaply. With the hour mark gone, and Old Trafford slightly restless, changes were made as Giggs and Young made way for Van Persie and Cleverley.
Moments later, United won a corner, which Van Persie stepped up to take. His delivery was poorly defended and so the ball fell to Phil Jones from 12 yards out, the Englishman lashed a volley home to give United a 1-0 lead, and cause sighs of relief around the ground.
As the game progressed the visitors looked to apply the pressure as the hosts sat back and played a cautious game. Although there were moments of nerves and tension as the final whistle drew closer, the away side appeared to run out of steam and lost motivation and as a result United were able to hold out for a 1-0 victory, and take top spot in the group to bounce back from some poor Premier League results.
With that in mind, here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) Not a vintage performance, but a win was vital
There is not much argument that United do not currently look a team in form, or one basking in self-confidence. After two defeats in toothless performances against Newcastle and Everton, the pressure was growing, adding extra pressure to Tuesday’s game against Donetsk. It was not a “vintage” performance by any means. Despite having the greater share of possession, it was the visitors who looked the more potent side going forward as United looked cautious and found themselves giving the ball away as they pushed forward. However, it was not, by any means, a bad performance. Despite starting slowly, United picked up as the game progressed, glimpses of promise going forward showed what they were capable of and a clean sheet will always be welcome.
With a well taken goal from Phil Jones, a little relief was provided. United’s place in the next round was already confirmed, but to have top spot sealed and a return to winning ways seen, United have something to build up to go on a run and stop a slide and yet more opportunity for the media to describe a club crisis.
2) Ashley Young continues to be a weak link
It would be fair to say that no player has come in for more criticism than Ashley Young, and in many respects that would be fair. On Tuesday night, the winger did not inspire much confidence. Plenty of play went his way and he was involved for the hour he spent on the pitch, but much of what went his way seemed to go to waste. Crosses did not find their target, the ball was given away and the most notable incident occurred when he was played through with only the keeper to beat, only to put the ball wide with his attempted lob and another when he missed the near post.
3) Phil Jones continues to provide good midfield cover
Although not an ideal situation, Phil Jones has been performing midfield duties well in recent weeks. Tuesday night he was a bright spark, providing a goal from an area that has not been scoring. His goal was a well taken volley as the ball fell to him from a corner, a deserved reward in a performance that was hard working alongside Ryan Giggs. With Carrick missing United needs their other midfielders to step up, and although not his preferred position, when Jones can step up and do a job for the sake of the side as he has done, his efforts are that much more appreciated.
4) If Buttner is to provide cover, he needs more game time
It’s funny that when Buttner plays, United fans tend to miss Patrice Evra that much more, and realise that his talents are sometimes taken for granted. Buttner on the whole has not had much game time for the club, although under Moyes he has been seen a little more often this season. He laboured on the left behind Young on Tuesday night. He showed good pace and was involved but the young defender appeared to struggle, his tackles somewhat rash (he picked up a booking) and he too was guilty of giving the ball away. He played quite late into the game and one wonders just how much he will be seen this season, particularly if United dip into the transfer market for a left back, as they tried over the Summer.
5) Progress in Europe, stalling domestically
Although in the Premier League, United have been on a poor run by their standards, in Europe they have remained undefeated. Gaining top spot means a more favourable draw, although whoever United come across is likely to be a difficult game. Many may not expect them to go much further from here, but progress is still a point of confidence to build upon, even if that has not been the case in recent weeks with other positive results.
Of course their place in the Champion’s League means little if their place in next season’s Champion’s League cannot be secured. At home, performances need to pick up, and a run of results gained if United are to catch up on their rivals for a place in Europe.