What Happened To United After The Break?
Really, the two halves of football at Goodison Park today could not have been more contrasting. United: excellent, slick, creative, confident in the first half, timid, slow, out of breath, out of ideas in the second. But what happened?
Deploying Fletcher and Giggs in central midfield against Everton's highly physical team looked a gamble before kick-off but in the first half both were excellent - indeed, United's best players - so this can hardly be the reason. Giggs produced a masterclass in passing while Fletcher was just about everywhere, even popping up for an expert finish in the box after Giggs' sensational, defence-splitting pass.
Tim Howard, so often our downfall when at United, proved to be a nemesis again as he kept Everton's hopes alive with a string of fine saves. The most impressive was getting down to Vidic's flick-on. Rooney, strangely quiet after the buzzing form of the last few weeks, would have scored his 100th goal for the club but for an unlikely and brilliant block from Jagielka who, unfortunately, was absolutely marvellous against us...
Berbatov wasn't spectacular but useful, Park fought for every ball and Ronaldo, though lacked the end product, was constantly unsettling defenders. Our own defense looked solid, a couple of shaky moments aside and Van der Sar had a very quiet 45 minutes.
So the travelling fans were reasonably confident of a fourth straight league win at the break - but it wasn't to be.
Everton were a different team in the second half but their spirited football and great aggressivity do not fully explain why United collapsed. We were pinned back to our own half, could not keep the ball for more than three touches and suddenly the lightweigthed nature of the Fletcher-Giggs pairing was exposed.
As at Anfield, we simply could not cope with the constant harassing and tackling. They were too aggressive, too physical for our players which is worrying because really, Everton did nothing special just get stuck in and then get the ball out wide as soon as they retrieved it.
But we could have still claimed victory as we settled down a bit after the shaky opening 15 minutes when Ferdinand committed a dreadful mistake at the halfway line which gifted possession to Everton. It did not directly lead to a goal - indeed, the end product was a throw-in but after that, Phil Neville's great cross was headed home by the towering Fellaini. The disappointing thing is that he was surrounded by our defenders...
And Everton almost snatched a lead which would have been, on the balance of the entire game, would have been very undeserved but Yakubu hit the post after latching onto Rio's woeful backpass. The big defender seemed to be struggling with a minor injury but that still does not explain these stupid mistakes...
At least it woke United up and we tryed to take control again. But Everton smelled blood and looked to hurt us on the break whenever possible. Even so, United came closest to victory as Anderson's introduction finally injected some energy into the team. But Fergie committed one mistake.
Taking off Wayne Rooney after he kissed his badge spectacularly following a booking - it was brilliant, Wayne! - was wise, given that Wiley could have sent him off to give the home crowd something to cheer about. But why replace him with Nani? Why not Carlos Tevez?
Nani, of course, is a player with pace and skill. But he's also a player in very bad form while we have Carlos Tevez, burning with the desire to prove himself, on the bench - who happens to be a ready-made replacement for Wayne Rooney.
Well, Nani was atrocious, as was Ronaldo in the second half so we were pretty poor in the wide areas... Berbatov was marked out of the game by two defenders so the Champions' attacking play became somewhat subdued.
Even though, we could have won. Oh yes, this is the most painful. First, Anderson delivered an absolutely fantastic pass into the path of Ronaldo who, for a change, did not miscontrol it but his shot was deflected wide by the desperately lunging Yobo then, once again, Ronaldo got a chance after a cross from the right landed in front of him on the left, in acres of space, but he dragged his shot wide.
And that was it. Everton deserved a point for their second half display which was full of spirit, aggressivity and they showed glimpses of quality as well. As for United: I increasingly get the feeling that we are only good enough for one half this season so far - we haven't played well for an entire game yet. And it is worrying that aggressivity and physical play unsettles our players so much: we look a bit lightweight at times. Though, of course, with a midfield of Ronaldo, Fletcher, Giggs, Nani I really shouldn't be amazed by that.
Michael Carrick will be back for Wednesday's clash against West Ham and we need him very much now. Hargreaves' return would also be a blessing as Giggs is clearly not capable of 90 minutes of classy midfield play. Two home games coming up, and it is imperative to win both if we want to keep the pace with Chelsea who will surely go eight points clear of United tomorrow. I'm praying for an unlikely draw at Stamford Bridge.