Every time Manchester United come back and win a game in which they looked no better than the opposition, it can be difficult to go back and criticize anything the team did.
In the end, the three points are all that matter and the three earned against a lively Newcastle United are especially important. Manchester City lost at Sunderland and United now lie 7 points off the Premier League summit. Manchester United had to win today, and win they did, after a persistent Javier Hernandez poked home Michael Carrick’s brilliantly weighted pass over the Newcastle rearguard in the 90th minute.
It should have been a much easier match for the league leaders, however. For all the applause Newcastle surely deserve, this was a poor performance from Sir Alex’s men. Lazy passing, poor defending, and an overall sense of apathy saw the Red Devils fall behind in the 5th minute of the game… and again in the 28th and 68th minutes. The double absence of Wayne Rooney and Ashley Young only made matters worse, but the real issue for United was not in attack. It was in the center of the park, where Sir Alex chose Paul Scholes to partner Michael Carrick.
Paul Scholes has been my favorite Manchester United player, and in that respect alone can you compare me to Sir Bobby Charlton, who also rates the Ginger Prince as his favorite. But even surely he, the Gentleman of English football, can admit Scholes’ time has come to a close. No longer can he be counted on to start a match and dictate the tempo like only he once could.
Michael Carrick has taken that torch and lit the way so very well this season. One might be inclined to expect players in the mould of Carrick and Scholes to handle a Newcastle midfield comprised of a striker in Papiss Cisse, a defender in James Perch, and a 19-year-old anything in Gael Bigirimana. Yet they did not, and it never looked like they would. The issue was a simple one: Carrick and Scholes are the same player, and this certain type of player only thrives alongside a foil, a role neither man was ever going to assume.
Where Michael Carrick succeeds, where he best fits, is directly in front of the defense. From here he can intercept passes and distribute the ball forward or out to the wing. Where Paul Scholes succeeds, where he also now best fits is directly in front of the defense. Players like this should only ever be partnered with a more mobile central midfielder. Too often today, both Carrick and Scholes could be found sitting just in front of the back four, 25 to 30 yards behind Van Persie and Hernandez. All that space, from Van Persie to Carrick/Scholes, gave Newcastle’s makeshift midfield all the time a makeshift midfield needs to thrive.
For the first 70 minutes, Newcastle seemed comfortable on the ball. Without it, they pressed quickly and turned Manchester United into error-prone amateurs. Lost amidst the 3rd Toon goal of the game, a substitution. Tom Cleverley came on for Paul Scholes and the game turned. Newcastle never really threatened after the change in personnel and Manchester seemed like the obvious choice to score, which they promptly did through Van Persie in the 70th minute. The introduction of Cleverley relaxed the Red Devils, and Carrick in particular. Cleverley will run at defenses and look to find space in the channels, which he quickly got down to doing just after Van Persie’s goal made it 3-3.
When Carrick finally floated in the match-winning pass over the Newcastle defense, he did it from his preferred “base playmaker” role (see Carlo Mazzone to Andrea Pirlo, “Technical Area”, Champions Magazine, Issue 30, August/September 2008). Spread out in front of Carrick, a multitude of red shirts from which to pick- Evra, Cleverley, Valencia, Van Persie, Giggs, Smalling, and of course, Chicharito. Having just taken the ball from Ferdinand, Carrick turned, assessed Tim Krul’s 18-yard box and picked out Javier Hernandez for the winner with a perfectly weighted pass.
Again, Newcastle’s performance was worthy of a draw- a result Sir Alex would have been pleased with, considering his own team’s performance. Yet a simple change in personnel, man-for-man in the center of the park changed the fortunes of the home team from good, at a draw, to great, at 3 points.
Luis recently discovered the world of football. He enjoys learning as much as possible about British football, particularly about Manchester United. In a relatively short period of time, he has begun watching, playing, reading, and writing about the game- all to an exhausting degree. Luis lives in southern California with his wife and Rooney, their German Shepherd.