Sunday, December 08, 2013

41 years of hurt never stopped us dreaming

Man Utd 0 - 1 Newcastle

Proof that good things come to those who wait. Perhaps it would be nice not to have to wait quite so long next time, though, lads...

I'd always thought that to secure that elusive win at Old Trafford we'd need to play out of our skins and have a hefty helping of luck, and even then would be pushed all the way by the home side - but the reality was easier and much more comfortable than I'd imagined. All that was really required was discipline, endeavour and a game plan as perfectly executed as it was astutely conceived - and, admittedly, the worst Man Utd side in living memory.

Mindful of Man Utd's much publicised weakness in midfield, and perhaps also of the space Swansea's attacking midfielders had found in front of our defence on Wednesday, the Silver Fox opted to switch formation, Vurnon Anita coming into the side at the expense of the unfortunate Big Lad. That meant greater protection for our central defence, a more advanced role for Dreamboat and significant responsibility on Loic Remy to lead the line solo.

It didn't take long for the tactics to take effect, Mr T biting into every challenge with a relish reminiscent of his first two seasons at the club. Outnumbered and stifled, Man Utd's central midfield partnership of Phil Jones and Tom Cleverley were made to look even more ordinary than normal. Jones had the home side's only shot of note in the first period, comfortably saved by November's Premier League Player of the Month Tim Krul, while Javier Hernandez tried to con referee Andre Marriner into awarding a spot kick against Sideshow Bob with a melodramatic penalty-box tumble.

Remaining disciplined and organised without the ball was critical, but with it we were neat and purposeful, retaining possession well with some crisp passing. We could even have gone in at the break with the lead. Remy's clever pass caught Patrice Evra dozily dreaming of his half-time cup of Bovril, but Mathieu Debuchy couldn't beat David De Gea, who also saved a header shortly afterwards.

Predictably our hosts ratcheted up their efforts after the interval, though attempts on goal from Hernandez and Belgian teenager Adnan Januzaj - their one bright spot, in the absence of Shrek - failed to cause Krul much trouble, our 'keeper looking to put Wednesday's disappointing personal performance behind him.

After 57 minutes the Silver Fox made what struck me as a risky and potentially costly substitution, withdrawing the hard-grafting Goofy and throwing on the fit-again HBA. I felt the change would compromise our ability to stick to the game plan, but credit to the manager for having the courage and conviction to adopt a more offensive approach - and four minutes later we were ahead.

Evra was probably still bemoaning an incident at the other end, where his header hit the post and was handled on the line by Anita (intentionally or not, the Dutchman's forearm prevented a goal so we were lucky to escape punishment), when Sissoko got in behind him. Dreamboat was perfectly positioned for the pull-back and slotted it past De Gea with the aid of a slight deflection off Nemanja Vidic. Cue the away end erupting in delight. We couldn't pull it off - could we?

The Man Utd of old might have fallen behind on home soil but would always come roaring back, battering their opposition into submission. How times change, thankfully - Moyes' class of 2013 offered nothing more than poor efforts from Januzaj and substitute Wilfried Zaha. Robin van Persie saw a header correctly disallowed for offside, but was otherwise utterly anonymous (and indeed clearly not fully fit). A lack of imagination, self-belief and quality at Old Trafford is usually our thing, but yesterday it was the home side suffering. Far from cowering under the fear factor, we continued to play neat, attractive football right up until the final whistle, HBA proving useful in frustrating and teasing their players and winding down the clock.

While it seems wrong to single out individuals, it's true that to win at Man Utd you need serious backbone, and the spine of our side was superb: Krul between the posts, Sideshow Bob and Mike Williamson colossi ably and tirelessly shielded by Mr T and Anita, and Remy always giving our players an option, holding play up well and preoccupying their defence singlehandedly at times.

If there was one fly in the ointment of our fourth away win of the campaign, it was the booking picked up by the goalscorer, which means he misses the visit of Southampton next Saturday. That marks the start of a promising run of games which, on paper, are very winnable - the others being Palace away and Stoke at home. On the evidence of this display, there's no reason we can't put together another sequence of wins before league leaders Arsenal roll into Toon on the 29th for what promises to be our sternest test yet. It'll almost certainly be tougher than this relative stroll in the park...

A Man Utd fan's perspective: Red Rants

Other reports: BBC, Observer

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