Manchester United 1-2 West Bromwich Albion
The only nice thing about getting hammered by Manchester City was that it was a can of wupass which came with its own built-in excuse(s). Something about all the dosh City have spent, or the naive ref, the pile-up of tough fixtures. or Patrice’s legs have gone, or… But, now, the truth, the uncomfortable truth, and not the abstract truth, that David Moyes has to deal with after getting our noses rubbed in Baggie poo in our very own Theater of Dreams, is that Manchester United really are in trouble.
The team Moyes trotted out made a shrugging sort of sense as Alexander Büttner, Anderson, and Javier Hernández, were put out there by Moyes to test the waters. Javíer Hernandez was also enjoying a rare start because of both Robin Van Persie’s problematic hamstring, and as a reward for performing so well against Liverpool on Wednesday. Tinkering against a less risky opponent like West Brom surely seemed logical to the new United brains trust.
Yet Shinji Kagawa, playing on the left flank, repeatedly showed a dithering tendency to zigzag back and forth in a search for possession, looked both bemused and lost. Along with refusing to play Wilfried Zaha, whom he insists is not ready, Moyes has already badly bruised the fragile egos of two other players who are being stalked by Borussia Dortmund (Kagawa’s old club), Juventus and Manchester City in Kagawa and Januzaj. “We want Shinji to feel he’s getting an opportunity to show what he can do. His best position may be Number 10, but even for Japan he plays off the left as well so it’s not something which is strange to him or not his position so he’s used to that. But there’s a lot of competition here and we want to push each other on to give performances and improve.” Say what? Thus, despite all of Moyes’ verbal diarrhea, Kagawa was removed at half-time for another unhappy camper, the 18-year-old Adnan Januzaj. Moyes, confirming this was a tactical substitution after the game, added. “I just decided that I wanted to try and make a change, try and inject a little bit of something and I thought Adnan showed what he could do,” he said.
Unfortunately, Steve Clarke’s Baggies’ were more than up for a bit of diligence against the champions. Dominant in the first half, they pressed hard, gummed up central midfield and the flanks with pure, unadulterated hustle, and had both Stephane Sessegnon and Scott Sinclair come close to scoring in the first half. As fate would have it, with Scott Sinclair too hurt to return in the second half, Clarke brought on a young academy player, Saido Berahino, who, in switching wings and speedily, seamlessly shifting in and out of the box, gave Phil Jones, Alexander Büttner, Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans all fits. It proved to be a masterstroke on Clarke’s part.
Meanwhile, United, with Anderson wearing the face and body language of someone with his head elsewhere–probably the meat buffet at Fogo de Chao–and Michael Carrick simply unwilling to run, Albion’s perpetual motion midfield of Christian Kalumbu, Morgan Amalfitano and an absolutely superb Claudio Yacob, cleverly fired keen little passes hither and thither, all the while picking off each Carrick and Anderson pass attempt at will. Indeed, after Saido Berahino scored the winning goal, Carrick and Rio Ferdinand stood there scratching their barnets like a couple of aging heroin addicts waiting nervously for their fix. Having now fallen into twelfth place with only seven points, a sense of self-pity and helplessness was distinctly palpable.
W.B.A.’s goals were a masochistic pleasure to behold. First, in the 54th minute, Morgan Amalfitano took possession of a long clever pass from Gareth McAuley, bobbed and weaved around Rio Ferdinand, nutmegging the aging Peckham reprobate, before stutter-stepping towards David de Gea and then firing a sublime chip over the advancing keeper.
Yet, within two minutes United were level. Once again, Wayne Rooney, an angry focused bear these days, was there to fire home his fifth goal in six games. His free-kick bending exquisitely to the the left, flying round Albion’s fixed defense and totally freezing their goalie Boaz Myhill to tie things up. Another United on another day would have kicked into gear at this point, but this team went back to the same casual game plan, as if they already owned a huge lead. A few more duff Carrick attempts at supplying Rooney with long-distance pass attempts went for nought and he seemed to jack it in for the rest of the evening thereafter.
West Brom simply shrugged off United’s burp of a revival, though. Amalfitano nearly added a second with a perfectly placed howitzer of a free-kick that De Gea tipped over the bar superbly. Then, the Frenchman, on loan from Marseilles, picked up a clever short pass from Sessegnon in the 67th minute which he had the delicate eye to fire on into Saido Berahino’s path. The Anglo-Burundian, who showed a lovely, assured and delicate touch throughout the second half, took his chance ruthlessly, burying it under a diving David De Gea.
Manchester United have become only the second top-flight English champions, after Blackburn in 1995-96, to begin the following season with three (or more) defeats in their opening six matches since Leeds did so in the 1974-75 season. All is certainly not lost, to be sure. The forward line will start scoring goals in bunches eventually, but the mental and physical vulnerability of our back four, having twice been casually burgled and humiliated, can not be fixed by switching personnel. Blaming our full-backs for advancing and ‘marooning’ whoever plays center-back is ridiculous, too. Last season our defense was a perpetually leaky sieve, too, but counting on scoring more than we let in this season is only going to work with a handful of opponents this time around. To be sure, I’ve been saying that Rio and Evra are both past it and sliding backwards down a slippery slope.
As much as this is true, there can also be no doubt that it’s a tactical issue, too. No team ever proved this better than the geriatric, injury-prone defense fielded by Carlo Ancelotti’s AC Milan from 2002 to 2007. Somehow the noble old guard that formed a defensive back line featuring Alessandro Nesta, Paolo Maldini. Kaka Kaladze, Alessandro Costacurta, and, for a shorter period, the ex-United star, Jaap Stam, all got it done. Indeed, despite being the source of much amusement to the pundits of the game, the team won two E.C.C. finals and lost another. Slow as molasses, they were all, nevertheless, collectively intelligent and almost religiously dedicated to their fitness and careers. Unfortunately, only Nemanja Vidic and Rafael Da Silva show this kind of dedication for United. Patrice Evra is still capable of inspired moments but refuses to realistically adjust his game now that his legs are gone. Although Rio talks the talk, he is far more dedicated to his career in the media(last week it was his football awards show!) than getting it done in the field. Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling are fine athletes who have not improved and the jury is out on Phil Jones. Time for Moyes and Phil Neville to come up with something strategically practical for the defense now!