The most productive week of David Moyes' tenure as Manchester United manager to date concluded with a 3-1 victory over West Ham United that lay to rest a lingering fear of losing three successive games at Old Trafford for the first time since the 1978/79 campaign.
In truth losing by two goals flattered a West Ham side who, from the first kick to the final shrill of the referee's whistle, never looked capable of improving a sequence of results that has seen them pick up just a solitary victory away from home all season.
The writer Norman Mailer once said 'every moment of one's existence one is growing into more or retreating into less. One is always living a little more or dying a little bit'. On Saturday, from the outset, it became clear that with every forward foray from the home side Sam Allardyce's men were powerless but to retreat that little further into their shell. By the end they were a tortoise without a head. This was an away day best described as a damage limitation exercise.
For United it was Wayne Rooney who again proved the catalyst as his incessant prompting from a withdrawn role further cemented his status as the club's most important player this season, as he provided assists for Danny Welbeck and Ashley Young goals, which sandwiched an Adnan Januzaj strike. For a home crowd starved of anything like the kind of football one usually associates with sides that boast 'champions' as a moniker, that all three were dispatched with no little vim and verve will come as a blessed relief.
The big news pre-match centred on Rooney passing a fitness test on a groin injury that had prohibited his involvement in the midweek Carling Cup win at Stoke City.
Rooney's availability saw Anderson drop out, with Januzaj also coming in at the expense of Young who will perhaps consider himself a touch unfortunate after a goal and much-improved performance at the Britannia Stadium.
Despite springing a huge surprise in winning at Tottenham on Wednesday night, Allardyce reverted back to his more established starting XI as Mohamed Diame, Modibo Maiga, James Tomkins, Guy Demel, Mark Noble and Ravel Morrison were all recalled.
For Morrison, who made three substitute appearances for United before being adjudged too much of an enfant terrible for even Sir Alex Ferguson to handle, this was a first return to Old Trafford.
Wayne Rooney is never better than when he feels needed and this current United side need him like never before. With Nemanja Vidic, Michael Carrick and Robin van Persie all nursing injuries, Moyes - for all the head in the sand exclamations that have punctuated his time at United - is picking a side without its spine at present. Rooney's detractors accuse him of lacking discipline in his positional play but it is only the truly churlish that fail to appreciate a forward just as comfortable kicking a centre-half over the Stretford End as he is chipping a goalkeeper from distance.
On Saturday he appeared to have been given carte blanche by Moyes to patrol wherever he saw fit and for most of the contest dropped incredibly deep, taking possession off his centre-halves Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans on 19 separate occasions. Despite packing his midfield with five as Maiga ploughed a furrow so lonely the Samaritans slipped him a card at full-time, Allardyce never came close to working out a strategy to contain the England man. The graphic below picks out Rooney's (no.10) average position in the opening 20 minutes, with only four outfield players occupying space any deeper. Only once in this period did he touch the ball in West Ham's box.
His assists for Welbeck and Young were both passes he'd expect to make but what they demonstrated was that for all his eye-catching raking cross-field passes from his own half, when it really mattered his quality and cuteness shone brightest further up the pitch. Indeed, a pair of assists, which make him the finest architect of goals in the division, somewhat undermines a notion that all his unselfish work merely disguises the fact he can be all fur coat and no knickers. That he topped the charts for chances created (six), passes (81 - 53 of which were tellingly in the opposition's half), touches (104), crosses (seven - equal to Valencia) and gaining possession (seven) underlined just what a dynamic shift he put in.
|Premier League - Assists|
His Achilles heel is invariably losing possession needlessly and that he ceded the ball 19 times is not to be overlooked, but nonetheless Trevor Francis on co-commentary duty perhaps best summed up the pervading mood in the stadium when he said: "Rooney's passing has been superb all afternoon. I think it emphasises just what United are lacking in the middle of the field."
Reliance on the right
It has been a key facet of United's play under Moyes that they use the right flank considerably more than its counterpart. Prior to Saturday's game, in their previous 17 Premier League matches 43 per cent of their attack locations had come down the right, with the left being a source of intent just 32 per cent of the time in comparison. It was little different on Saturday. The right side of the pitch was responsible for 44.1 per cent of United's attacking, with 31.6 per cent down the left.
The ever buccaneering Rafael's inclination to overlap Valencia is now established as a key outlet for United, and West Ham, in particular the wholly ineffective Matt Jarvis (who remarkably touched the ball just six times in the first half), struggled to contain the pair all afternoon. To his credit Valencia rarely hides, even if his fail-safe mode of cutting back can be infuriating, but too often his passing was off-key on the day. From 44 passes he managed only a 79.5% completion rate, the worst of any United outfield player. "There's absolutely no consistency in his crossing," lamented Francis, along with seventy thousand United fans in the stands.
Januzaj the real deal?
On the opposite wing, few would dispute that Januzaj is a player of genuine quality. For Francis it was a source of frustration that United so often spread the ball right when Guy Demel's (no.20) advanced positioning at right-back left acres in behind him: "I think they need to get it out to Januzaj on the left. When he gets it onto his left foot he's a real danger."
Two minutes later, the 36th, United heeded his advice and doubled their advantage following Welbeck's well-taken opener. Januzaj's first goal at Old Trafford had at its inception a dummy that James Collins is still trying to work out after he exchanged passes with Welbeck in the area. If Valencia is all about endeavour, Januzaj is effortless. At times their contrasting styles recall the glory days of Martin O'Neill and John Robertson at Nottingham Forest under Brian Clough.
Many believe Januzaj (no.44), like Ronaldo before him, will end up playing centrally and it's interesting to note on the average position diagram below how he plays off the flank in comparison to Valencia. There's a beautiful shape to his crosses but there's no doubt that this is a kid who places just as much emphasis on scoring goals as he does creating them.
The finest goal of the day though belonged to Young. If ever a United employee was playing on borrowed time it is the much-maligned wide-man and while two goals don't make a player, a first Premier League goal in 19 months - to add to his key effort in midweek - is at least a step in the right direction. He will strike few balls as sweetly as the one that gave Adrian not a prayer from Rooney's pull-back, as he bent a searing curling effort that is arguably up there as one of the season's finest.
For West Ham, Carlton Cole's goal off the bench would provide scant consolation as United substitute Alexander Buttner failed to fully comprehend the concept of an offside trap sprung by the otherwise impressive Smalling and Evans. Perhaps the Dutchman was in a dazed shock at the sight of West Ham employing two strikers, with Maiga providing the assist.
"We played well today and on another day we might have scored more but overall I am really pleased with how we played. I thought we had enough of the ball before the opening goal and it was certainly coming. But, the first one was a really good piece of forward play between Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck and it's good to see Danny scoring another goal."
"I think we made the victory too easy for them. I didn't think we made them work hard enough for it. We made silly mistakes and when Manchester United get a sniff like that they are not going to turn it down. We did get better in the second half and played a little more like we know we can but it was too late for us to try and get any points."