CFR Cluj vs. Manchester United: 6 Things We Learned Tonight
As promised by Sir Alex Ferguson this season, Manchester United played a very attacking formation against Cluj.
With Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs left at home with illness and Paul Scholes only playing one match a week, the manager dropped Nani and put out a team of "wingless wonders."
Predictably, Kagawa was rested. He did nothing wrong on Saturday, but he could be key against Newcastle. Anderson and Tom Cleverley, who did so well against Newcastle last week, not surprisingly started alongside the invaluable Darren Fletcher.
Full Team (4-3-1-2)
Rafael Ferdinand Evans Evra
Anderson Fletcher Cleverley
Van Persie Hernandez
Lindegaard Buttner Wootton Powell Nani Kagawa Welbeck
So, none of the young players who traveled were included, except Scott Wootton, who, having been a substitute on Saturday also, seems to be edging Michael Keane. He came on as a substitute for the last 20 minutes.
For the first time in years, United started without a single winger. However, the formation offered the possibility of Rooney dropping into midfield to make it 4-4-2.
It also meant that Ferguson could have brought on Nani if needed in the second half to stretch the Cluj defence.
Whether it was out of respect for "the greatest team ever to come to Cluj" or because they prefer a counter-attacking style, the home team defended very deep.
United were patient and tried to tempt the opposition defence to step up, leaving room for Hernandez. But it was disciplined and when, after 13 minutes, a United attack broke down, Cluj exposed United's defensive fragility yet again.
For the sixth time this season, they conceded first. This is a shocking state of affairs.
Nevertheless, you always had that reassuring feeling that United would roll Cluj over. And so it proved.
First, Rooney hit a free kick that Van Persie "shouldered" into the net. Then, in the second half, Rooney hit a sublime pass into the Dutchman's path to flick home.
With the Roumanians visibly wilting and apart from a couple of scares that De Gea dealt with, that was that.
There were a number of talking points, however.
Darren Fletcher Changes Everything
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Darren Fletcher is back, and that can change everything for United this season. Especially as Wayne Rooney is now fit and sharp.
It is a big night for Darren Fletcher but as he showed last Wednesday he is ready for it. I didn't use him on Saturday simply because of tonight - he is going to be a big player for us.
His return now gives the manager so many options. For starters, he can alternate Carrick and Fletcher as the holding player.
He can also play them together. Sunday against Newcastle is probably too early because this was only Fletcher's second full 90 minutes in the First Team since his condition was diagnosed.
He also showed how Carrick must play when he is the holding player. Back in front of the defence when needed; up outside the opposition box when allowed.
To be fair, however, he had the young and energetic Anderson and Cleverley flanking him. They worked their socks off all night.
Finally, he was telling people all round him what to do. That was a key missing element last Saturday. Maybe he should be vice-captain rather than Evra?
Evra Must Be Dropped
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Patrice Evra had yet another shocker. He must be dropped.
He was fundamentally to blame for the first goal. He had no idea where Sougou was and might just as well have sat down on the pitch and had a cigar.
He was taken to the cleaners all through the first half until a hamstring injury forced Sougou off.
Things were so bad that it would have been no surprise if he had been substituted after as little as 20 minutes.
Things simply haven't changed since the Manchester City drubbing last season. Evra can be irresistible going forward, but he was captain on Tuesday and yet again was caught lumbering back into defence.
Even Tyler Blackett at 18 looks a better prospect right now than Evra. Last night against Sunderland Reserves, he won several tackles, ran through the defence and has a rocket shot.
The simple truth is that Buttner must now be given a run in the first team, starting against Newcastle. It doesn't matter that Evra has the captain's armband in Vidic's absence. Drop him and make Rooney captain for now.
Ferguson Must Build the Team Around Rooney
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With one pass, Wayne Rooney showed that he is ready to carry the mantle of Paul Scholes. From a David Beckham type position deep and wide right, he hit a sublime looping pass in front of Van Persie for the goal of the night.
When Wayne came on in the ill-fated Fulham match and Hugo Rodallega's gash could have ended his career, he was shockingly unfit.
Having had six weeks' holiday and plenty of time to train, it was a disgrace for Manchester United's most senior and highest paid player.
The gash may have been a blessing in disguise. While it healed, Rooney was able to spend weeks in the gym, losing the blubber and getting his whole body fit.
He was so sharp when he came on against Tottenham that Sir Alex must be regretting not having started him.
Tonight, he ran the whole game. He covered every blade of grass, clearing in defence, taking the free kicks, linking play.
Tonight was his first start with Robin Van Persie, and although he wasn't playing as a striker, they will surely both start up front against Newcastle.
Anderson and Cleverley Are Back
Anderson and Cleverley Against Newcastle
This time last year, Anderson and Tom Cleverley were the next big thing. After their captivating performance against Manchester City in the Community Shield, they looked set fair.
Then, Cleverley got injured and Ando seemed to gradually disappear.
Last Wednesday, in the Capital One Cup, playing alongside Darren Fletcher, the three of them ran the show. Anderson and Cleverley both scored; the latter his first goal for the First Team.
In the absence of Valencia and Young, and with Nani frankly unreliable, Sir Alex Ferguson decided to play all three on Tuesday. It worked up to a point, mainly because of the energy of the younger players.
The question is whether all three can be played in future. If Sir Alex returns to wingers, one of them would have to drop out.
In the first half against Tottenham, there was an alarming vacuum in midfield. That wasn't the case in the Newcastle or Cluj matches.
The return of Fletcher, Cleverley and Anderson gives Sir Alex many options in midfield. All three of them showed they can tackle, beat a man, interchange and play together.
Although Paul Scholes doesn't have the box to box legs anymore, any of the three could play beside him, beside each other or Michael Carrick.
The Defensive Problems Haven't Gone Away
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You can forgive Ioan Andone a smug grin as his team became the sixth to score first against Manchester United this season.
The circumstances were disarmingly similar to previous occasions. Evra caught out of position and lapses of concentration elsewhere.
Have Sir Alex and his players learned nothing since the City debacle last year? Fullbacks caught up the pitch, midfield players stranded and central defenders ball-watching.
Arsene Wenger appointed Steve Bould as assistant this season to sort out the defence, which involves every member of the team.
Teams attack from the back and defend from the front these days.
If United continue to concede the first goal, they won't even finish in the Top Four this season. It is clear that Sir Alex hasn't done enough to deal with this urgent matter so far. He needs a defensive coach like Gary Neville right now.
And while he's at it, he could do with someone to sort out United's corners. The Stoke Citys and the Clujs of this world seem far more competent from corners and set-pieces than Manchester United.
De Gea Must Be No. 1
De Gea Top 30 Saves 2011/12
Sir Alex Ferguson still seems undecided as to who should be his No. 1 goalkeeper. Or is he deliberately alternating to keep them both on their toes? In which case, he is gambling with his most precious need right now.
David De Gea made a couple of reaction saves on Tuesday that saved his team from humiliation. He was absolutely excellent overall. Moaning about a couple of kicks that went straight out of play would be pernickety.
OK, so Anders Lindegaard is a competent keeper, and the two of them seem to have become good friends. Each probably wants the best for each other while desperate to keep the gloves every week.
When De Gea first came to Manchester United, he arguably made several mistakes. He was only 20.
Sir Alex dropped him. He put the work in at the gym and on his English language lessons. Meanwhile, Lindegaard showed that he was a more than adequate No.1.
This state of affairs cannot continue. Sir Alex must choose. He should choose De Gea.
Tonight gave ample evidence. He is one of the top reflex keepers in the world. What clinched it on Tuesday was that he was not only communicating with his defence, but also claimed more than one ball in the air.
That is the last piece of the jigsaw. Early last season, physical strikers bundled him and he was given scant protection by referees.
Tuesday, he caught one high centre in the air despite the Cluj striker deliberately barging him without even looking at the ball. He held on. That is a major step forward.
Lindegaard has seemed to be competent, but there would have to be a concern when he spilled a shot against Liverpool. Luckily, there was no player to turn it in.
De Gea should be given the gloves against Newcastle. Until the defensive problems are sorted out, his reflexes and reach may be sorely needed.