Manchester United Player Ratings Against Braga
Rating Manchester United against Braga for Tuesday's 2012 UEFA Champions League match almost demands that Sir Alex Ferguson be included.
It might seem like heresy to question the greatest football manager of all time, but what on earth was he thinking with his team selection?
Okay, so he can point to United winning and taking an arm-lock on the Group, but the result could easily have been the other way around.
Sir Alex has indicated that he will play strong teams until the Group qualification is secure. He also inevitably has to juggle his team selection to take account of the biggest match of the season against Chelsea on Sunday.
Once again, he finds himself in the same situation, one that we thought was unique last season with one of the worst injury crises ever, unable to pick a first-choice defence. But he's not making things any easier for himself, either.
United have, for more than 60 years, been a club that develops young talent. Last season, Paul Pogba, Ravel Morrison and Zeki Fryers left for new pastures because they weren't getting first-team experience. Pogba has gone on to be a success at Juventus, scoring last week against Napoli.
Now we have Josh King wondering if he has to leave to get games, and Federicho Macheda's agent saying he may have to go as well. At the weekend, Sir Alex was regretting having let Ryan Shawcross go. Paul McShane also left.
And yet, Sir Alex steadfastly refuses to give youth a chance, even when a talented young player like Scott Wootton is being talked up.
So what on earth was he thinking in playing Michael Carrick at centre-back yet again, against a team with real pace in attack and at least three players comfortably over six feet tall?
It's not fair on Carrick, and its not fair on his teammates, either. Michael will always do what his manager asks, and actually, after a shaky start he played very well, breaking up a string of attacks.
Surely Scott Wootton couldn't have done a worse job than the central defence in the first twenty minutes or so? What does he have to do to get a game?
So, of course, we can understand that Sir Alex wanted to preserve at least one of his uninjured centre-backs for Chelsea at the weekend. But if Rio needed a rest, why was he on the bench?
And why is it taking so long for Chris Smalling to get fit, let alone Phil Jones?
The thing is that Wootton and Michael Keane are trained centre-backs; they understand positional sense, and they are both good headers of the ball.
So instead, we had Carrick being pulled wide and then easily skinned, Alexander Buttner finding himself marking the biggest player on the pitch for the first goal and Jonny Evans sleeping again for the second.
It's hard enough when United can't put out their first-choice centre-backs because of injury, but Sir Alex made it a whole heap harder by playing a midfielder at centre-back, a left-back in his second game and a diamond against a team of wide players, hoping that the defence would somehow gel!
Most importantly, how many more times are United going to concede the first goal before Sir Alex sorts it out? He keeps banging on about it and says he can't understand why it happens.
It was pretty obvious on Tuesday. He played a scratch defence against the most dangerous team in the Group—they bombarded Cluj in the first match, despite losing.
Sir Alex definitely underestimated them. And on top of that, despite the exhortations, the defence was caught napping.
David De Gea: 6/10
How do you score a keeper who hardly had a save to make and yet picked the ball out of his net twice?
He could hardly be blamed for either goal, although some will still be frustrated that he doesn't instinctively come for crosses like the one that led to the first goal. There was a similar question mark about Stoke's first goal on Saturday.
While 6/10 might be harsh when he did nothing wrong, it is hard to score him higher for the same reason. His distribution was pretty good.
It was halfway through the second half that the thought suddenly dawned: Rafael can be a world class full-back. Yes, full back, because he is genuinely two-footed and could, in theory, play either side.
He has already shown against Arsenal in the 2010-11 campaign that he can also play as a wide attacking player.
The other thing that suddenly became clear was that he doesn't dive in on tackles any more.
In the Manager's Press Conference, he referred to his greater maturity as being key to being first-choice right-back. This was in evidence tonight.
He has been transformed from an attacking player who could defend—not always effectively—into a very effective wing-back.
His idol is Roberto Carlos, but right now one starts to think of Marcello at Real Madrid. And Rafael is arguably a better defender.
In any case, he did nothing wrong tonight: always looked dangerous and effective linking up on the right wing, made intelligent and incisive passes and stayed on his feet!
Michael Carrick: 6/10
It seems harsh to penalise Carrick too much when the selection decision was blatantly wrong in the first place. Sir Alex's gamble paid off in the end, but after 15 minutes, one was thinking about the 6-1 humiliation by Manchester City in 2011-12.
To say he was at fault in allowing the winger to turn and go past him on the goal line and centre for the first goal is technically correct, but he is not, and never will be, a centre-back. He shouldn't have been out in the corner in the first place.
But Carrick never seems to get flustered. The second goal had nothing to do with him, and he got better and better as the game went on.
He was able to use his opportunity to bring the ball out of defence to good effect with a few outstanding long passes. He headed well and broke up several attacks in the second half with timely interceptions that Rio would have been proud of.
As to his ever paying at centre back again: Surely the experiment is over, Sir Alex?
Jonny Evans: 7/10
A difficult one, this, because Evans should have done better with his marking for the second goal, and Alexander Buttner should not have been left to mark the tallest man on the pitch for the first.
Nevertheless, Evans was a tower of strength, winning many headers and breaking up several attacks. In addition, he scored the second goal, despite managing to scuff both shots in the process.
He was outstanding for Northern Ireland last week and is looking like he may become Manchester United's no. 1 centre-back for the next five years, at least.
Alexander Buttner: 6/10
Not the easiest of introductions for the Dutchman, when the first thing he is called on to do is to try to out-jump an attacker some four inches taller, who happens to score.
In only his second match, however, he looks like the real deal. If Fabio shows the same rate of growth that Rafael has, while at QPR this season, it could be a close run for left-back next season.
One thing is for sure, it won't be Evra on recent showings. Like Ashley Cole at Chelsea, and especially in the England match against Poland, Evra is beginning to look like he is running on empty.
Nobody has played more matches than him in recent seasons. He is still dangerous when on the attack, as he showed with his goal against Newcastle, but Buttner is comfortably the better defender.
The Dutchman showed that he is unafraid of taking on the opposition and has a trick or two up his sleeve. He also plays for the team and is much better than Evra in recovering when caught upfield.
Surely the time to experiment with a diamond formation is against a team like Stoke, not a pacy European side who play with width and height in attack?
It demonstrably didn't work against Braga. The main casualty was Shinji Kagawa, who had to be substituted at halftime as United introduced width through Nani.
Understandably, after recent key matches where United have conceded control of the midfield, such as against Tottenham, a diamond can be the answer. But what was wrong with the traditional 4-4-2 form for Tuesday?
Until last season, United would have played 4-4-2 at home and 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 away in Europe.
Wayne Rooney: 6/10
The other player who suffered was Wayne Rooney. He was supposed to be at the top of the diamond but found himself playing deeper and deeper because, as captain, he was assuming responsibility for turning the ship around.
United played more and more pretty football as the game went on, and to great effect in turning round the scoreline in the second half.
Rooney seemed to have grown an inch or two in stature as a result of wearing the armband, but it somehow made him less effective against Braga than he was on Saturday.
Sure, he had a commanding presence wherever he was on the field, including clearing up an attack that might have led to a third goal in the first half.
He hardly put a foot wrong, but he wasn't his best self, notionally at the top of the diamond, rather than immediately behind or alongside the main striker.
Darren Fletcher: 8/10
This was Fletcher's best game since his comeback. He was magnificent in defence, controlling in midfield and dangerous going forward.
He played at the base of the diamond, but because he was further up the pitch than Paul Scholes has been in a 4-2-3-1, this proved to be both effective in restraining Braga and prompting United attacks.
Maybe next time it should be Fletch's turn to be captain, as he is for Scotland?
He seemed to cover every inch of grass for 25 yards on either side of the centre line. He hardly gave the ball away and was incisive with his passes and runs.
Now that he seems to be back close to full fitness, Sir Alex has the luxury of alternating Fletcher and Carrick as the holding midfield player he loves to have.
Shinji Kagawa: 5/10
One has to feel sorry for the Japanese superstar. After a bright start at Old Trafford, he seems to have lost his way.
So far, neither the manager nor his fellow players seem to have worked Shinji out.
It reminds somewhat of Dimitar Berbatov's first year. Passes kept dropping into space for him to run onto before he got the message over that he wanted the ball pinged straight at him.
Shinji looked pretty rusty tonight. He gave the ball away far too much and couldn't seem to find any space.
However, his score was embellished by a wonderful assist for Chicharito to score United's first goal, after the referee played an excellent advantage when Robin Van Persie was crushed.
Was it Shinji, or was it the diamond that was not working?
Either way, he had to go, whether or not his knock would have taken him off the pitch.
Tom Cleverley: 6/10
Not one of Cleverley's better nights, either.
He huffed, and he puffed, and he generally made himself a nuisance. He set up a few half chances and had a shot himself. His link-up play was generally good, and he covered acres of grass.
But somehow, it wasn't Cleverley's best display, even after the diamond had been abandoned.
He did, however, hit an absolutely sublime, bending, Beckham-like cross that Chicharito gleefully ran onto, burying a header to win United the match.
This was Chicharito's best performance for a very long time. He was back to his best and, in some ways, was even better.
He has bulked up and is physically much stronger and harder to knock off the ball. His general technique and ball skills have also improved, thanks to a full preseason and a summer holiday.
He was ruled offside once when he clearly wasn't, so he had much improved in that respect, as well.
He is so much more tenacious, as well. On one occasion, he fought his way out of a bundle on the halfway line, ran away with the ball despite being fouled three times and passed to the onrushing Nani, who had a smashed, on-target shot saved.
His first goal was an opportunistic striker's goal, beating the Braga offside trap to head home Kagawa's cross unmarked.
Unusually for him, he had a brace of headers. His second goal was also a striker's shot, as he ghosted in beyond the defence to head home a peach of a centre by Tom Cleverley.
He should, in fact, have had three goals, because one of three bad offside decisions denied him when Kagawa beat the offside trap and again centred for Chicharito to pass home, with the keeper stranded.
For someone whose future at United has been questioned by the media recently, this game saw the Mexican back to his very best. He will be arguing a case for inclusion for the rest of the season now, and that is very good for Sir Alex in terms of options for attack.
Robin Van Persie: 7/10
Van Persie is only marked down because he didn't score. And he had a couple of good opportunities which he might normally have buried.
The question begins to arise whether he is even better than Eric Cantona. The next four years will tell, but the signs are very, very good.
His work rate is prodigious: He is physically strong, and he has transformed United's prospects at corners. He also covered more than 10 km tonight, and, despite being 29, looks like a teenager.
Also, like Wayne Rooney, it seems like he wants to play in every match. That is a huge bonus, with the understanding the two have struck up.
He also merits a good score for one sublime flick alone, in the first half, which you will to watch the video over and over to pick out.
The way things are going, he could score 50 goals this season, not to mention a myriad of assists. In a couple of years' time, we may be ranking him alongside the United all-time greats.
The situation with Nani is still unclear: Juventus want him, and then they don't. He is desperate for a new contract, and then he threatens to run it down.
His mind doesn't seem straight, and that's no surprise.
He may have gone from hero to zero in the changing room, from player of the year to a potential renegade.
And yet, if he got his head straight and played to the level he can, he would easily merit a new five-year stretch.
The fans love what he does when he does it best. He is also genuinely two-footed, including in shooting.
He is as dangerous as any player in the English Premier League when he runs at defenders, and he has excellent technical skills.
No doubt he'll either go for £20 million some time soon or be at United for the rest of his career.
It has reached the stage where only he can decide what he wants.
His introduction on Tuesday changed the game in two ways: First, because he occupies defenders with his runs; second, because United reverted to 4-4-2 and matched up against Braga.
That didn't stop Nani from being his most infuriating again at times, as he made characteristic errors of judgement and frequently gave the ball away.
Ryan Giggs: 3/10
Giggs had virtually no effect, giving the ball away in typical recent style.
Why does Sir Alex keep bringing him on instead of Nick Powell or Anderson, for example?
Presumably, Giggs came on to steady the game but instead almost immediately tried to run at Braga and start an attack for them.
Sad to see...
What do you think and who caught the eye on this extraordinary European night?