Braga vs. Manchester United: 6 Things We Learned
Yet again we learned from this Manchester United performance against Braga that they sometimes just don't listen.
The players' collective ears must have been ringing from a stinging blast by Sir Alex after the Arsenal match. He thought that was a "strange game." Well, that was for public consumption after a bizarre performance where they slaughtered the opposition 2-1.
Non-United supporters could be forgiven for thinking there is an arrogant complacency about United sometimes. Saturday's match was far too easy. Where they would probably have buried Norwich if they had been that bad, the players seemed content to coast through against the Gunners as if it was a training match.
When the manager has banged on so much since before the start of the season that United will never lose the title on goal difference, how is it that they keep sneaking wins where they should be crushing the opposition?
Make no mistake. This United team is a very different proposition to last season. The difference is not just Robin van Persie, but his presence seems without fail to have a galvanising effect, as it did tonight.
The most bizarre effect was seeing players who couldn't string three passes together suddenly pinging them round like a pin table, with a spring in their collective steps.
For the first 75 minutes or so, United had been a disorganised shambles. The Dutchman's arrival seemed to be like adding cornflour to gravy. Suddenly, it all came together like a cohesive whole with substance.
The players clearly hadn't taken notice of Saturday's probable roasting by the manager. So what did we learn from a performance that in the space of 10 minutes turned from stumbling ineffectiveness to clinical glory?
There Is a Time to Stop Tinkering
Poor man. Stuck in the same job for 26 years. You must get bored sometimes?
So what does he do? Having affirmed that his team were going to take the Champions League seriously and field strong sides until qualification was secure, he tinkers yet again.
What on earth is he trying to achieve? He tried yet another formation tonight, which was so hard to deconstruct that it might well have been "play where you want to, lads."
Surely there was a very clear message from the Chelsea and Arsenal matches in the Premier League:
If it ain't broke, don't fix it!
Sir Alex once went over 140 matches without picking the same team. On Saturday, he fielded the same team and formation that had prevailed over Chelsea a week previously and won the match at a canter.
OK, so he wasn't going to play Michael Carrick at centre back in the return leg against Braga tonight, but why did he not heed the message that came out of the first leg at Old Trafford and the second half against Spurs?
Which was, when United need a win, they always do best with an attacking lineup.
OK so he wanted to make a couple of changes from the Arsenal match, to give other players a chance and keep one or two fresh for the Villa match on Saturday.
But he actually made eight, including positional ones, and once again, United were all at sea in a match that they desperately wanted to win.
Stick to What United Do Best
Barcelona have a formula that works (except when they play Celtic). They impose themselves on the opposition.
Liverpool dominated English and European football with a formula where they imposed their own style of play on the opposition.
OK, so coaches are cuter these days, but you can get paralysis by analysis. If you are constantly trying to second-guess the opposition, you can screw your own prospects.
When United lost to Wigan at the end of last season, it was nothing to do with the tactics. Wigan played like the last-chance saloon victims they were, and United had a collective bad day at the office. It happens sometimes.
But they didn't have Robin van Persie, whether to start the game or to come on as substitute.
What on earth is Sir Alex doing with all these tactical formations? Tonight's set up as a diamond, but then the four players in the middle seemed not to know what they were supposed to do.
Who was playing at the base? Who was at the tip? They whirled round and round in ever-decreasing circles, such that Rooney got sucked deeper and deeper. Giggs was the exact opposite of what he had been against Chelsea and was his occasional ineffective self yet again.
Anderson suggested that he had an alter ego who has been appearing far too often in recent seasons. The inspirational "man of the match" from last Wednesday disappeared to be replaced by a pale imitation. He hit stunning passes to the opposition for most of the first half.
And Nani...we'll return to Nani...
So when the teams were announced, this looked like a very attacking United team, with Valencia at right back. It's just that apart from Hernandez on his own up front and most of the defence; the rest didn't seem to have any idea what to do.
They were collectively awful, and the only consolation was that Braga were content to stick with one up top as well. So United had the majority of the possession in the first half and created next to nothing, as one player after another ran into a brick wall or gifted the ball back to the men dressed like Arsenal.
Maybe that was the reason? They'd drifted into a time warp where they played the same lackadaisical football they did on Saturday because they thought it was Arsenal.
But this time, there was no van Persie to light the touch paper.
Nani Must Go and Soon
Does Sir Alex feel sorry for Nani? Or is he just using him as a foil to rest other players?
Is he suddenly expecting the Portuguese man to see the light, back down on his contract demands and humbly say "sorry Boss, I've been too greedy"?
It's not going to happen. The way Nani is playing right now is right back to his arrogant, self-assured, waste of space self. United couldn't play worse if they had 10 men on the park.
He was up to his old tricks again tonight. Literally. Step-overs and flicks to no avail. Where Valencia would have run at his fullback all night and ripped him to shreds (as he did when let off the leash after Nani's departure), the latter just ran into cul de sacs.
He knows when he wants to shoot, but has no idea when to cross. He is a gifted player with as much technical skill as any player in the Premier League, but about as useful as a chocolate fire guard.
Just one sublime goal against Chelsea has gone to his head again. But he seems conveniently to have forgotten that his arrogant, selfish stupidity lost United that same match when he decided to try dribbling through the Chelsea defence with 15 seconds to go.
Where Ronaldo saw the light and was good enough to indulge, Nani just does what he wants to do and increasingly gets it wrong.
At the start of the match, he looked like he was at his very best. Collecting and holding the ball and distributing it. Even tackling back. But then the old Nani reappeared.
What he may not understand is that he is no longer the darling of the fans. In fact, the majority just want rid of him, in January if possible. He has become an embarrassment to himself and a liability to United.
He can't be trusted to stay on his wing and give United width when attacking and cover in retreat. Instead, he wanders infield to get the ball and then decides to stay there, while others tidy up the consequential mess.
To put it bluntly, Tom Ince or Wilfried Zaha plus change could only be better than the idiotic narcissist currently appearing under the name of Nani.
Suffice to say that it's a pity Jesse Lingard has gone to Leicester on loan.
Chris Smalling Needs Games
Chris Smalling is back.
He started somewhat hesitantly and made a couple of errors early on. He also had to get used to playing alongside Jonny Evans, which he hasn't done too many times before.
Sir Alex took a gamble, just as he had done with Young in the Chelsea League match, playing him straight into the first team without any match time in the Reserves,
But these are intelligent, capable players who give first and foremost for the team ethic. Something Nani may never understand.
As the game went on, and especially after Rio Ferdinand came on, Smalling grew in stature. The more games he gets now, the better. And if Jonny Evans has an injury, he'll get plenty, even if Jones is back within a week or so.
He does the simple things well. He is athletic, is very comfortable with the ball at his feet and is majestic with his head.
He still looks a bit rusty, but he hasn't played for months, with one injury frustration after another. But tonight, he reminded us of why he was touted as a future fixture for England.
Welcome back, Chris.
It's Time to Stop Giving Carrick Stick
If ever there was a case for Michael Carrick to be on the pitch, it was tonight.
Which is why peversely we were arguing for Fletcher to be played until we saw the traveling squad for the Braga match.
Huh? Yes, because United benefit from that stabilising influence at the base of any midfield formation that Carrick and Fletcher are particularly good at.
United fans seem to relish getting stuck into Michael Carrick. Some of them understandably would rather have a box-to-box midfielder like Roy Keane. But it's not Michael's fault that, having been groomed as a young man to be an attacking midfielder, Sir Alex wants him as a holding midfield.
So those same fans instead routinely bleat about Carrick only ever passing the ball sideways or backwards (which isn't true, by the way).
Well think again, guys. Michael wasn't on the pitch tonight, but it sure looked like the team spent an hour passing sideways or backwards.
They seemed devoid of ideas or intuition as to how to break Braga down.
The thrown-together midfield formation didn't help, of course, but in the absence of Carrick (or Fletcher if you wish), Rooney especially kept finding himself far too deep; Giggs wandered around looking lost; Anderson, who was most likely to be at the base of the diamond, was usually losing the ball upfield.
So, needing a win and having found a formula where he could play Cleverley or Anderson alongside Carrick in a 4-2-3-1 and coast to victory, Sir Alex decided to omit the Geordie, leave Fletcher at home and throw the rest of the cards in the air and see how they came down.
Let's hope Fletcher isn't sidelined again with his condition. At least he can have a good rest now that United have won their group.
Valencia Can Be a Top Right Back
Antonio Valencia is arguably the most dangerous winger in the Premier League. As he showed on Saturday against the hapless Santos, he can rip a fullback to shreds. He also puts across a stream of excellent balls that especially Van Persie can feed off.
However, he showed tonight as well as he ever has before that he is a more than competent fullback as well.
He is as strong as any player in the United team; tackles effectively; heads the ball well; and, because he is a natural winger, can form a dream partnership with the wide man in front of him.
The way he played tonight, he could be every bit as effective as Marcello for Real Madrid or Jordi Alba for Barcelona (albeit that they are left backs). He would fit very well in a 3-5-2 system if United ever tried it.
The great news for Sir Alex is that he now has cover for Rafael while Marnick Vermijl is developing towards the first team.
The way he is going, he could be "Player of the Year" at United.
Except...there's that man Robin Van Persie...and we can't be writing "Van Persie makes the difference" every week, can we?
Well yes, he did again.
So United somewhat ridiculously scored three times in the last 10 minutes to secure the group winner's position that would have been on a plate if Sir Alex had started with the team he finished with.
Will he ever learn? After 26 years as arguably the best manager in the world, don't bet on it.
As Frank Sinatra sang "I Did It My Way."
Sir Alex has done it his. Sometimes he's had us hiding behind the sofa. Mostly, we've been cheering ourselves hoarse.
On 23 November, he is rewarded with his own statue outside Old Trafford. Next year, his team will be rewarded with a more favourable tie and a home second leg. But before all that, some of his talented Academy products will now get their deserved chance to find out what European nights are all about.