The scoreline read 3-1, but neither supporters nor Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson should take any particular comfort in the Red Devils' win over league bottom-feeders Queens Park Rangers on Saturday.
The performance pushed United back to the top of the Premier League table, but the league leaders showed they still haven't solved the problems that have forced them to fight back from behind far too often this term.
After the match, Ferguson told MUTV, "We played for about 10 or 15 minutes, that was the sum total of a real performance for Manchester United." If anything, the United boss was generous in his assessment.
With new manager Harry Redknapp in the stands, QPR set out to defend for their lives through the opening half hour. For their part, United declined to demand anywhere near that level of commitment from the London club.
The home side saw their guests' tight defensive shape and casually strolled forward with little idea or inspiration of how to break it down. The most common early sight was United midfielders' upturned palms as they begged their forward players to provide penetrating options.
QPR's conservative approach paired with United's uninspired attack meant the first 30 minutes proved a great time for viewers to catch up on their housework.
QPR Gets Offensive
United's lethargy emboldened the visitors as the game dragged toward half. In the 37th minute, QPR hit the back of the net first when Djibril Cisse swung in a cross that found Jamie Mackie running a step too quickly between Rio Ferdinand and Rafael Da Silva. Mackie nodded the cross into the back of the net, but the assistant referee's flag kept the match scoreless.
For the remainder of the half, the EPL bottom-dwellers looked primed to get their noses out in front. Having stuck firmly to their defensive duties early, Armand Traore and Kieran Dyer began getting forward for QPR. The halftime whistle could not have come too early for Ferguson.
After the break, QPR picked up where they left off. If anything, they came out of the locker room more ambitious than they had gone off. The attacking intent paid off in the 52nd minute when Dyer got the ball back on a short corner. The veteran midfielder beat a defending Robin van Persie at the near post before sizzling in a low cross. United keeper Anders Lindegaard parried the ball, but a poaching Mackie leaped on the chance to shock the home crowd from inside the six-yard box.
Ferguson Makes Changes, QPR Gives the Points Away
Ferguson immediately looked to shake up his side after United fell behind. With QPR continuing to press their advantage, the ineffectual pair of Ashley Young and Paul Scholes gave way in favor of Oliveira Anderson and the player quickly becoming something of a Get Out of Jail Free for United, Javier Hernandez.
The switch didn't yield immediate results. Fortunately for United supporters, QPR's attack lacked the sharpness necessary to add to their lead. QPR's withdrawal of Traore in the 61st minute seemed to signal a change of intent as the visitors inserted Anton Ferdinand in an effort to keep what they held.
The move backfired shortly afterwards as United stormed ahead thanks to QPR's season-long weakness at defending set pieces In the 64th minute, Ferdinand lost track of Danny Welbeck at the back post, allowing the 21-year-old to nod a corner kick back across goal. United defender Jonny Evans reacted more quickly than his QPR counterparts and leveled the score.
Sparked by the speed and aggressiveness of Anderson, United mauled their opposition after the goal. Four minutes later, QPR showed they could defend even worse against a corner kick when they left Darren Fletcher completely unmarked as he drifted in from the top of the area. Fletcher headed powerfully home and the home fans celebrated a lead their team could hardly claim to deserve on the balance of play.
Just three minutes later, the two United substitutes punished a shell-shocked QPR as Anderson picked the ball up in his own half. The Brazilian simply ran past the visiting midfielders before slipping a pass in to Hernandez who had found space between the shifting center-backs and QPR right-back Stephane Mbia. Hernandez controlled and slotted past Julio Cesar to give United breathing space.
And that was it. As quickly as United had come alive, they went back to sleep again as they coasted toward the final whistle.
A traumatized QPR pushed intermittently to regain the points they had effectively given away on a pair of set pieces, but they were never anywhere near sharp enough in open play to close the gap.
Rafael cleared a Clint Hill header off the line in the 88th minute to keep the margin comfortable, but while Ferguson clapped his way off the pitch he could not have been happy with his team's performance.
What Does It Mean for United?
Ashley Young was terrible. Paul Scholes did little beyond picking up a yellow card that will see him suspended for his team's next fixture. Despite his goal, Fletcher did little. Welbeck showed his discomfort at being pushed out wide. RVP and Wayne Rooney flashed danger on occasion, but far too inconsistently.
United picked up three points and went top of the table. Those are the important things at the end of the day. If they win the league, no one will remember the run of indifferent form that has made comeback victories more the norm than the exception.
But a showing like this one against a team struggling as badly as QPR should do little to inspire confidence that United can see off their rivals to deliver a 13th Premier League championship to the man depicted by the newest statue outside Old Trafford.
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