Wigan vs. Manchester United: 6 Things We Learned
Chris Brunskill/Getty Images
In last year's fixture between Wigan and Manchester United, the Red Devils got two seriously bad calls as Shaun Maloney stunned the leaders in the title race.
That match was a shock in more ways than one. The corner from which Maloney scored was not a corner, and Figueroa's clear handball did not bring the penalty that would have won United the title.
This wasn't even the last straw as City won the title with their 1-0 win at the Etihad.
United's meltdown had started with the Everton two-goal comeback to draw 4-4. Long-term supporters leaving that match just knew it was the beginning of the end.
This year the same Wigan fixture will not decide the Premier League, but United returned to their previous pattern.
Of the six times that Roberto Martinez had lost to them, three had been by a 5-0 scoreline. They came close to that Tuesday.
You often don't learn much about United when they win comfortably as they can play to a similar pattern of attacking football.
As Sir Alex says, United matches are producing plenty of goals (105 in all competitive matches this season) and fans worldwide want to watch them.
United Can Keep Clean Sheets But...
David de Gea
Chris Brunskill/Getty Images
David de Gea was mainly employed keeping his hands warm this afternoon. He didn't have a save to make expect the rifled back pass from Chris Smalling that he was probably grateful for to stop his hands from freezing.
This is the first time this season that United have kept two consecutive clean sheets in the Premier League and only the second overall.
They have now kept five in the league and repeated their 4-0 win against Wigan from earlier in the season.
Half the reason they kept one was because Wigan struggled to provide a serious threat on goal. The same team that had comfortably beaten Aston Villa a few days ago fired blanks today.
Were they overawed? Not at the start of the match. But by the time United were 3-0 ahead and before the latter had made their substitutions, Wigan had only one goal attempt.
Whether it was those substitutions or the ones Martinez made, suddenly it was a different match and United looked like they might concede.
Vidic Cannot Yet Play Every Match
Vidic against Swansea
Jamie McDonald/Getty Images
Nemanja Vidic did not play Tuesday. Clearly he is slowly being reintroduced.
He did play a hard match on a boggy pitch against West Brom at Old Trafford last Saturday, but it seems he is not yet ready to play every match.
One possible reason was mentioned in the media Monday, with the suggestion that he will have to be selective over the next few months.
It is good that Sir Alex was able to pick from a full-strength defensive squad. Rafael was back and Rio Ferdinand was fresh from a week's rest.
United have undoubtedly benefited from the manager's policy of rotation over the Christmas break as they have taken 10 points from a possible 12 and only Tuesday's match looked straightforward.
The dream defensive partnership in past years was Vidic and Ferdinand but they have only played together twice this season, the last time being the previous 4-0 win over Wigan.
If Vidic is having to be eased back, Sir Alex may have to alternate his two most experienced central defenders.
Jonny Evans looked more uncertain than he has for a while. Chris Smalling also didn't have a great performance after his late introduction.
This must be a source of frustration for Sir Alex as he realises that tighter defence from hereon in will surely deliver a 20th title. Smalling looked back to his best against Sunderland but he was uncertain at right-back in the Newcastle match and not great.
Rio Ferdinand on the other hand had an excellent game. With Rafael, Evans and Evra likely to be first-choice starters for most of the rest of the season, it seems that Ferguson will have to rotate Ferdinand and Vidic alongside them.
Central Midfield Is Still a Conundrum
Cleverley and Carrick
Michael Regan/Getty Images
There surely can't be any doubt that Carrick and Cleverley are now United's first-choice central midfield partnership?
Cleverley did not excel in the last two Champions League matches, Carrick and Scholes no longer works, and Anderson must still be a factor once he regains fitness.
But with Carrick now playing as well as he has in his career and winning plaudits left, right and center, Sir Alex has recognised that Cleverley is his perfect foil.
And so it worked again Tuesday. Yes, Carrick misplaced a couple of passes and didn't successfully hit any of his delightful lobs forward, but while he was on the pitch United were assured in midfield. People don't rate him defensively but once again he broke up Wigan's play with tackles, interceptions and headed clearances.
He made Gary Neville's team of the year so far on Sky's Monday Night Football and Opta statistics place him among the most effective midfielders in Europe.
And we've said all this before but as soon as he went off, the midfield was crushed back against United's defense and the latter suddenly looked under pressure.
After only one attempt in the first 68 minutes, Wigan were suddenly pressing and pressurising, dominating possession as they had sporadically in the first half. But they had another six goal attempts and a disallowed goal in the last 20 minutes.
At 3-0 up, with Carrick still tired from his Christmas exertions, Sir Alex clearly felt he could experiment and give Shinji Kagawa some valuable playing time. He was brought into Carrick's position alongside Cleverley.
Maybe it will take time to settle. We have said before that Sir Alex wants players to be able to interchange. Against West Brom Kagawa had shown himself willing to come as deep as his own penalty area to get the ball.
The trouble is that the midfield being too deep has been one of the main reasons for United's defensive frailty this season. Whether it was the novelty of the experiment or Kagawa's rustiness, much more effort is needed before this combination will work.
However, for those of us who believe Kagawa's flexibility can be as important as his skill, playing him a few more times in central midfield when the circumstances are propitious might just bear fruit for the future.
When United Pile on the Pressure They Are Hard to Resist
United's irresistible offense
David Rogers/Getty Images
As Sir Alex said in his interview Monday, as reported in the Mirror: "We're a team that goes forward."
And when United play the way they did at the back end of the Newcastle match or the other times this season when they have come back from the dead, they can be unstoppable.
From the 30th minute on, United's pressure built, with wave after wave of attack and defenders also committed to the cause.
You just knew that a goal was inevitable and after five minutes of sustained pressure, Wigan eventually caved in with a typical Chicharito goal.
You can be sure that Al-Habsi will not be arriving at Old Trafford any time soon. He looked vulnerable throughout and simply palmed Evra's shot into the path of possibly the most lethal goal poacher in the Premier League.
Up to the 30th minute it was a pretty even match but after that goal there was only going to be one result. Wigan, from having the self-assurance that they could get a result similar to last April, suddenly looked vulnerable and human. They seemed in awe of their conquerors.
Nobody is better to watch than United when they play like this. Yes it leaves holes at the back but it is as exciting as you can watch (unless of course you're a City or Chelsea supporter).
Let's hope they can do the same to Real Madrid next month.
Is Chicharito the Best Goal Poacher in the Premier League?
David Rogers/Getty Images
As the commentators opined, on this form how will Wayne Rooney get back in the team?
We all know he will of course and United will be fearsome if they play all three of their best strikers. Because be sure, van Persie, Chicharito and Rooney are their best three strikers at the moment.
Sir Alex believes that if three players get at least 20 goals each this season, the title will come back to the red side of Manchester.
Van Persie already has 19 goals in total this season, Hernandez has 12 and Rooney eight. Wayne will surely be scoring for fun again soon, whichever position he plays.
But Tuesday was about arguably the hottest striker on the planet right now and his partner, arguably the best poacher in the Premier League.
Chicharito scored two classic but very different poacher's goals today.
He was fastest to react when Al-Habsi spilled Evra's shot, but that is because he is always sharp and ready to sniff even half an opportunity. In this particular respect he is every bit as good as Suarez at Liverpool, who is regularly described as world class.
But again for his second strike it was his reactions that were to the fore. Van Persie's free kick hit the wall and Chicharito, 12 yards out, had the reactions, speed and agility to smash the rebound past Al-Habsi once again.
Yet again he deserved a hat-trick. He has learned from the likes of Michael Owen the ability to play on the shoulder of the last man. He is timing his runs better (as he did against Newcastle for the winner) and is offside less.
He was denied a couple more goals through correct offside decisions, but whether they play on their own goal line or a higher line, teams are going to be undone by the little Mexican.
Right now, he is red hot and arguably more clinical than Aguero, and that is some compliment.
Is Robin van Persie the Best Striker in the World Right Now?
Robin van Persie
Chris Brunskill/Getty Images
Is he just having the best time of his life right now?
And didn't he make the best decision of his career?
When he signed, he said in an interview reported by the Daily Mail:
It’s an honour to sign for Manchester United. I am looking forward to following in the footsteps of so many great strikers, bringing my experience and playing my part to help the team compete for the biggest trophies in the game. I can’t wait to get started
And as Roberto Mancini was quoted in the Telegraph Monday as saying: "At the moment, he is the difference between us."
When City signed Sergio Aguero last season it was immediately clear in his first match that he would make the difference in the title race. That he almost didn't says a lot for Sir Alex Ferguson's leadership and drive.
It also says much for the respect in which he is held by the owners that he was able to persuade them to pay £24 million for a 29-year-old.
Sir Alex Ferguson was a striker himself and he recognises talent when he sees it. On this season's form he is even better than fellow Dutchman Ruud van Nistelrooy.
And the best in the world?
How many strikers are such clinical finishers and also bring so much by way of their all-around game?
Chelsea could buy Falcao but he won't be back helping out the defence.
Van Persie's total game Tuesday made up for Rooney's absence. While he is a world-class finisher he has also shown that he can play behind a striker like Chicharito.
He is way ahead of the rest of the Premier League in terms of goals and assists with 16 and six, respectively. Nobody else comes close in England. In Europe Ibrahimovic has the better score on that count but cannot match van Persie's all-around play as their respective pass completion rates testify, for example.
And it was his all-around game that would Tuesday win him the "Man of the Match."
During the five minutes of mayhem mentioned earlier, there was a minute when he hit a sizzling pass across the goal and followed it with two pinpoint corners.
He gets an assist for his free kick that led to Chicharito's second goal, but his own two goals showed his goal-scoring range.
The first was simply sublime, beating a couple of defenders before curling his "wrong" foot (his right) round the ball and bending it across the goalkeeper into the far corner.
The second was down to Danny Welbeck's unselfishness but van Persie was there, in the right place, to sweep yet another right foot shot into the net.
He had almost had a third in the 67th minute when he dribbled right through the heart of the defence, reminiscent of van Nistelrooy years ago.
They say that strikers play in patches. Robin van Persie's purple patch looks like lasting all season and driving United to yet another title. Could he also take them to the Champions League final with his diminutive poaching partner?