Another weekend, another opportunity for Manchester United to defend as if a team of highly paid international stars has been transformed into a cohort of overweight, talent-light, Sunday League cloggers. It’s a Christmas miracle – of the pint-or-ten-too-many down the Dog and Duck the night previous, variety. Indeed, United’s “Achilles’ heel,” as Ferguson put it on Friday, threatens to undermine United’s title challenge.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s team may well have scored more than its rivals this season, but 16 goals conceded equals that of Liverpool, in 13th place; a genuine concern that, for all the Reds’ entertaining attacking play this season, has become the Scot’s focus.
Ferguson’s team visits Norwich City this weekend – the scene, last season, of a hugely complacent performance in which Ryan Giggs, in his 900th game for the club, saved the Reds’ blushes at the death. Yet, the theme may not always run so. Despite securing 16 points from losing positions this season there can be no guarantee that United’s fortune will hold in the future.
“Certainly after last Saturday’s experience we don’t want to lose two goals and be having to fight back all the time,” said Ferguson.
“That’s certainly an Achilles’ heel. You actually don’t expect it. You don’t expect to be behind by two goals. That’s the part that you always find difficult. It’s not that we underestimate anyone – it’s just that we don’t expect a Manchester United team to be behind. You’ve got to go into games believing you’re going to be two goals ahead rather than two behind.
“The fact we’ve got players who can change the course of the game is certainly a big advantage to us. When Chicharito came on last week the game changed completely. But it won’t happen all the time. It’s not definite that you’ll come back from 2-0 down. And this is the area we are going to improve on. We are going to defend better.”
Still, says Ferguson, frequent comebacks from losing positions this season has engendered a bold spirit in United’s dressing room. On Saturday Javier Hernández’ brace maintained the Reds’ two point Premier League lead, with United throwing caution to the wind in the second half at Villa Park. It has become the season’s theme; a stark contrast to the previous campaign’s conservatism.
“It does feel different,” admitted the 70-year-old Scot.
“I think the dressing room is different too. When you get these late goals and when you’ve come from behind in particular, it does make an impact on the dressing room. There is more excitement and we’ve experienced that many times. It’s a credit to the character of the club that we can do that.”
If United is to win Saturday tea-time, whether from out in front or otherwise, Ferguson’s men may have to do so without Wayne Rooney, who missed England’s loss in Sweden during the week. However, top goalscorer Robin van Persie is fit and should start alongside in-form Hernández. The Mexican has scored eight from just six starts and seven appearances off the bench this season.
Meanwhile, Chris Smalling may continue in central defence with Jonny Evans still struggling, while youngster Phil Jones will not make the trip to East Anglia, but should return in midweek. Anders Lindegaard is sidelined after suffering injury with Denmark during last week’s internationals.
“We’ve still got some doubts about Wayne and Jonny Evans,” said Ferguson.
“I think Robin should be fit. We’ll see what they are like today but there is a doubt. Phil Jones has been training all week. We will take him to Turkey [to play Galatasaray in the Champions League] with us. He’ll get part of it there, which is a good start for him.”
Elsewhere Ferguson must decide whether to stick with Paul Scholes, whose performance in victory over Villa last weekend showed up the veteran’s 38 years far more than was comfortable. Tom Cleverley and Anderson stand by for Ferguson’s call should Scholes be afforded another rest.
One player unlikely to start, however, is goalscoring England international Danny Welbeck, who has been largely frozen out of the side this season. Following a highly promising campaign in 2011-12 the 21-year-old Longsight-born striker has suffered for van Persie’s arrival at Old Trafford.
Yet, says Ferguson, Welbeck’s time will come despite heated competition for striking berths at Old Trafford.
“What we have to try and do is alternate selections so that Danny feels he is making a contribution,” admits Ferguson.
“At the moment, we have tended to play him wide left, which is maybe a little bit unfair to him. I think he’s capable of playing there. He is a threat coming in off the wing and he has done that many times. But I think he is a natural centre-forward.
“Danny’s best form has actually been with England. He has shown with his form with England that he can be a real asset to us through the middle. That will come for him.”
Meanwhile, Norwich has recovered from a poor start to the campaign to find a modicum of form in recent weeks. Chris Hughton’s side is unbeaten in five matches, and secured a rare victory over Arsenal a fortnight ago.
Hughton has midfielder Alex Tettey available again in a fully fit squad. And with the Reds’ defence anything but secure this season the Canaries will begin the game with a genuine sense of confidence.
“They are such a quality team, it is difficult to get points against them,” said Hughton. “You know you have to either have that little bit of fortune against them or you have to play very well.
“But it is possible.”
Should United defend with the same sense of calamity as in recent weeks that is a sentiment with which Sir Alex will surely concur.
Norwich City v Manchester United – Premier League, Carrow Road – Saturday 17 November 2012, 5.30pm
Norwich (4-4-2): Ruddy; Whittaker, Bassong, Turner, Garrido; Johnson, Pilkington, Hoolahan, Tettey; Snodgrass, Holt. Subs from: Bunn, Tierney, R Bennett, Howson, E Bennett, Jackson, Morison.
United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Smalling, Evra; Cleverley, Carrick; Valencia, van Persie, Young; Hernández. Subs from: Johnstone, Wootton, Büttner, Giggs, Powell, Anderson, Scholes, Fletcher, Nani, Welbeck, Rooney.
Referee: A Taylor
Assistants: R West, P Bankes
Fourth Official: N Swarbrick
Head to Head
Last 10: Norwich 1, United 8, Draw 1
Overall: Norwich 10, United 30, Draw 12
- Norwich played out a scoreless draw with Reading last weekend – the Canaries have conceded just one goal in the last four games;
- Sebastian Bassong has often divided opinion, but looks close to his best at Norwich – the defender made eight clearances against Reading, the joint second highest by a player in a single match this season;
- Leon Barnett has been instrumental to Norwich’s defensive performances, winning eight of 15 attempted tackles and making 10 clearances, 35 interceptions and 3 blocks this season;
- Goalkeeper John Ruddy continues to impress this season – the England international is the fifth busiest goalkeeper in the Premier League so far, making 55 saves;
- Ruddy has conceded 18 goals, averaging 3.05 saves per goal conceded;
- Wesley Hoolahan topped the chart for ground covered against Reading with 6.77 miles, the third highest by a Norwich player all season;
- Rafael da Silva has come of age in an attacking sense this season, completing 241 passes in his opponent’s half, second only to Leighton Baines among defenders in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index;
- However, Rafael has come away with the ball in just 57 per cent of 30 tackles attempted this season, although 17 tackles won is the highest among his United peers;
- If Rafael’s tackling is inconsistent, United’s aerial defence isn’t – Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evan are in the top 20 for clearances this season – only Vincent Kompany and Phil Jagielka feature in the top 20 from other sides in the top four;
- Michael Carrick has quietly dictated play for United – the midfielder made 92 passes in his opponent’s half against Villa, which is the most by a player in a single game this season;
- Last season United averaged 16 crosses per game, with 238 passes completed in the opponent’s half – this season United has averaged 11 crosses per game, with 256 passes completed in the opponent’s half.