It couldn’t happen, could it? Since Manchester United’s dismal December the foremost assumption has been that the Reds’ fate lies outside the top four, and with it a second year in three away from the Champions League. Yet, with just three Premier League games remaining, Louis van Gaal’s side is hot on the coat-tails of Manchester City, with an FA Cup final to come. Salvation for Van Gaal, perhaps, and possible redemption for a group of players that has largely underwhelmed.
The last time Norwich City came to Old Trafford it was very different time at Manchester United. David Moyes had been sacked after defeat to Everton four days earlier, leaving Ryan Giggs to oversee United’s 4-0 victory over the Canaries in his first game as caretaker-manager. Fast forward 19 months and few supporters in the Premier League could have forecast the season’s events to date. Just under half way through the campaign, Leicester City sits top of the table, two points clear of Arsenal and three of Manchester City. Champions Chelsea, in stark contrast, lie 16th having sacked Jose Mourinho’s this week. Read More
Ding dong Moyes has gone! What better way to head into a new, albeit temporary, era than under Ryan Giggs’ stewardship – the essence of Manchester United restored after a turbulent season. Giggs may well be a managerial novice – he is not going to be offered the job permanently – but there are few around Old Trafford that understand United better than the Welshman. Remarkably, in what has been the most difficult campaign in two decades, there is now the very real sense that United will end the campaign on a genuine high.
By contrast the visitors arrive in Manchester for Saturday afternoon’s match in desperate need of points to starve off the threat of relegation. Pity the Canaries, then, with United’s players now free of David Moyes’ considerable inhibitions and the cloud under which the team has operated for far too long.
There is, for the first time in seemingly months, the expectation victory once again. It is a sentiment bolstered not only by Moyes’ departure, but the arrival for the final four games of the campaign of the ‘Class of ’92’. Indeed, the levity around Carrington this week was reportedly high after Giggs was joined in first team training by Nicky Butt, Phil Neville and Paul Scholes.
There is little doubt that Giggs is keen to liberate his side – a return to ‘the Manchester United way’ after months of conservatism under Moyes. Even if the Welshman’s long-term future is uncertain, with the club certain to bring in a senior overseas manager this summer, there is no doubt that Giggs is passionate about United’s future and determined to right many wrongs of the Moyes era.
“When Ed asked me to look after the team for the remaining four games, I had no hesitation in saying yes,” said Giggs.
“I’ve got to say this is the proudest moment of my life. The club has been the biggest part of my life since I was 14. I’m proud, happy, a little bit nervous, but just like I am as a player, I can’t wait for the game on Saturday. I can’t wait for 5.30 tomorrow when we walk out at Old Trafford. I know the place will be rocking. I’ve told the players: ‘I trust you and I know what you’re capable of. Go out there and show it.'”
There is also a human story; the unity of a group that first became friends more than 20 years ago at United’s academy. With close to 2,500 games for the club Giggs, Neville, Butt and Scholes are, without fear of hyperbole, the soul of modern United. Neville brother Gary and David Beckham must gaze on with at least a modicum of envy.
Yet, it is also a complex story. Each of the reunited quartet holds a differing relationship with Moyes. Giggs was seemingly marginalised as a coach, Scholes ignored completely, Butt and Neville brought into the backroom under the former Everton manager.
Now the quartet’s goal is to steer United towards an up beat end to the club’s most difficult season in a quarter century.
“It will be massive for us, a proud moment for us all,” Butt told MUTV.
“To be there together is a bit of a surreal thing. We walked in here together when we were 12 and to be here now – I’m not 40 yet but Giggsy is, and myself and Scholes are nearly there too. So for us and Phil to be there together is a very proud moment.
“We’re here to try to help the club and get the results that we want from now until the end of the season. What happens after that, who knows?”
Intrigue rests in Giggs’ team-sheet. Will Moyes’ favourites feature or those previously overlooked make the starting team? Tom Cleverley, Shinji Kagawa, Nani and Marouane Fellaini, among others, will have more than a little pause for thought ahead of Saturday’s match.
After all, little is known about Giggs’ coaching philosophy, let alone tactical thinking, save for an educated guess about the approach of a player schooled under Sir Alex Ferguson.
Giggs is without injured Brazilian full-back Rafael da Silva for his first match in charge, while Robin van Persie is not yet full match-fit. The Dutchman could make a return to United’s bench after training this week.
The interim manager enjoys an otherwise fully fit squad as United heads into matches against Norwich, Sunderland, Hull City and Southampton before the season closes. Three of them at Old Trafford.
Meanwhile, the visitors, also carrying an interim coach in Neil Adams, kick off just two points ahead of the relegation zone having suffered seven defeats in the club’s last 10 matches. It is a run of form that threatens to end a three season spell in the Premier League. Nine sides remain under threat of the drop heading into the season’s final month.
Adams is without defender Joseph Yobo who has a calf problem, but winger Elliott Bennett could feature after returning from a serious knee injury.
“I don’t think many people would have predicted myself and Ryan Giggs standing in opposite dugouts at the start of the season,” Adams told Norwich City TV.
“It’s one of those things that caught everybody by surprise, despite the poor season relatively speaking that United have had.
“You’re thinking about which players he might bring back in, which players he’s played with, and we’ve all seen the coaching staff he’s brought in, who will have the same values and philosophies and who came through under Sir Alex Ferguson. The crowd will be up for it, that’s for sure. We can imagine how it is going to be.”
Of that there can be little doubt now that a little pocket of the old United has returned after a period in which much of Sir Alex’ work was seemingly undone. In that Giggs is a savvy appointment, potentially against Ferguson’s wishes, by an executive team that badly erred in bringing Moyes to the club last summer. Perhaps more than anything the Welshman’s leadership brings a sense of liberation for the fans; freed from gloom and united once again.
“It’s been a frustrating season. I want to bring the positivity back,” said Giggs.
“We have three games at Old Trafford, where the home form hasn’t been great, and I want to see goals, tackles, players taking players on and getting the crowd up. I want the passion that should come with being a Manchester United player.”
Amen to that.
Manchester United v Norwich City, Premier League, Old Trafford, 5.30pm, 26 April 2014
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Jones, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Januzaj, Cleverley, Carrick, Mata; Rooney; Welbeck
Norwich (4-5-1): Ruddy; Whittaker, Martin, Turner, Olsson; Garrido, Johnson, Snodgrass, Howson, Fer; Hooper
United: Lindegaard, Evans, Büttner, Vidić, Smalling, Fletcher, Fellaini, Valencia, Kagawa, Nani, Young, Hernández, van Persie
Norwich: Bunn, van Wolfswinkel, Gutiérrez, R Bennett, Tettey, Murphy, Redmond
Head to Head
United 64 Draw 35 Norwich 13
Referee: Lee Probert
Assistants: R Ganfield, M McDonough
Fourth Official: N Swarbrick
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Carrow Road has not always been a happy ground for Manchester United; not least due to two defeats in the past three visits to Norwich. Yet, having secured victory in the past five matches this season David Moyes side should approach the visit to East Anglia with renewed confidence. While Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea all won on Boxing Day, to leave Moyes’ side eight points behind the leaders, there is a real sense of momentum gathering around Old Trafford.
The gap necessitates another United victory on Saturday, with Chris Hughton’s side struggling for consistency this season. Indeed, the Canaries could find themselves in the Premier League relegation zone come the weekend’s conclusion. And with half the Premier League’s clubs having already swapped out a manager this season Hughton is under real pressure.
Yet, there is quality available to the likable former Tottenham Hotspur player. In Ricky van Wolfswinkel, for example, Norwich recruited a high-profile striker over the summer, although the Dutchman has spent considerable periods on the sidelines. van Wolfswinkel’s single goal in 10 matches for the club is Norwich’s challenge presented in precis – the side has scored just 16 in 18 league matches this season.
Still, Moyes’ side is unlikely to get a free pass at Carrow Road, with injuries and fatigue playing a significant role at the weekend.
“I think all the games at this time of year are difficult to call,” said Moyes.
“I expect Norwich to be another hard game. I think at this club you’re waiting on winning more games than this and then you might talk about being on a run. We’ll just try and win the next one and see what happens. All we can do is keep knocking away and hopefully be in there fighting come the end of the season.”
The Scot is likely to rotate his resources, with United due to face Spurs on New Year’s Day – a third game in six days. Captain Nemanja Vidić could return after sitting out United’s victory over Hull City, while Shinji Kagawa, Javier Hernández and Danny Welbeck will compete for a spot alongside Wayne Rooney in attack.
However, Antonio Valencia is suspended after collecting a red card against Hull, while Rafael da Silva came off with a groin strain and is unlikely to feature. Defender Phil Jones is out for another fortnight with a knee problem, while Robin van Persie remains on the sidelines.
Michael Carrick should start after returning from an achilles problem at Hull. In the Geordie’s absence United has constructed a fruitful run of victories, but the side has not always moved the ball smoothly through central midfield. After a slow start to the new campaign, Carrick is charged with regaining some of the form on display last season.
Whatever Moyes’ selection, United’s challenge is to take the momentum gathered in recent victories over Aston Villa, West Ham United and Hull, while managing the fatigue inevitable during a busy period. It is a problem that striker Wayne Rooney believes could be solved with a winter break.
“Two days after a game we are normally in the pool and in the gym, recovering from the last game,” said Rooney.
“Obviously it’s a bit different at this time of year. I still think that in England there should be a winter break, I think that would benefit everyone but we have to get on with it and we’re looking forward to it – another big game. In terms of recharging your batteries and getting the team ready it would help. Hopefully that will come in. I think it’s only a matter of time.”
Meanwhile, Norwich manager Hughton will make a late decision on Jonny Howson, whose back injury has kept the midfielder out for two matches. Michael Turner is suspended after receiving his fifth yellow card of the season on Boxing Day, while Anthony Pilkington, Elliot Bennett and Alexander Tettey are all out.
Despite the absences Hughton is desperately in need of not only a performance against United, but the points. The Canaries were beaten at home by Fulham on Boxing Day – a loss that leaves Norwich just three points above the drop zone.
“It’s never difficult to pick players up. The reason why they do what they do is because they’re very good professionals. Any bad period, or any defeat, always hurts,” said the 55-year-old.
“We’re on the back of a disappointing result on Boxing Day. We certainly couldn’t fault the effort of the players, we just didn’t create enough clear-cut chances. We have to look forward, so it’s never difficult to pick players up, particularly when you have a game within a couple of days because there isn’t a choice.”
Meanwhile, United must capitalise on any dropped points at the top of the Premier League, with Arsenal facing in-form Newcastle United in the north east and Chelsea hosting Liverpool at Stamford Bridge. In a golden scenario the Reds could end the weekend just five points behind the leaders ahead of a tough January and February schedule. The flipside of that equation – an 11 point gap – is unthinkable.
Norwich City v Manchester United, Premier League, Carrow Road, 3pm, 28 December 2013
Norwich (4-4-2): Ruddy; Olsson, Turner, Bassong, Whittaker; Nguena, Fer, Snodgrass, Johnson; Hooper, van Wolfswinkel. Subs from: Bunn, Martin, Hoolahan, Becchio, R Bennett, Redmond, Murphy, Elmander
United (4-4-2): De Gea; Smalling, Vidić, Evans, Evra; Januzaj, Giggs, Cleverley, Young; Welbeck, Rooney. Subs from: Lindegaard, Fabio, Ferdinand, Buttner, Zaha, Anderson, Kagawa, Fletcher, Hernández
Norwich 16 Draw 13 United 34
Officials (all Serbian)
Referee: Phil Dowd
Assistants: M McDonough, A Holmes
Fourth Official: K Stroud
Admittedly it is a little churlish, but there’s nothing quite like winning to prove the fickle nature of fandom. With 15 minutes to go, Stoke City 2-1 up at Old Trafford on Saturday, David Moyes was under intense pressure. Little wonder after Manchester United’s most traumatic start to a campaign in the past decade. Two attacking substitutions later and a sense of momentum has developed around the club; comprehensive victory over Norwich City on Tuesday only creates renewed belief after three wins on the spin and a run of six games unbeaten.
The Reds haven’t metamorphosed from Champions to whipping boys, and back again, inside three months, although Moyes’ start to life at Old Trafford has been anything but positive. Indeed, a pervading sense that United had gone backwards this summer was catalysed by an incomprehensibly shambolic approach to the transfer market, and reinforced with three Premier League defeats in the opening six games.
After 25 years of success under Sir Alex Ferguson, Moyes – conservative, frustrating Moyes – had not only found a way to lose, but to do it in distinctly un-Manchester United fashion. To paraphrase Guardian journalist Daniel Harris, only three things had changed from the team that won the Premier League by 11 points last season: a player acquired by Moyes, the coaches Moyes brought in, and Moyes.
Yet, the late draw with Southampton, followed by a positive performance against Real Sociedad, and victories over Stoke and Norwich, has put a halt, for the moment at least, to the aura of negativity. After all, while United’s performances over the last six matches have sparkled only in bursts, results do count.
During that period Southampton dominated for much of the second period at Old Trafford, while United’s performance at home to Stoke was one of the most demoralising in recent seasons, save for the final 12 dramatic minutes. Even the Reds’ comfortable victory over La Real in Europe came not without moments of opposition-induced panic.
Yet, Moyes’ outfit now travels to Fulham at the weekend, then Sociedad in midweek, in the belief that qualification for the Champions League knock-out stages can be achieved, and a more solid Premier League footing established.
For a new regime the self belief that victory brings counts; a sense of momentum essential.
“You need to go on runs in this league and this club is the best in the business at building that,” said assistant manager Steve Round after United’s 4-0 victory on Tuesday night.
“This club has a winning mentality. There were no great celebrations after Saturday’s Stoke win and none tonight. There will be teams on the end of some big scores from us because we’ve got that capability and we’ve got that firepower right the way through the squad.”
There is no little irony in United’s new-found confidence stemming, in large part, from the performances of a rookie, but 18-year-old Adnan Januzaj has certainly inspired his more experienced colleagues. Hugely impactful as a second-half substitute against Stoke at the weekend, Januzaj’s headline-grabbing performance in Capital One Cup victory over Norwich on Tuesday was the most assured from a United youngster in some time.
The teenager’s flexibility has played a role too – confidence on the right to fashion late pressured at home to Stoke, while his abundant maturity in possession from a classic number 10 role dominated proceedings against an admittedly timid Norwich. More impressive still, Januzaj ‘s ability to dictate both the tempo and pattern of United’s play on Tuesday came in a manner that Wayne Rooney has not always replicated this season.
It is this flexibility to play across any of the front positions that will ensure Januzaj gains plenty of first team football this season, although fans will hope that it comes without the ensuing pitfalls of failing to settle in any one role.
“We see him as a number seven, 10 or 11. He can play any of those three,” said Round.
“If you ask our Reserves coach [Warren Joyce], who had him last season, he’d say he felt his best position was number nine. He played there for the Reserves. So any of the top four positions he is capable of playing in.
“For a young player like Adnan, we’re trying to give him as much experience as we possibly can and develop him in numerous different positions and give him different ideas and thoughts about the way he should be playing.”
Januzaj has appeared just eight times for the club, including three starts, yet is already being discussed in the same breath as teenage stars Ryan Giggs, Cristiano Ronaldo and Rooney. The tendency to revert to hyperbole is rife, of course, but on occasion it is surely beholded to supporters to enjoy genuine emergent talent.
Meanwhile, United’s cup win also brought confidence to those players on the fringes this season, including Javier Hernández, Wilfried Zaha and Fabio da Sila.
While the Brazilian did not start, much to many fans’ surprise, his late goal brought a rare moment of joy in an otherwise frustrating season for the youngster. Little more than two years ago Fabio started the Champions League final against Barcelona at Wembley. His career has rarely looked so positive since.
Hernández, meanwhile, scored twice to underline the Mexican’s instinctive ability to finish is not lessened by lengthy spells on United’s substitutes bench. That the 25-year-old will almost certainly drop out of the side for the Reds’ visit to Fulham on Saturday is an indication of his continued status within the squad.
Then there was Zaha, whose positive performance was overshadowed by that of Januzaj, but should earn the England international a shot at a place on United’s bench at least.
Zaha remains raw, and his inability to understand when to retain possession, when to pass and when to beat his man, is a frustration. Still, the former Crystal Palace winger remained positive throughout, beating Norwich left-back Javier Garrido inside minutes to stamp some early authority on the game. The talent is present, with responsibility now incumbent on Moyes and his team to coax the best out of the youngster.
“I was really pleased for Wilf to get a start and play so well,” added Round. “He got a bit tired at the end so we replaced him. But this will have done his confidence the world of good and he’s gone out there and experienced what it’s like to win at Old Trafford.”
Indeed, much the same can be said for United after victories over Sociedad, Stoke and Norwich in successive home games. The key to retaining that momentum is to repeat the result in upcoming away fixtures against Fulham and Sociedad, before Arsenal visit in less than a fortnight’s time. Victory over the Gunners would breed confidence in another level again.
Who would have thought it, some 22 years on, that the gangly kid who floated like a paper-thin butterfly, on as an early substitute for the injured Dennis Irwin, would make 1,000 senior appearances for club and country. The number is arbitrary of course; just one more excuse to laud Ryan Giggs’ extraordinary career. But with Manchester United talking on Norwich City at Old Trafford this weekend laud the fans will as the Welshman reaches an epic milestone.
In the intervening years Giggs has not always been the fans’ favourite; only on occasion the club’s best player, but the impact has been without peer. Two decades on from an inauspicious début against Everton, Giggs survives as testament to both will and rare talent.
“Twenty-three years in the first team, it is unbelievable,” said manager Ferguson.
“I said to him on [Friday] morning: ‘I expect a bill from your mother, all these sandwiches and teas she used to make for us,’ when I went to his house every week trying to get him to sign a schoolboy form. It seems a long time ago but what an incredible career. Absolutely fantastic.”
Indeed, Giggs’ role is still worth plenty of merit this season, with game defining contributions against Queens Park Rangers, Everton, Fulham and West Ham United in recent weeks. So much so that the midfielder-cum-winger has signed on for yet another season at Old Trafford, which will take Giggs past his 40th birthday.
Giggs’ experience will certainly play a part as the season comes to its dénouement.
With United boasting a 12 point lead in the Premier League, and facing Real Madrid at Old Trafford on Wednesday night, the 39-year-old could start this weekend – with rotation in mind and not sentiment. Madrid in three days’ time will certainly play some part in Sir Alex Ferguson’s team selection this weekend, although the United boss is not short of options with a nearly fit squad available for the Canaries’ visit.
Robin van Persie is available after suffering from a sore hip in recent days, although defender Phil Jones will miss the match against Norwich with an ankle injury.
“Phil Jones starts running today,” said Sir Alex.
“He’s got a fight on his hands to be ready for Tuesday but we’ll give him every chance. He won’t be available for tomorrow. We have no injury issues. Robin van Persie has trained this week – he’s available for tomorrow. His hip was very tender but he’s okay now.
“Tomorrow is an important one because Tuesday will look after itself. It’s an occasion on Tuesday whereas tomorrow is the mundane practical situation in that we need to win.”
Elsewhere, Ferguson is likely to pair captain Nemanja Vidić in central defence with Jonny Evans on Saturday, bringing veteran Rio Ferdinand in for Madrid’s visit next week. Meanwhile, Nani, Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young and Shinji Kagawa will compete for two spots in midfield.
van Persie could start, although Ferguson is unlikely to take any risks with his top goalscorer should the Dutchman’s hip still be a problem. Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernández will come into the side should Ferguson bench the former Arsenal striker.
Indeed, United’s position in the Premier League dictates that complacency comes into play against Norwich, with minds surely drifting towards Real’s arrival early next week. Yet, there is also an incentive: with City facing Aston Villa in Birmingham on Monday night United could open up a 15 point Premier League lead by Saturday afternoon.
Meanwhile, Chris Hughton’s side is without midfielder Alex Tettey who has a knee injury, although new signing Kei Kamara could start after impressing against Everton from the bench last weekend.
The Canaries come into the match having salvaged some form after the 5-0 thrashing at Liverpool and the humiliating cup exit against Luton Town. Hughton’s side beat Everton last weekend, and secured draws against Fulham, QPR and Tottenham Hotspur before that.
Now eight points clear of the relegation zone, the visitors are in a good position to retain Premier League status come the season’s conclusion.
United, meanwhile, hasn’t lost to Norwich at Old Trafford since August 1989. In five Premier League visits to Old Trafford, Norwich has secured just a single point. While history is on United’s side, form also points to a comfortable home victory.
The Premier League isn’t as simple as that, of course, and there are few that understand the vagaries of the modern game quite as well as Giggs. The equinox Giggs’ career may be turning from autumn to winter, but the Welshman is still likely to play an important part in whatever success United achieves in the coming months.
“He sets an example – and has done for a number of years. He is Mr Manchester United,” midfielder Michael Carrick told ManUtd.com.
“He sets the tone around the dressing room. He doesn’t say an awful lot but when he does speak, everyone listens and everyone respects him. It leads onto the pitch. Not many people have lasted as long as Ryan. You have to take it year by year and see how your legs hold up. He is a one-off.
“It is not just that he is still playing, it is the way he has adapted his game. In his younger years he had a totally different way of playing than he has now. To be able to do that can’t be easy. It shows the qualities that he has.”
Quality that Old Trafford will applaud with vigour on Saturday. Provided the Reds pick up three points, of course.
Manchester United v Norwich City – Premier League, Old Trafford – 3pm, 2 March 2013.
United (4-4-2: de Gea, Rafael, Vidić, Evans, Evra; Valencia, Anderson, Giggs, Young; Hernández, Rooney. Subs from: Lindegaard, Smalling, Ferdinand, Büttner, Nani, Powell, Cleverley, Carrick, Kagawa, Welbeck, van Persie.
Norwich(4-4-2): Bunn; Martin, Bassong, Turner, Garrido; Snodgrass, Howson, Johnson, Hoolahan; Kamara, Holt. Subs from: Camp, Rudd, Fox, Jackson, Whittaker, E Bennett, Pilkington, Becchio, Barnett, Tierney, R Bennett, Murphy
Referee: N Swarbrick
Assistants: S Long, A Halliday
Fourth official: C Foy
Head to Head
Last 10: United 8, Norwich 2, Draw 0
Overall: United 32, Norwich 16, Draw 13
- Ryan Giggs’ goal on his 999th professional appearance and a stunning strike from Rafael da Silva secured United three points against QPR last weekend;
- Rafael’s superb goal against QPR is hardly indicative of the Brazilian’s shooting this season, with the full-back sporting a 57% accuracy rate from 14 attempts shots;
- Robin van Persie’s availability is a bonus given the Dutchman’s form this season – he has achieved a shot on target once every 42.9 minutes, as well as contributing 43 crosses and 11 assists;
- Tom Cleverley continues to mature this season – he has successfully completed a pass in his opponents half once every 3.1 minutes he has been on the field of play;
- Rio Ferdinand may be the wrong side of 30 but leads the United squad in defensive contributions this season, with 133;
- Two late goals from Kei Kamara and Grant Holt stunned Everton as Norwich ran out 2-1 winners last weekend in a game which moved the Canries towards safety;
- Grant Holt could be key to Norwich’s chances – the big frontman has successfully hit the target with 62.2% of his 37 attempts on goal this season;
- Holt is also the Norwich player with the most fouls to his name, having now conceded 49 this term;
- Sebastian Bassong has made 93 interceptions this season according to the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index – the highest in the Norwich squad;
- Forward Robert Snodgrass has delivered 105 crosses in the Premier League season to date – the best tally in the league.
Truth is truth, to the end of reckoning.
The Tempest – Act I, Scene II, 1610
If there is any veracity in Shakespeare’s axiom then the Bard might also recognise that no team can prosper with a defence quite as exposed as Manchester United’s. In defeat to Norwich City on Saturday Sir Alex Ferguson’s outfit conceded first – not for the first time this season – and most certainly not the last. On this occasion, however, the Scot’s team had not the wherewithal to mount yet another comeback.
It was, of course, always going to be this way, with United seemingly teetering on the edge of defeat in perpetuity this season. While Norwich’s victory surprised, defeat per se cannot; not at the rate and regularity with which Ferguson’s side has leaked goals of late.
Indeed, with 17 goals given up in just 12 league games Ferguson’s side is on course to top 50 ceded in the campaign. No team has won the title during the Premier League era with that level of fragility at the back. Only United, with 45 in the against column during the 1999/2000 campaign, comes close.
In this there is verisimilitude – it is almost unthinkable that Ferguson’s side will regain the Premier League title or, cynics might point out, claim any silverware at all, unless his side tightens up at the back.
With just three clean sheets in 18 games this season, compared to 24 in 54 last, there has been a marked change in United’s defensive solidity. It is a change not solely born of another injury crisis. After all, while Nemanja Vidić has already missed a sizable chunk of the season, the giant Serbian was absent for the second half of the previous campaign.
Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans and Phil Jones have all missed parts of both . Evans’ return to fitness has brought no greater security, while both Rafael da Silva and Patrice Evra will justifiably point to a resurgence in form this season.
In East Anglia United suffered as much for lack of shape in central midfield as from a creaky back-four. The partnership of Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs has rarely offered a solid base from which to build. In fact, few Reds will recall an occasion, save for United’s victory over Chelsea in the Champions League semi-final, April 2011, that the pair has dominated an opposition.
While Carrick retained an impressive pass completion rate at Carrow Road, Giggs lost possession on one occasion in five. In the final third the Welshman’s ratio of misplaced passing increases significantly. Wasted possession that only invites opposition pressure.
More concerning though is the defensive contribution: Giggs made just three tackles against Norwich. There were no interceptions, blocks, or clearances. Carrick, meanwhile, made just one interception and four tackles. None of these data points says anything about the open positional play that allowed Norwich to break at will.
None of these faults are new, but when United’s plethora of attacking resources misfire – as they did in Norfolk – then Ferguson’s problems are myriad. While United enjoyed more than 62 per cent of the ball, only two of the half dozen saves Norwich’s John Ruddy made – from Ashley Young and Sebastien Bassong – were more than routine for a stopper of the Cornishman’s growing stature.
“We had a lot of possession and one or two half-chances without having any great chances, but it just wasn’t our night,” admitted Ferguson.
“The players we’ve got are used to making comebacks, particularly in the last minutes of matches. We’re always a threat. We were in some respects tonight also, but they defended really well and the goalkeeper’s made two or three really good saves at vital moments.
“It was a marvelous cross and a magnificent header – there was nothing the goalkeeper could do about that. We were too long in delaying our crosses. We should have got the ball in earlier. But we just didn’t get into the space behind them, it just didn’t happen for us. Norwich got plenty of men behind the ball and closed out all of the spaces.”
This is, of course, a tame excuse for a performance that was infuriating for it’s lack of urgency or cohesion. Much the same was said of United’s last visit to East Anglia. Now, as then, passing and possession statistics say little about Norwich’s dynamism compares to United’s insipid lethargy.
Yet, Ferguson will at least find solace in a fixture list that throws up five gimmes before the Reds make the short trip across Manchester to face City at Eastlands in December. The midweek dead rubber against Galatasaray is followed by home bankers with Queens Park Rangers, West Ham United and a trip to Reading.
But none of those games is a foregone conclusion until Ferguson’s side is willing, or able, to close up the shop, while retaining the attacking verve that fans have enjoyed this season. Of this are the very best sides made.
Last season Ferguson’s men secured five clean sheets in a row during the autumn, and then another series of four during the run in. Each came at a crucial period. There is, surely, no better time to ameliorate the worst of United’s defensive problems than in the weeks leading up to this season’s first derby.
More of the same can invite only one outcome by the time United’s campaign ends next May. Or, as Shakespeare might add, what’s past is prologue.
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.
Wayne Rooney returns to the Manchester United side as Sir Alex Ferguson’s outfit seeks to reduce the five point gap to Manchester City in the Premier League. With the Blues having comfortably beaten Blackburn Rovers on Saturday, United visit high flying Norwich City seeking an ninth victory on the road this season. Rooney’s return provides a timely boost to Ferguson’s side following the Europa League defeat to Ajax in midweek.
However, proving that every silver cloud has a dark injury lining this season, United will be without Tom Cleverley after the midfielder injured his right ankle against the Dutch on Thursday night. It is not thought to be serious, but the 22-year-old midfielder will also now miss England’s friendly will Holland next week.
The Reds visit Norwich for the first time in nearly seven years, having lost 2-0 on the sides last encounter at Carrow Road. In the intervening years Norwich has suffered relegation, but under Scot Paul Lambert, been rejuvenated this season. Indeed, only a spectacular collapse will now drag the Canaries into the relegation mix after Lambert’s side performed so admirably over the past six months.
On a limited budget, Lambert has fashioned an attacking side that can both play attractive football and mix it up when required. And in Grant Holt, Norwich possesses a striker who is over-performing this season. There is, says Ferguson, much to admire in the Norfolk club’s approach.
“Norwich is an interesting club because they have a full house for every match,” Ferguson told ManUtd.com.
“It’s in a lovely part of the world. They’ve got their own little empire down there. It’s just like when I was at Aberdeen, it feels as though you’re cut off from everywhere. Nonetheless they’re being very successful with it. I think they have probably exceeded everyone’s expectations. In fact, all the teams who were promoted have excelled, particularly Norwich. They’ve not signed a lot of players, they’ve stuck to their normal way of doing things, and although it’s difficult to say nowadays, I think they’ll be okay [in terms of staying up].”
Norwich’s progress this season guarantees a competitive fixture for United, and although Rooney returns to Ferguson’s starting side after missing much of last week’s training with a sore throat, Cleverley’s absence so soon after returning from injury is a major blow. Ferguson will be thankful, then, that the 22-year-old midfielder has not damaged the left ankle that has proven to be so troublesome this season.
In Antonio Valencia’s continued absence, Ferguson is likely to select Ashley Young and Nani in wide areas, with Paul Scholes and 899-game veteran Ryan Giggs competing for a starting spot in central midfield. Rio Ferdinand returns after being rested for the midweek fixture against Ajax. Ferguson will choose between Danny Welbeck and midweek goalscorer Javier Hernández to partner Rooney in attack.
Indeed, Ferguson is certain to select a far stronger side than the inexperienced outfit that lost to Ajax in midweek. The Scot accepted the blame for that defeat, and with three points on offer on Sunday, will be expecting a strong reaction from his troops. Ferguson’s respect for his fellow Scot should ensure than no complacency creeps into his side’s performance as it has done in two fixtures against Ajax over the past 10 days.
“I knew Paul when he was a kid at St Mirren,” added Ferguson on Friday.
“He played under my brother, Martin, when Martin was a coach. Paul’s had a great career – he collected a European Cup winner’s medal with Borussia Dortmund and then he went on to Celtic. I think Norwich, for a young manager, is probably a good club to go to, where the expectation’s not too high and you’ve got a full house every week. There’s a lot of enthusiasm down there and I think it’s suited Paul well.”
Meanwhile, Lambert has Zak Whitbread available after hamstring injury, although Daniel Ayala, Marc Tierney and Jonny Howson are definitely out. Absences are unlikely to spoil the Canaries’ rhythm though – Norwich has lost just one of the past seven league fixtures, although FA Cup defeat to Leicester City last weekend will sting.
History is on United’s side though. Norwich has only beaten the Reds once in the sides past 13 league meetings – in April 2005 when goals from strikers Dean Ashton and Leon McKenzie secured a 2-0 victory. Fast forward seven years and another striker, Holt, who has nine Premier League goals this season, is likely to provide a physical test to both United’s back-four and goalkeeper David de Gea. It is a challenge that defender Jonny Evans – outstanding in recent weeks – is prepared to meet, despite the fallibility that United has shown this season under the high ball.
“Norwich have done well since they got promoted,” said the Northern Irishman.
“It seems like a pretty tough place to go. They have two big lads up front who seem to make it hard for you. I think Holt has played in every league. He is a big strong boy, as is Morison. It is going to be a real battle, a lot different to Ajax. In the Premier League, you are used to challenges, when it is a bit more rough. Paul Lambert seems to have them working really hard. It is going to be a tough game. It is a game their fans and players will have been looking forward to all season.
“These next two games are massive. We just have to keep the pressure on. Two points is nothing – you never feel like you are in control. I am sure they don’t. Once slip and it all changes. We want to keep within touching distance so if they do slip up, we can overtake them. The longer it goes, the more nervous they will get. They have been in front for quite a while now. We have been close to catching them. I am sure they would like the season to end now.”
Yet, any repeat of the 2005 defeat to Norwich would leave Ferguson’s side five points behind and playing catch up. It leaves anything less than the full three points unthinkable for the Scot’s men.
Norwich City versus Manchester United, Premier League, Carrow Road, 26 February 2012, 1.30pm.
Norwich (4-4-2): Ruddy; R Martin, Ward, Naughton, Drury; Surman, Pilkington, Fox, Bennett; Holt, Jackson. Subs from: Steer, Barnett, Johnson, Crofts, Hoolahan, Morison, Wilbraham
United (4-4-1-1): de Gea; Jones, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Nani, Scholes, Carrick, Young; Rooney; Welbeck. Subs from: Amos, Smalling, Rafael, Fryers, Cole, Giggs, Park, Pogba, Hernández, Berbatov.
Stats to Note
- Norwich has proven to be one of the surprise packages this season, with the Canaries currently in eighth place in the Premier League, winning four of the last six games;
- Wayne Rooney scored twice in quick succession after half-time in United’s last Premier League fixture, against Liverpool, taking his tally to 17 Premier League goals this season;
- Norwich snuck past Swansea City last weekend after another stand out display by Holt. According to the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index Holt has had a 40 per cent shot success rate this season, scoring nine goals in the process;
- Patrice Evra is the only player in this fixture to feature in the top 30 for distance covered this season;
- Untied will miss key provider Valencia, who may return next weekend against Tottenham Hotspur. According to the Index Valencia has swung in a cross every eighteen minutes this season;
- Steve Morison has been one of Norwich’s main attacking players this season. Morison has stike success rate of 27.5 per cent, scoring nine goals in the league. Morison’s last goal came against West Bromwich Albion.
Referee: Andre Marriner (West Midlands)
Assistants: G Beswick, D Richardson
Fourth Official: J Moss
Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United squad heads into the international break with a far healthier injury situation than just four days ago. While the Scot was missing seven players for United’s Champions League draw with FC Basel on Tuesday night, Ferguson will welcome back key strikers Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernández for the clash with Norwich City at Old Trafford on Saturday. Rooney has recovered from a minor hamstring strain, while the dead-leg suffered by Ferguson’s Mexican striker is less severe than first thought.
It is Rooney and Hernández that will fire United to Premier and Champions League glory this season according to Ferguson, with the Scot insisting the pair can match Dwight York and Andy Cole for goals and understanding. Yorke and Cole scored more than half-a-century of goals during United’s 1999 treble winning season.
“Wayne and Javier Hernandez will be fit for tomorrow. They trained yesterday very well and I was pleased with that,” said Ferguson on Friday.
“They haven’t played a full season together yet. Yorke and Cole scored 52 goals in that season between them, which was exceptional because Yorkie [had] just joined us. It was his first season. Unbelievable. I think Yorkie that season was probably one of the best strikers in Europe. For a first season player he was amazing. He and Andy just hit it off immediately.”
“The goal threat was immense on a regular basis when Hernández came into the side just after Christmas. The boy has come back and scored two goals so far. I really do expect him to score 25 and over because he has got something in that box. Wayne has had a fantastic start to the season and has got nine goals at the moment. The capability is there and I’ve got Welbeck, and I’ve got Owen, and I’ve got Berbatov, and I’ve got Macheda and I’ve got Diouf. It’s a terrific unit, that.”
But although Ferguson is purring at the thought of his first choice strikers returning for the clash with Paul Lambert’s newly promoted East Anglians there is also a warning from the Scot about the lax defending and complacency that crept into United’s performance against Basel.
Tom Cleverley, Nemanja Vidic and Chris Smalling will each return to the first team picture in a fortnight’s time, although not in time to shore up a United back-four that shipped three against Basel. However, Jonny Evans could return to Ferguson’s starting side for the clash with Norwich. Lambert’s side is brimming with confidence after securing a first win of the season over Sunderland on Monday night.
“Jonny Evans also comes back, hopefully that will help us in the defensive part as we’re certainly changing the back four at the moment Vidic, Cleverley and Smalling should be ready after the internationals and available for Liverpool,” added Ferguson.
“People say our performance was careless and we underestimated our opponents and maybe there’s an element of truth in that. I certainly wasn’t happy, even in the first half I could sense we were too relaxed and could have lost three goals in the first half. We could have scored goals as well but were too cavalier. We’re attacking in the way we’re playing at the moment and people can enjoy it but we have to do better defensively.”
United begins the match hot favourites to record a sixth victory in seven Premier League matches this season, but supporters will recall Norwich’s 2-0 victory over the Reds on the last occasion these sides met in April 2005. And in Cleverley’s continued absence Ferguson will again ask Brazilian Anderson to take the creative burden in central midfield, alongside either Darren Fletcher or Michael Carrick.
Anderson’s average performances against Chelsea, Stoke City and then FC Basel have brought fresh question marks over the midfielders ability to perform the role but the Brazilian is looking forward to Norwich’s visit this weekend in a game United must win.
“It doesn’t matter who you play in the league, you always have to play well,” Anderson told United Review.
“I haven’t seen much of Norwich, but I know they are a strong team who will come here and battle. Whenever you play at home you have to perform and we are always confident at Old Trafford in front of our fans. It’s important to be strong at home and our record has been amazing for a long time now. You feel more relaxed, more comfortable when you’re at home and you have that extra spring in your step. It’s important we show that on Saturday and keep our good run going.”
Meanwhile, visitors’ manager Lambert is hopeful of achieving the shock result of the Premier League season to date, although the Scot is missing on loan defender Ritchie de Laet, who is ineligible to play against his parent club. Striker James Vaughan is out for four months after knee surgery, while Zak Whitbread, Elliott Ward and Dani Ayala are all out.
“I hear people say go and enjoy it but you can only enjoy it if you go and can hold your own,” Lambert said.
“In my view, Manchester United are probably the best team in Britain at the minute and along with Barcelona one of the best teams in Europe. That is the magnitude of our achievement in getting into this league. No-one is going to expect us to win anything there. The lads will love the atmosphere and the stadium and we’ll go up there and give it everything we’ve got.”
Effort alone will surely not be enough. But, then, most supporters felt the same of Basel’s visit on Tuesday.
Manchester United v Norwich City, Premier League, Old Trafford, 3pm, 1 October 2011.
United (4-4-2): de Gea; Jones, Evans, Ferdinand, Evra; Nani, Anderson, Fletcher, Young; Rooney; Hernandez. Subs from: Lindegaard, Amos, Fabio, Fletcher, Fryers, Pogba, Valencia, Carrick, Diouf, Giggs, Park, Welbeck, Berbatov.Owen.
Norwich (4-5-1): Ruddy; R Martin, Barnett, Tierney, Naughton; Johnson, Pilkington, Hoolahan, Fox, Bennett; Morison. Subs from: Rudd, Crofts, Surman, Vaughan, Holt, C Martin, Francomb, Naughton, Jackson, Lappin, Smith, Wilbraham.
Referee: Stuart Attwell
Assistants: S Long, A Watts
Fourth Official: C Foy