From Benfica through to Chelsea and Stoke, United have been rather fortunate in terms of their opponents’ inabilities to take their chances over the past month of September. After score draws in both the league and Europe respectively, their game against Norwich was exaggerated into something of a ‘rot stopper’ for Ferguson’s men.
The shock 3-3 draw at home to FC Basel in the week meant that the chance to remain and regroup at Old Trafford for the weekend visit of a newly promoted team looked to be a generous and welcome luxury for the reds. Norwich’s visit, with no disrespect intended, was to be a chance for United to relax back into their ruthless, flamboyant swagger before what looks to be a truly grueling run of games: Liverpool, City and Everton are all October opponents. The Canaries cared little for their billing however, and in a goalless first half, they pushed forward with real purpose, fashioning chances and getting into dangerous positions well behind their host’s lines. Paul Lambert must be wondering what more Norwich could have done to get a result at Old Trafford as even though United managed to wrangle a victory out of the game in the second half, Norwich looked threatening and competitive throughout. Like many of United’s recent tormentors however, they just couldn’t apply the necessary finishes to hurt Sir Alex’s side.
Once again there appeared to be a lack of composure and stability at the centre of United’s midfield, but looking at the game statistically, both Darren Fletcher and Anderson achieved the extremely respectable pass completion rate of 86%. These figures fail to describe the manner of the passes played of course, and once Ryan Giggs was brought on in the in the later stages of the game, United’s distribution suddenly felt imbued with purpose and direction. To the eyes, rather than the spreadsheet, Fletcher and Anderson looked wasteful and error prone in possession, but these were issues that the team as a whole seemed to struggle with throughout the match.
United’s passing looked rushed and they seemed almost panicked in their decision making. Rather than taking the time to assess their options and compose themselves, players appeared to be over or under thinking their actions on the ball. The indecision and anxiety displayed by the individuals meant that the efforts of the collective were disjointed, erratic and ineffective. Going forward, United’s looked stilted and self-conscious to the point of timidness at times. A worrying proposition considering the chances afforded to Norwich in and around the United box.
Perhaps the events of the week’s Champions League match had played their part in knocking back the self-assured confidence and belief required to pull off the nigh telepathic link up play and bold offensive moves United have been acting upon recently. It was certainly a shock to the system for United, who have become something of a crack unit in marching their way through into the latter stages of Europe’s premier competition over the last decade. It could be a case of Sir Alex taking a step back from his cautious, rigid, high-tactic approach to the continental game of late in order to take two steps forward sometime in the near future in an attempt to match up to the likes of Barcelona. The Catalans are undoubtably the team Ferguson targets as United’s most major roadblock to any further European success on his watch. Without Pep and his diminutive footballing wizards standing in his way, Sir Alex, arguably, could have already retired with a further two Champions League trophies under his belt.
Even if the 3-3 were to be something of botched beta testing, Basel were fantastic and fully deserved the point they earned at the very least. Their football was superb, especially in and around the United box. Whilst they struggled to turn their rampant creativity into goals, they did manage to score two extremely well taken strikes and a penalty to claw the game back.
It was Danny Welbeck’s two-minute double salvo in the first half that got the scoreboard up and running, and he could have perhaps added at least another two to his tally on the night; frustratingly mistiming a free header, just falling short of a number of pin-balling deflections and watching Berbatov shoot into the side-netting rather than cross across goal for an easy hattrick tap in at the game’s death. It was a great positive, regardless of the result, to see the Manchester born striker come back so quickly from injury with such an immediate, positive contribution. After scoring another goal days later to seal the win against Norwich Welbeck is looking as hungry and sharp as ever.