Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Birmingham-United: Ratings and recap

Birmingham City hosted Manchester United in the late kick-off Tuesday on the second matchday of the gloriously congested festive period.

The home side had the fortune of having been postponed on Sunday due to inclement weather while most United starters put in full shifts that afternoon.

Birmingham played within their means for much of the first half, doing little going forward but absorbing United's tepid attacks.

The Red Devils characteristically succumbed to disinterest after the first quarter of the match. United's midfield was unbalanced; left-footer Ryan Giggs ran the right while the painstakingly right-footed Rooney cut in predictably on the left. Furthermore, their central trio consisted of Michael Carrick, the still malleable Anderson, and an average Darron Gibson.

Birmingham shunted dull incoming attacks and managed spells of possession themselves until the interval mercifully arrived scoreless.

The home side again appeared more fresh as the second half began. You knew things were boring when the play-by-play announcer said "Bowyer,... why not?" as the Englishman fired from range. Any crosses into the box were fortunate and hopeful for both teams.

But, at the 58th minute, the most form attacker on the pitch continued his vein to break the deadlock. Dimitar Berbatov started United's attack through the middle and finished it right-footed after interplay with Gibson.
The Bulgarian hit the post only a few minutes later when he shimmied around Liam Ridgewell atop of the box.

United enjoyed being a goal up and passed the ball between and around their opposition for the next twenty minutes. The European super-giant has a tendency of giving up leads this season, but if ever a 1-0 was secure, it was tonight. The game was peetering out accordingly.

That was, until the 90th minute. City's lanky striker Zigic rose to meet a deep cross and purposefully armed the ball down for an offside Bowyer to touch home a shoddy equalizer.

The color commentator, Steve McManaman, referred to it as a "great equalizer." It was't. But it was an important one, especially for a City side flirting with relegation.

Meanwhile, Manchester United drop two more points on the road again for their seventh away draw this year, but still, perhaps serendipitously, top the league tables entering 2011.

Player Ratings

Manchester United

Van der Sar: 6: Two easy matchdays in succession for the elder Dutchman. He fielded one shot on target today. The other went in and it wasn't his fault. His accuracy is wanting often when trying to release counterattacks on the punt.

Rafael: 5.5: City offered little going forward. Somewhat surprisingly, so did Rafael. But he didn't make any egregious errors, despite some silly fouls in dangerous positions. United's burgeoning right-back should benefit enough from another 90 minutes.

Ferdinand: 6.5: Another solid outing on the trot. Probably would have done more if more was required.

Vidic: 7.5: Same as his partner, but the Serb manages to get more involved in games even when there isn't great defending required. Powered a few headers on target for measure.

Evra: 6.5: Easy to overlook a consistent left-back. The Frenchman stayed tight in position, especially after United broke through, and was mindful of his modest duties this evening.

Giggs: 7: Displayed good fitness and engine. His creativity was required. His play on the left was refreshing though sparse.

Carrick: 5:  Too concerned with managing impressions to take any hold on this game.

Anderson: 6: Harried and hustled around but looked a little knackered from Sunday's endeavors.

Gibson: 6.5: Wasn't outstanding throughout necessarily but made the right decision at the right time to assist Berbatov's opener.

Rooney: 5: Tracked back, which is fine, but offered little going forward besides the odd shot that was never going in. His one-footedness is highly lamentable, particularly when he is employed on the left side. When not in the best of form, he's a puzzle long` since solved by English defenses.

Berbatov: 8: Without being perfect, he flicked his way to creating several opportunities out of nothing. He was essentially the only creative player in the team and performed as such. He isn't playing especially better than he did in either of the last two seasons, but he's bagging the goals so he's no longer the arch-villain.

Birmingham City

Foster: 7:Had to make a few nice saves but otherwise enjoyed a pretty tame evening on a night that could have been much worse in theory.

Dann: 7: Picking up proven center-backs from the lower-divisions is paying dividends for City this season, supposedly. That narrative was reinforced today.

Johnson: 6.5

Ridgewell: 5: Has looked better.

Carr: 6: Pretty easy task today: shackle a Rooney already hamstrung by his own inability to play to his either side.

Bowyer: 7: Scored the equalizer late. He was offsides then but it doesn't matter anymore. Tried to bring his side forward. You could tell he was as up for this game as his nose was.

Ferguson: 7: Experience showed today (as it often does when you're looking for it.) Fortunate enough not to face his compatriot Fletcher over the ninety minutes or it'd have been a rougher day for this Scotsman.

Beausejour: 6.5: Provided out wide going forward on seldom occasions and even got stuck-in a bit for good measure. Not bad for a player I'd otherwise never heard of.

Larsson: 5.5: Not afforded enough space for comfort. Couldn't get behind United's backline. Didn't trouble from set pieces.

Jerome: 5: Willing throughout but ragged come game's end after ninety minutes in the trenches of United's defense.

Gardner: 5: Birmingham had two shots on target today. The second one was in the 90th minute and was bundled home after an intentional handball. Not much glory to go around to this striker.

Manager Ratings

Alex Ferguson: 5: Nebulous formation was more homage to his friend on the opposite touchline than competitive. Why Fergie continues to rest Javier Hernandez is bewildering. Gabriel Obertan should have also been introduced into this match. Ferguson could and probably should have mixed up his personnel more than just starting Darron Gibson after ten of his eventual starters played just 48 hours prior.

Alex McLeish: 7: Produced the formation and tactics which best suit his squad. Lucky to get a point at the end, but even a 1-0 defeat shouldn't have been depressing. To his credit, he had enough audacity to introduce attacking players as the game flickered out and it paid dividends.

Monday, December 27, 2010

United-Sunderland: Ratings and recap

Sunderland visited Old Trafford on Boxing Day and lost 2-0 like they were supposed to.

United came out of the gates like a cartoon horse that'd just been branded. Berbatov scored within five minutes after Giggs made a marauding run through the center and fed Rooney, who curled his cross onto the Bulgarian's head.

Berbatov and Anderson each hit the post while Rooney came very close with a delicate chip, all within the first 20 minutes.

After that, as is usual, United took their foot off the gas, and you wondered if they'd blow another lead.
Eventually, around the 60th minute, they started dominating possession again. It paid off yet again. Berbatov braced on XX minutes when his trivella from inside the box took a great deflection.

Sunderland achieved their only shot on target with a few minutes left, a 30-yard driven shot from Zenden, which his co-patriot saved easily.

The final scoreline was 2-0. Why didn't I bet on that beforehand? In hindsight it seemed so obvious.

Player Ratings

Manchester United

van der Sar: 8: Had one save to make. Kicked some goal-kicks. Bravo, sir, bravo.

Rafael: 7: Awesome to see Rafael getting more mature while retaining his buccaneering style. United's first-choice right back put in a quality shift today.

Ferdinand: 7.5: Extremely composed. One of the best footballing central defenders in Europe, still.

Vidic: 9: So utterly dominant.

Evra: 7: Up and down the wing, very effective on attack, made few poor challenges.

Park: 7: Even I have to admit he looked good today. That doesn't make him good, but he at least appeared to be against the Wearsiders.

Carrick: 5: So frail and expressionless. Passed the ball forward so few times. It's always square or back for this pusillanimous being. Get his ass outta here. Even on a day when he plays well he's scarcely above average.

Anderson: 7: Provided bustle up the middle. Distinguishes himself from his peers by dribbling in the position. Must improve his passing, though. Hit the post.

Giggs: 7: Made a few vintage runs today. Nice to have his natural width, even if his natural time is soon approaching. Subbed.

Berbatov: 8.5: I defended him all of the last two years. This season I don't have to. Scored importantly on a header and finished the game with a fortunate deflected goal. Could have scored others, which means he was either penetrating or wasteful. Neat tricks and balanced as ever.

Rooney: 7: Some decent cross-field passes and such. Assisted Berbs on the first with a delicate curler. Also almost resembled Cantona on another chipped effort from outside the box. Profligate with the ball at his feet, aimless when driving at defenders. More suited to a central midfield role.


Gordon: 7: Kept his side in it while they often defended poorly around him.

El Mohamady: 6.5: What a funny name. I thought he did decently going forward and got stuck-in about.

Onuoha: 6: Central defenders are hard to come by. He may be one for the future. I think he'll look better on other days.

Ferdinand: 6: Didn't do too much beside repel many attacks, and what more can you ask, really? But he got skinned here or there and was out of position at times.

Bardsley: 4: Tried too hard to impress.

Malbranque: 5.5: Tried to spell his side forward. But, it was never going to be enough.

Henderson: 6: Good engine, eager to express himself. Could have played better or definitely worse.

Riveros: 5: Did little to distinguish himself.

Zenden: 7: Had the experience and gumption to at least attempt to get something from the game for his side. Unperturbed throughout a trying match.

Bent: 3: I realized he was playing in the 65th minute.

Gyan: 5: Apparently he looks decent when he's not playing against Monster Vidic.

United grabbed the two points in a predictable scoreline. The first twenty minutes were perhaps their best football of the season. However, the Red Devils need to start playing that hard throughout the whole match, instead of just at the beginning or end of each.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Ronaldo adapts technique on short-range freekicks

Cristiano Ronaldo's latest cracking free-kick success had a minor but significant distinction from his numerous others.

The Portuguese highlight reel has had a proclivity—from his Manchester United days—to use the top of his foot, without following through, to create a driven, dipping, swerving strike on all his free kicks.

The only problem was that it's nearly impossible to get it over the wall using that technique. It's no coincidence that especially this season in Madrid the majority of his attempts bang into the wall.

Last weekend against Real Zaragoza, Ronaldo curled instead of driving and sweetly bent the 24-yard free kick into the corner with accuracy over power.

It's a single data point, but even if it only implies instead of proving his continued maturation of a player, then it's an important one.

Ronaldo's trademarked technique for dead balls is only practical on longer free kicks where the ball has more distance to sink under the crossbar.

But curling a shot is not only more accurate but provides more spin and dip to get it over the wall and under the bar from inside 28 or so yards.

It only took him five years, but it seems like he finally figured that out.

He gets a lot of attention from simple-minded people for whatever hijinx he chooses to create in his personal life. It's good to know he still finds time to think about improving his game.

It's hard to see why anyone else bothers caring about anything beyond that.

United somehow top the league after edging Arsenal

Park Ji-Sung once again transcended an inherent mediocrity to edge Manchester United to victory Monday against Arsenal.

The Korean mimicked Javier Hernandez' own contortionist header against Stoke City to somehow steer Nani's cross into the net just prior to the interval at Old Trafford.

The second half, as the first, contained enterprising football from each side in a combative, classy affair between the two perennial contenders.

United should have gone two goals to the good but Wayne Rooney, despite looking quite fit, managed to balloon a dubiously-awarded penalty into the Stretford end.

Rooney aimed for the top-left corner but supplied far too much power than is required when aiming at one of the two corner quadrants of the goal the keeper can't reach regardless.

But it didn't matter as United held on confidently to finish match day 17 on top of the Premier League table with a game in hand.

Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand comprised a dynamic duo in the back without need for grappling hooks or prosthetic muscles. Vidic particularly asserted himself—as he tends to, being the most dominant central defender in the world. Rafael and Evra each happened to put in workman-like shifts to steady their squad going forward.

And going forward United were good enough. Alex Ferguson's five-man midfield could be hyperbolized as being genius, but how genius is it when everyone knew he'd do it anyways, as is his wont against England and Europe's better sides.

Somehow Michael Carrick managed not to make a fool of himself while Anderson and Fletcher harried about compensatorily, crashing into those in yellow, leaving them whinging on the floor clutching limbs.

Nani was predictable in his unpredictability; as is his proclivity: he made poor decisions and usually executed them with flare, seldomly—but appreciably—with effect. Players who dribble too much tend to be bad passers; it's not really rocket science. They practice dribbling more than passing, even when they're playing.

Ji-Sung, amidst turning the ball over under no pressure, displaying poor balance, and ever-showcasing an inability to work towards his left side, popped up for the crucial  header before the break to ensure his lamentable inefficiencies are glossed over for another week by editorialists (well, most of them).

Up front Rooney showed good fitness and focus, two necessary attributes flagrantly lacking in his recent form. Of course, he's still the same player. His need to work the ball onto his right foot from the left side of the field is so obvious it's a wonder he ever gets a shot off.

But Rooney makes up for an inarguable lack of guile (except when attempting the odd chip) on days like this with tenacity and bottle, flying after headers, sweeping balls left and (usually) right, and importantly staying in position.

As for Arsenal, who really cares. There's 50 writers on this site who'll each have a different perspective of their game Monday, and I won't read a single one.

If I was forced to proffer an opinion, I'd say uninterestedly, and based on knowledge more intuitive than deep, the following:

Chamakh is an egregious diver. Nasri's combination of ambidexterity, balance and pace is world-class. Arshavin should arrive on form in January, resplendently for neutrals, and crucially for his side; and lastly, their defense without Vermaelen is a bit rubbish.

That's sums up the amount of neurons I'll spend on Arsenal. Thankfully United's unlikely march to the top of the Premier League have most of mine firing again.

If only it had less to do with Ray Wilkins' departure and more to do with consistent United potency this year.