Has a January purchase ever been as instantaneously successful as David Luiz? Given his defensive and ball playing talents, this boy is already starting to look, not just a bit like Sideshow Bob, but a real bargain. The comedy wigs alone shows how quickly he’s been welcomed by the Bridge faithful. Equally the support the fans are showing Torres is also terrific to hear, everyone is willing that first goal to go in. His personal performances have been getting better and better in parallel with the team’s displays. As it’s been pointed out by many more knowledgeable than me, the signings have galvanised the spirit and belief in the squad. The new buys have improved competition for places, added a strength in depth in key positions and given Carlo genuine flexibility in how he approaches or changes his tactics for each game. If we can go on to win a trophy from here there is no doubt it will be one of the best pieces of transfer business we’ve ever done in a window. But that’s still a big if.
Despite the notable performances we’ve had of late the dream of winning a trophy this season still looks a way off. At the moment, in both the league and knock-out stage of Europe, one club stands in our way of achieving any silverware. We have enjoyed a good record against the reds of Manchester , especially during Abramovich’s era, but it will take a real effort to edge past them next month. Although this current model are far removed from the all conquering United sides of the past they’ve shown a steely reliance this season and a remarkable capacity to be clinical in games they’ve performed poorly in. Ironically it was the performance against their local rivals last weekend that should be the blueprint to how we approach our season defining encounters. City lined up with a solid and defensive side that aimed to soak up pressure, break up play in the final third and hit us on the break. It is a tactic that I think United will follow.
Earlier this month in the FA Cup encounter with Arsenal and Champions league game with Marseille Ferguson’s line-up was perhaps surprisingly defensively shaped. Both of these games were at Old Trafford. Although Rooney was in the starting eleven his position without the ball was always wide left to create five in the midfield. He only drifted infield on breaks or in possession. Two holding midfielders were used to shore up the defence. The shape of the system was remarkably similar to how City were set up against us. Barry and De Jong never moved from the centre, letting us have the ball in wide areas, and sliding the defence across to block passes into the congested middle. Silva was deployed to stop the right back and Milner likewise with the left. What happened as the game wore on was Toure dropped deeper and deeper, offering no support to Dzeko and reducing the outlets for City. This allowed us to dominate and create plenty of opportunities, around twenty seven shots in total. Our retention and quick movement with the ball eventually brought a breakthrough last weekend but United will carry more threat and be just as stubborn.
As I’ve mentioned Rooney should play on the left without the ball and will harass and pressure the right fullback to try and stop forward runs and prevent us gaining width. Ferguson has used the same tactic in the past, using the workaholic Park rather than the flamboyance of Nani – it would be no surprise if Valencia gets the nod to try and stop the rampages of Cole. The two centre midfielders will, just as City did, get tight to the defensive line and drop deep to avoid space in front or behind. The attacking intent comes with faster breaks. Van der Sar is an expert at quickly finding a target and we need to be guarded for this on corners and free-kicks around the opposition’s box. Scholes and Rooney love to spray the ball wide and both have the capacity to be accurate, we will need the midfield to be tight on them and not allow the ball to be switched. United also like to hit the ball long into the channels, behind the full backs, to try and turn the defence and regain territory. It’s a primitive tactic but it works, especially with an eager runner like Hernandez or Rooney. Also, unlike City, United’s full backs love to bomb forward on the overlap to get crosses into the box. This is more dangerous for us to defend, it’s a tough shift for the wide midfielders and the defence must be commanding, but it also offers real opportunity to exploit.
The full backs leave behind huge areas of grass behind them and United’s engine room doesn’t have the stamina of an Essien, Ramires or Lampard to cover them for the full ninety minutes. Two of the key positions to take advantage of this space are going to be one of the centre forwards and one of the wide midfielders. We’ve seen the damage that Ramires’ tireless running can do and I would favour the speed of Zhirkov in this game to counter quickly. Similarly the pace of an Anelka, Torres or Kalou could really do some damage by running into the channels and attacking the centre backs from wide positions. Crucially what made the difference against City was the attacking intent of some of our midfielders. Surges forward with the ball at feet from Ramires, Malouda, Essien and also Kalou meant we were able to break down the defensive lines and create space. At no point was there any thought other than to attack. Similarly the full backs and even centre backs ventured forward at every opportunity to make the most of space on the pitch and commit the midfield out of position. Although a clean sheet in the first leg would be a great achievement I think we shouldn’t be cautious. Too many times this season we’ve seen a slow start from the blues and we need a bold start, right from the first whistle. United might mirror City and try nick an early goal whilst we’re napping and then defend a lead. We have to attack from the get go, with intense pressure high up the pitch, and ask some early questions of the shaky back four. There is no doubt which team is playing with more confidence and this should be looked at to be capitalised on in the first leg.
It’s a typical game of cat and mouse but having just overcome a very similar test with the blue half of Manchester we should be full of confidence to repeat the trick against Manchester United.