Manchester United 1 (van Persie) West Ham United 0
“He’s been outstanding all season. There’s not really been anybody challenging for his right-back position but he’s done fantastic. With his energy, he really sets the tone for the rest of the players. He’s a credit to himself.” Jonny Evans on Rafael
1. A clean sheet. Twelve months ago, if you told any Manchester United fan that two of the first names on the team sheet were Rafael and Jonny Evans, they would laugh in your face and rightly so. Neither had the consistency or the quality you’d want in your first team, but the story couldn’t be any different now.
Rafael vs West Ham: 62/71 passes, 3/4 tackles, 3/4 aerial duels, 5 interceptions, 9 blocks, 9 clearances, 0 errors.
Evans vs West Ham: 48/55 passes, 7/11 aerial duels, 9 interceptions, 15 clearances, 0 errors.
That was probably Rafael’s best performance this season. You only have to look at the fact that zippy winger Matt Jarvis had to move to face Patrice Evra to try and get any joy because Rafael had him in his back pocket. Tonight’s performance was complete from Rafael – his attacking threat was constantly there but he didn’t let it have an adverse affect on his defensive duties.
As for the presence of a physical West Ham side, Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling dealt with it admirably. Winning the overwhelming majority of the aerial duels, they quashed West Ham’s major threat to our goal and despite playing themselves back into the game in the later stages, they couldn’t break us down.
75/84 passes (89%), 50 in opponents half (90%), 28 in final third (87.5%), 3/5 dribbles.
The Brazilian brought a completely new look to a starting midfield that, in previous games this season, had looked dated and underwhelming. His natural forward drive brought such an energy and dynamism to us that we had a genuine attacking threat through the middle. Considering how depleted our wingers are, it was a welcome breath of fresh air.
Fans had been calling all summer for a Moussa Dembele type signing but we already have that in Anderson. He answered his critics with that cameo against QPR and backed it up tonight against West Ham. If he can put together a string of solid performances and get a run of games under his belt, he really could be the solution to our midfield woes this season.
3. Smooth football (at times). With Nani and Valencia out injured and Young out of form, it was unsurprising that we set up with a diamond formation of Carrick protecting the back four with Cleverley and Anderson in a free roaming role ahead of him – and we reaped the rewards.
The diamond brings a fluidity and slickness to our passing game that we don’t have when we play wingers. It forces quick, sharp passing and movement out of the players and increases the tempo of the game. Right now, using this formation is playing to the strengths of our squad and despite Cleverley looking rusty tonight, it made us look so much more dangerous going forward.
Playing a central midfield pairing means that Cleverley and Anderson can’t play in the same starting line-up as they would be too attacking, but I think that both should be starting more often. Having Carrick or Fletcher protecting them, whilst having the evergreen Scholes on the bench to change the game if needed, is sure to bring more consistency to a midfield that has been invisible at points this year.
4. A nervous victory. When Robin van Persie scored after 33 seconds, you thought that the game could of turned into a rout – but it couldn’t have been more opposite. We couldn’t manage to peg West Ham back and pile the pressure on them enough to kill the game off early.
To be fair to West Ham, instead of collapsing after conceding, they actually became spurred on by the goal and slowly got themselves into the game despite only having 30% of possession in the first half.
It wasn’t a trademark victory by any accounts but it is our first clean sheet in the Premier League in ten games since our 3-0 victory away at Newcastle United, and that will bring a real air of confidence to a team that has been struggling to stay watertight at the back.