Of course the return of Romero and VDV meant that the beady eye was on the Back Four from the off, eagerly watching the pair of them to check that all parts were in working order and good as new. However, events of the first half in particular rather shifted the gaze away from the central two, specifically about ten yards to their right, where time and again – and not for the first time this season – Pedro Porro achieved the remarkable feat of somehow appearing outnumbered in one-on-one situations.
This business of our back four defending narrowly, and allowing the opposition left wingers as much space as they fancy, keeps AANP up into the wee small hours with a mightily concerned frown. One understands that Ange-ball generally requires Porro to be loitering well in advance of the centre-backs when we’re in possession – meaning that when we lose the thing and our counter-attacked, he is generally a few yards out of position. One understands that opponents have cottoned on, and will generally look to shove a forward into this vacant space with the instruction ‘Make hay’ scrawled across their notepad.
So I suppose we’ll just have to bite the bullet to an extent, and accept that unless we surreptitiously stick a twelfth player out in the right-back area, we’ll be a tad vulnerable over there. But still. Once Porro is being sized up by an opposing attacker, I’d have thought it would make some sense to shove a reinforcement or two towards him. To the credit of whomever it concerns, this was duly done in the second half, Romero evidently regarding as a matter of urgency the need to toddle over and a bit of background muscle to Porro’s exchanges with Rashford or whomever.
But by then the damage had been done. Twice, in fact. Any opposing attacker with a trick or two in his box seems to stand a 50-50 chance of besting Porro and doing a spot of damage, and the Rashford eyes lit up in that first half. An isolated Porro, while not exactly a lamb to the slaughter, was certainly a lamb giving a nervous gulp or two.
Mightily annoying it was too, because but for those counter-attacks honed in on their left/our right, I didn’t think United had much about them. And for avoidance of misunderstanding, Porro’s delivery at times has the innocent onlooker absolutely purring, so this is by no means a call for punitive action against the solid young bean.
Back to VDV and Romero, and their mere presence did much to soothe what has been a pretty jittery AANP over the last couple of months. Romero missed few opportunities to put an end to a fledgling United attack with a well-timed and hefty size nine; VDV showed few signs of having forgotten how to ease from Trot to Sprint in the blink of an eye – it was good to have the pair back.
That said, neither were necessarily faultless. If one were to quibble they might ask whether Romero could have done more to prevent the first goal; and he also, as one would expect, took his opportunity to crunch the life out of a United sort near halfway. As for VDV, at one point in the first half he seemed consumed by the desire to dribble past a United forward right outside our own area, disappearing into quite the hole and requiring a spot of dustpan-and-brushing from a passing Bentancur.
But by and large the pair were watchful in defence and at times outstanding in possession – not least in the fabulous pass straight through the middle from Romero to Skipp, that set in motion our second. Nice to see live evidence too that the lad Dragusin is not one whose drink you would want to spill. All muscle and brawn, that lad.
2. The Midfield
It rather slipped under the AANP radar quite how light we were in midfield, but when the cast-list was announced the colour did rather drain from the face on seeing the names ‘Hojbjerg’ and ‘Skipp’ etched in alongside ‘Bentancur’.
The sagging of spirits was briefly paused in the opening exchanges, however, to be replaced by a pretty surprised raise of the eyebrow, as I tried to digest the sight of young Skipp seemingly being the furthest forward of the trio. Someone had to do it I suppose, and Skipp is nothing if not willing.
His was a fairly standard Skipp performance, which I thought was neatly encapsulated by his role in our second goal – oozing with the energy to receive Romero’s pass and set off over halfway, before almost gumming up the operation by sending his own pass the wrong side of Werner.
Now in Skipp’s defence he did ping one of the most scrumptious passes of the season towards the end of the first half, absolutely lashing a first-time volley from right of centre out towards the left wing, for an approving chum to race onto without breaking stride. AANP raised a glass to that one. But such a moment of quality was better filed under ‘Exception’ rather than ‘Norm’.
Bentancur, of course, purred his way through the entirety, as one would expect. At one point I heard the fellow on the telly-box describe him as “Knitting things together”, which I thought put it rather well.
And he took his goal mightily impressively too. Fool that I am, I had already flung the hands heavenward in agony at what I thought was a missed opportunity when he opted to take a second forward touch in the United six yard box rather than shooting there and then. I should have known better. Bentancur was in supreme control, and emphasised the fact by using his third touch to pointedly lash the thing into the roof of the net.
The third of the midfield triumvirate was Hojbjerg, who tends usually to hover between ‘Good’ and ‘Needs Improvement’ on the scale of these things. I thought he started pretty well, and AANP accordingly settled down for one of his better days. Aided, as anyone would be, by the presence of Bentancur alongside him, he seemed to use the ball sensibly enough; but towards the latter stages I though he slightly forgot the point of the exercise and began littering the place with misplaced passes and whatnot.
Aside from the individual offerings, there was a rather gaping hole when it came to a spot of creative spark from midfield, but I suppose if you take a perfectly strong squad and rip from it the three prime suspects in the field of Making Things Happen From The Centre, then one has to expect a decent helping of sideways passing and head-scratching.
In general one got the impression that our heroes were the better team, as evidenced by some lovely fluid passing from the rear-guard mob to the attacking mob, but there persisted throughout the nagging feeling that in matters of final third quality, the well was a little dry.
Young Johnson has spent the last few months doing all the hard work before making a solid mess of the final output, and lest anyone had needed reminding of this tendency he took every opportunity to demonstrate it again today. Now it should not be forgotten that he has chipped in with various critical passes creating goals in recent weeks, as well as taking a few licks of paint from the woodwork, but it’s reasonable to assert that the heart fills with hope rather than expectation when he revs up and hurtles down the right.
Senor Gil similarly is not the sort of huevo from whom one expects too much in the way of end-product. Not for want of trying, of course, but the more one watches Gil and Johnson’s attempted crosses miss their mark, the more one checks the Asian Cup fixture list.
Into this curious mix emerged Werner. And actually, he did just about everything one had anticipated of him, in both the credit and debit columns. From the off he showed himself to be the sort who will quite happily race to close down an opponent if it means that the reward manifests a stage or two later, in a turnover of possession further down the line.
Occasionally, we got a glimpse of the pace that apparently elevates him to cover 100 metres in 11 seconds, a stat that made me goggle a fair amount. And of course, his shots zoomed around in every direction but the net, which was entirely as advertised.
But he ran the good race, neatly setting up Bentancur for his goal and in general giving the impression that he knows the drill. As appropriate he ran at his man, or went on the outside, or cut inside, or just let wiser counsels prevail and allocated to a nearby chum. All perfectly acceptable stuff, and as his fitness goes up the requisite number of notches, and the mysteries of Ange-ball are further unravelled to him, one would anticipate that his usefulness will similarly shoot up the scale.
Historically, a point at Old Trafford would be a prompt for some meaningful handshakes all round, but make no mistake, this one leaves AANP grumping like the dickens for the rest of the evening. Our lot were marginally better in the first half and comfortably so in the second, which by maths means we should have won the thing by approximately 1.5 goals. Two points have slipped away, and I won’t hear any arguments to the contrary.
That said, with players missing, players returning and players debuting, on top of which we twice fell behind (away from home), the troops ought to be commended rather than censured for this one. Deep inside the corridors of power I can imagine that the sentiment of choice is, “Muddle through and stay in touch with the top spots until everyone returns.” This is no catastrophe, just a slight shame.