Tuesday night’s trip to Barnsley for the Carling Cup tie provided Manchester United with the ideal opportunity to get back to winning ways but also to rest many of the first team players who may have needed some down time to recover from the disastrous performance at Anfield. Sir Alex Ferguson made wholesale changes – as was expected – from the side that played against Liverpool giving starts to Anderson, Michael Owen, Gary Neville, Danny Welbeck and Gabriel Obertan to name but a few.
Of the mentioned players Neville will be the only one suffering disappointment on the night receiving a straight red card for a challenge on Adam Hammill. It was United’s second sending off in as many matches and will not have pleased the United captain as a suspension is the last thing he needs as he tries to force his way past John O’Shea into the United first team. There were many plus points to take from the Barnsley match – Obertan performed well on his debut, Owen scored a fantastic goal, Welbeck scored again and Anderson bossed the midfield for parts of the game.
For Welbeck to have scored so early in the game will have pleased Sir Alex Ferguson no end. His last start came in the recent Premier League match at home to Sunderland in which United gave an uncharacteristically poor performance and were very lucky to escape with a draw. Welbeck was a surprise starter in that game and struggled in a team whose normal sharp passing game stuttered. He received much criticism from the Old Trafford faithful but in truth it would have been extremely difficult for any young player to exert any influence over a United side playing so poorly. This may have dented his confidence so to score so early in his next first team outing really does show strength of character. Sir Alex will often throw young players in at the deep end when he thinks they are ready – we have seen this numerous times down the years. It does not always work out immediately for the player involved meaning they will have to show determination to get back in. This is just what Welbeck has done.
What did not make for such pleasant viewing from the Barnsley game was the way the midfield seemed to struggle when put under pressure from Barnsley. These problems in the middle of the park were not just evident on Tuesday but have been a feature of much of United’s recent performances. Against Liverpool the midfield duo of Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick were overrun by Lucas and Javier Mascherano and when in possession of the ball gave it away much too easily when closed down. This was extremely disappointing for all United fans considering the criticism which Lucas especially has been receiving this season.
Scholes has put in some fantastic performances this season with Spurs away springing immediately to mind but he hasn’t done this consistently across all the games he has played. He was one of the worst performers in the Sunderland match having to be taken off at half time. It is unfair to level the blame too much on Scholes shoulders but too often the United midfield is too laboured. Anderson often provides some attacking spark but it is all too inconsistent at this level. Darren Fletcher has been unbelievable for United this season but his game is so much about winning the ball back and allowing teammates around him to make the plays. What this United side seems to be lacking at the moment is someone in the midfield who will force the game and play more of a box to box role affecting the play higher up the pitch. There is one man in the current squad who can do just that to a very high level against top sides, Owen Hargreaves. This writer – as many around Old Trafford are – is a huge fan of Hargreaves and knows the influence he can have upon this United side. His robust style of play is exactly what United is missing, but of course there are doubts about his fitness. His knee problems were apparently some of the worst that the famous knee surgeon Dr. Richard Steadman has seen which is certainly saying something considering the illustrious patients he has treated, so there is no certainty he will come back with the same verve in his play as before. Even if his injury problems are behind him it is also an extremely big ask for someone who has not played competitive football for over a year to come in and influence a side playing at the high level that United do.
Hargreaves is expected back in the coming weeks but this weekend’s visit of Blackburn will come just that bit too soon. Having been thumped at Stamford Bridge last weekend, Sam Allardyce’s side will be very compact expecting United to break them down and will be scrapping for everything – the sort of game Hargreaves would love. Three points is an absolute necessity so Sir Alex will bring the big guns back all over the pitch. What may make for interesting reading will be his forward selection on the day following the claims laid down by both Owen and Welbeck in mid-week.