Injustice is a word which will not be far from the lips of the Manchester United players following Sunday’s defeat at Chelsea. Having contained a recently rampant Chelsea for 76 minutes, United were starting to turn the screw and looked like the most likely side to break the deadlock when referee Martin Atkinson penalised Darren Fletcher for a challenge on Ashley Cole with the Scotsman clearly feeling he played the ball.
As John Terry headed home, Didier Drogba appeared to foul Wes Brown with Atkinson waving away any United appeals. Brown has had the following to say: “I don’t think the referee played well and we’ve been let down by that goal. The decision to award the free kick was harsh; Drogba was holding me and pulling me down, obstructing me from challenging for the ball when the free kick came in the box”. Brown was fantastic alongside Jonny Evans in the centre of United’s defence in the face of strong recent criticism and is clearly disappointed to have not taken anything from the game.
The communication between the two centre-halves was excellent with each of them clearly picking which striker to mark and sticking with it. Brown is strong and uncompromising and simply refused to allow Drogba to bully him in the way he does so often to Premier League defenders. Evans has great pace and is a great reader of the game and at 21-years-old is one of the brightest prospects in British football. Nicolas Anelka was forced deep or wide too many times by the young Northern Irishman to have a positive effect on the game. It was clear that they both knew their jobs and stuck to them, something which seemed to be missing in the recent encounter with Liverpool when the first choice partnership seemed to want to pass the burden of marking Fernando Torres to each other.
Fletcher and Wayne Rooney again were two of the best performers for the Red Devils with the latter making his feelings of injustice known as he left the pitch mouthing the words “12th man”. Rooney himself was adjudged to have been offside when through on goal with Ashley Cole clearly playing him on and in a game as tight and important as this one it is key that the officials get these decisions right. United also feel they should have had a penalty in the first half and that Joe Cole was lucky to still be on the pitch following a raised arm in the direction of Fletcher.
United kept possession well in the middle and at times dominated the Chelsea midfield, which is some achievement considering the names playing in there and the way they have overwhelmed teams of late, but what will have been disappointing for the United manager was the way his side struggled to turn dominance into goals. Rooney should have done better when set up by Antonio Valencia on the edge of the box but other than that and a curling effort by Rooney, United did not trouble Petr Cech. Dimitar Berbatov’s ability in and around the box was missed through injury but even if fit it is debatable that the Bulgarian would have started and it is likely Sir Alex would have elected to flood the midfield – a tactic that worked so well.
The system that United adopted required the likes of Valencia, Ryan Giggs and Anderson not only to get up to support Rooney but to affect the game when they were in good positions. All too often, however, the United attack broke down in these areas. All of the aforementioned players did a fantastic job for the team holding the structure and working hard to stifle Chelsea but just a little was missing in attack. Gabriel Obertan again looked lively and looked to provide some attacking spark but was not given enough time to impress. He is a surely a player Sir Alex will be looking to more in the coming weeks.
So, where do United go from here? They can take great heart from the game as they were the better team but at the moment that counts for nothing as they lie five points behind Chelsea having lost three games already. United are not out of it by any means and often relish coming from behind to take the title. Indeed Sir Alex stated after the Chelsea match his United side are still in with a shout and perform to the best of their ability when they have their backs against the wall. What is clear is that there needs to be an improvement against the other top sides. This season United have beaten Arsenal at home and lost to Liverpool and Chelsea away from home. If they are to make any kind of mark on the title race they will need to ensure they take maximum points from the return fixtures against Chelsea and Liverpool and to take something at the Emirates. This is a big ask especially considering United’s recent record in these matches but it is certainly not beyond them. Losing three fixtures at this stage of the season does not make for good reading but there is certain vulnerability among the top sides on current form which suggests that more points will be dropped come the end of the season. United need to ensure it is not by them.