All of the pre-match talk surrounded a certain Wayne Rooney and all of the post match analysis too will be dominated by the energetic and equally enigmatic front man. As the game began to filter out into nothingness, with no real chances at either end, a wonderful strike from the newly crowned, “highest paid footballer in the history of the Premier League” put the game to bed. Whilst it was the type of strike we have become accustomed to over the years, admittedly it was the type of strike that we have been starved of in recent times. Baring his sumptuous strike at Hull on Boxing Day, Rooney wonder-goals have somewhat subsided.
The goal, a delightfully hit half volley was best summed up by Moyes description of when Rooney is at his best “Sometimes when Wayne’s not got time to think, he does things naturally”. Whether the goal will be remembered as his first after his bumper new deal, or one of the strikes of the season, the true value lies in the fact that at one nil up this season we have been compromised on a number of occasions and this goal ensured the much needed three points where coming home.
With the prospect of travelling to Greece on Tuesday to face Olympiakos in the last 16 of the Champions league, such a game in previous campaigns may have been used to rest some of our more important players. However, circumstances dictate actions and Moyes at the moment is in no position to be resting/tinkering with the team.
As such, he chose to play his best team possible and for the first time since the signing of Mata the attacking quartet of Mata, Januzaj, Rooney and Van Persie was unleashed. Without ever really exhibiting the exuberating attacking characteristics that they have, it must be said that the foursome had a relatively quiet first half.
Januzaj making his first start since January 11th, continuously got on the ball in the early exchanges however, he was consistently contested and well marshaled by the impressive Joel Ward. The only time he did breach the well-drilled Palace back four, he did finish well, however the goal was subsequently disallowed for a hand ball. Mata playing a much more central role tried to influence preceding’s however all too often in vein, while the sheer gap between Rooney and Van Persie often left the diminutive Dutchman marginalised up front.
Behind this attacking quartet was the ever present Michael Carrick and the returning Maroune Fellaini, who together were the best performing area of the team. The stats back up such an insinuation with Michael Carrick once again acting as the midfield metronome competing a fantastic 135 passes – more than any other player in a Premier League game this season. In doing so he also averaged a pass completion rate of 94%. Rather surprisingly, Palace did not look to close Carrick down to often, instead receding space and setting up two banks of five. This allowed Carrick to dictate the tempo of the game with his short and simple passing carousel.
Fellaini, who prior to yesterday’s game had only made four Premier League starts due to injury made his eagerly awaited return, and did not disappoint. Alongside Carrick, Fellaini showed a more urgent tendency to drive forward and he often made a nuisance of himself in the box. He had a particularly good first half, with the only real negative being the left footed slicing of a glorious opportunity to break the deadlock. As expected he began to tire in the second half and his influence consequently began to wane. However, just like his midfield partner, the stats suggest he too had a very good game. Having won 100% of his tackles, making four key interceptions and acquiring a pass completion rate of 92% the competitive Belgium undoubtedly had one of his better games in a United shirt.
The second half saw the emergence of Mata as are most influential player. I was surprised to see many quarters’ dismay at the stylish Spaniards performance. His growing influence on the game can be seen from the number of times his intricate passing and movement provided the platform upon which many of our most potent attacks were created. Despite not having a final hand in any of the goals he was instrumental in the lead up to both. As the game went on he grew more into his role as chief conductor and he and Rooney linked well. If this is a sign of things to come it is most certainly an exciting prospect we have to look forward to.
The back four despite not having much to contend with still looked slightly shakey. Evra, who will be attributed with two assists, in fact, had one of his more quiet displays going forward, especially in the first half. However, contrary to previous performances he was much more solid defensively. Smalling on the right will come in for some criticism, but in truth his performance was exactly what one expect from a centre half playing right full. He was consistently combative and solid defensively however any venture into the final third almost certainly led to the inevitable blocked/wayward cross. This shouldn’t be regarded as a condemnation of Smalling but more so disapproval at the fact that at a club like United we only have one recognised right back. Going forward, in order for Smalling and Jones to prosper in their preferred positions an ample deputy/challenger for Rafael is a priority.
De Gea once again was as solid as ever and he is quickly growing into his role as one of our most important and influential players. His lightening reaction save on the 27th minute was the first, and arguably most important of the match as had that of gone in no doubt the all too often felling of impending doom would have resurfaced. While we no doubt have a number of potential transfer targets for the summer, my priority would be the extension of the young Spaniards contract even if it’s just to stop the inevitable vultures from Spain hovering.
With all of the positive connotations emanating from the warm weather training camp in Dubai and the ensuing rallying cries from a number of players, it would have been unfathomable to think that anything but three points was attainable or acceptable. Thankfully the venom of critics and cynics alike has subsided, albeit if it may only be for a few days.