West Bromwich Albion emerged from Manchester, even if odds predictions were against them in most sports betting sites, with all the credit on Saturday evening after seizing in the vulnerabilities that Manchester United have shown in the early days of life under David Moyes. Steve Clarke saw his team play confidently and boldly in securing their first win at Old Trafford since 1978 and in doing so further tearing away the air of invincibility that saw United so dominant under Sir Alex Ferguson.
As Liverpool and Manchester City, and sluggish, fragmented performances against Chelsea and Crystal Palace had suggested, the transition from Ferguson to Moyes isn’t going to be as seamless as the United hierarchy had planned. West Brom had sensed United reeling and with Moyes in the difficult position of still figuring out his best team, produced a fine display to mount the pressure on the man in the United dugout.
It was significant that a side with just one win so far this season was able to play so freely at a place where United dispatched so many teams with consummate ease under Ferguson, relying on an unwavering belief that they would be victorious. Under Moyes, there seems to be an element of weakness, wounds opened ruthlessly by their neighbours last Sunday and deepened by West Brom.
The Baggies would have been boosted before kick-off on Saturday afternoon by Moyes’s team-selection, a product of a manager still adapting to a new job and learning the players he has inherited. The Scot reacted to the drubbing at the Etihad last week by ringing the changes for the midweek meeting with Liverpool in the League Cup, then decided to alter his personnel once more with a trip to Shakhtar Donetsk looming in the Champions League. With such rotation, it was no surprise to see such a disjointed performance.
What was surprising was the inclusion of Alex Buttner ahead of captain Patrice Evra as well as the bizarre decision to maintain faith in the ever-disappointing Anderson in central-midfield. As Moyes continues to adjust to life at Manchester United, team-selections are likely to be tweaked and shuffled as he attempts to find a winning formula.
Shinji Kagawa has been billed as the most high-profile victim of Moyes’s changing, but Chris Smalling should also have the right to be aggrieved at the manager’s reluctance to afford him a consistent opportunity.
The ex-Fulham defender had excelled at right-back against Bayer Leverkusen and then at centre-half against Liverpool on Wednesday, though he was omitted from the squad against West Brom despite the rest-enforced absence of Vidic.
Jonny Evans was handed another start after also playing well in mid-week, but his partner was Rio Ferdinand, a player beginning to show every one of his 34 years. City had isolated him the previous week and exposed him, almost embarrassingly, with the movement of Alvaro Negredo and the pace of Sergio Aguero.
Morgan Alfitano danced past him with ruthless ease to chip past David De Gea after 54 minutes while 15 minutes later, he couldn’t deal with the strength of Victor Anichebe who was allowed to chest the ball down for Saido Berahino’s superb winner. It seems as if Moyes is persisting with Ferdinand out of reputation alone, while Smalling, a promising defender with pace and physical presence, looks on in frustration.
Frustration is a perfect word to summarise Smalling’s time at Old Trafford since Alex Ferguson showed deep enough faith in him to pay Fulham £10 million for his services whilst he was still a teenager with just 19 appearances to his name.
A total of 88 appearances in three years in Manchester is a modest enough return for a youngster making his way as a cover player at a club as big as United, but so far a regular place in the team has managed to elude him. So has a set position, his versatility proving a down-fall in his search for a regular place, too often he has been used to fill in the void left behind by injury or suspension.
Groin and metatarsal injuries have also curtailed his progress and with Fabio and Phil Jones, who started at right-back on Saturday, able to challenge Rafael, Smalling not only faces competition for his primary position, but also his secondary position. The young Englishman is one of the array of options available to Moyes, ultimately proving to be the manager’s down-fall as he desperately seeks a successful combination at the back.
The ageing of Ferdinand and Vidic, so often Ferguson’s favoured back two, has never been as palpable as it was against City last Sunday. Though Moyes dispensed with one of the duo on Saturday, it may be time for the new boss to do with both and give Smalling the regular spot he deserves.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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