In a mid-afternoon match at Old Trafford, 10-man Manchester United struck late to earn a 1-0 victory over Bolton Wanderers. Dimitar Berbatov, who once again was relegated to the bench in favor of Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez, came on as a 2nd half substitute and yielded his influence by bagging the winner in the 88th minute. After Nani cut onto his right foot and fired a strike on goal, Bolton goalkeeper Jussi Jaaskelainen bobbled the shot and the opportunistic Berbatov was there waiting to pounce on the ball. The Bulgarian's striker poached goal could be prove to be vital in a close title race, especially with Arsenal FC earning only a 2-2 draw today with West Bromwich Albion. All of this came after Jonny Evans was sent off in the 2nd half after a vicious, studs up challenge on Bolton's Stuart Holden.
OPENING LINEUPS & FORMATIONS:
When in possession, United played in a '4-2-3-1' shape with Rooney dropping deep. When in defense, United resembled a '4-4-2' shape as Rooney wasn't required to drop deep because Bolton only had two central midfielders, both who were naturally covered by Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick. Evans returned from injury to partner Chris Smalling at center-back and Wes Brown slid over to play right-back. Patrice Evra was at left-back and Edwin van der Sar was between the posts. Carrick shielded the defense in a deep-lying playmaking role while Giggs joined him in the central midfield in a box-to-box role. Antonio Valencia played on the right flank and Nani was the wide player on the left side. Chicharito was the striker and Rooney played in a withdrawn role, essentially as a central attacking midfielder.
Bolton played in their typical '4-4-2' shape. Jaaskelainen was in goal and the center-back pairing was Gary Cahill and David Wheater. Gretar Rafn Steinsson was the right-back and Paul Robinson was the left-back. Fabrice Muamba played a reserve role in the central midfield and he was joined by Holden, who played a box-to-box role. Johan Elmander played wide on the right and Martin Petrov played wide on the left. Kevin Davies was the target-man up front and Daniel Sturridge played off of him.
* Bolton played as advertised; a very direct style. Holden was a mad man out there covering tremendous amount of ground. When in possession, the Trotters didn't waste much time in the center of the pitch and they looked to swing the ball wide, especially down the right side in this half. Elmander drifted inward often and Steinsson was essentially a wing-back with his overlapping runs. If Holden, Muamba, or the defenders weren't able to get the ball to the flanks, balls were then punted up to Davies who did well to provide a reliable outlet as a target-man. According to this Guardian chalkboard, Evans did decently well to combat Davies and won 6 out of 9 challenges in the air.
* Brown didn't provide much in the attack, but he did well to combat the crosses that were being whipped in from Bolton's right side of attack and also on long balls that were sent to his side of the pitch.
* United were a bit loose in their defending just outside the box and it wasn't necessarily the fault of any one defender. Bolton continually were slipping their markers 20-30 yards from goal. It likely resulted from Smalling, Evans, Carrick and Giggs not playing much together, so it's entirely possible that there was confusion and a lack of communication. Giggs, who is a typically a wide player, has played in the center of the pitch in recent seasons, but the Welshman was asked to play much deeper than he typically does. He seemed to struggle a bit defensively with his positioning when Bolton were in attack. Although it was a bit nervy at times in United's defensive 1/3 of the pitch, Bolton rarely looked like a genuine threat and they were wasteful with opportunities.
* As anticipated in the match preview, Rooney was given quite a bit of time and space when he dropped deep. This is because he was drifting into the space between the midfield and defense in his role as a playmaker. As the match wore on, Bolton center-back Wheater began to track Rooney into that space, but United failed to exploit the space left behind by Wheater. Wazza did well to swing the ball wide, especially to Valencia on the right side.
* In the central midfield, Carrick did well in his role in shielding the defense by continually intercepting passes and then keeping possession with simple and accurate passes. According to this chalkboard, Carrick completed 41 out of an attempted 50 passes (82% completion rate). This is actually on the low side for a typical Carrick performance, but it provided a nice complement to Giggs who was attempting much more ambitious passes higher up the pitch. The Welshman was a bit loose with his passing (33/55), but his role was different than Carrick's as it appeared that he was tasked to try for the more incisive pass to unlock the defense.
* Nani and Valencia were both effective out wide in a different ways. Nani was continually dangerous throughout the afternoon by running at the defense. Once again, he posed the double threat of being able to cut onto right-boot and fire a shot on goal or to take the ball down the touchline and whip in a cross with his left-boot. Valencia stayed on his touchline a bit more and looked to send in crosses from the right side. My only knock on the Ecuadorian winger is that he could have exploited that space that Wheater was leaving behind with diagonal runs when the Bolton defender tracked Rooney in deep positions.
* Bolton have the reputation of being a hard-working side and they've caused problems this season for their opponents at times with their pressing. However, at Old Trafford, the Trotters generally held back and didn't really press relentlessly. Holden showed energy and continually put pressure on Giggs and Carrick, however, the rest of his teammates only pressed forward when United received the ball while still facing their own goal. If United were able to receive the ball and turn, Bolton were more focused on maintaining their shape.
* Overall, a rubbish and uninspired 1st half for United. It wasn't an exceptional performance by Bolton either. United had a slight advantage in possession with 53%-47%. Each side had 6 shots and each had 1 on goal. A 0-0 scoreline seemed deserving.
* Two substitutions at half for United: Fabio on for Brown at right-back and Berbatov on for Chicharito up front. Lee Chung-Yong came on for Sturridge on the hour, moving Elmander up front while Lee played on the right flank. Much of the 2nd half was played this way (prior to the Evans' red card):
* As mentioned earlier, Brown did well in defense but didn't provide anything in attack. Sir Alex Ferguson likely used his 'bat-phone' to instruct Mike Phelan to bring on the more attack-minded Fabio for Brown. United were relatively stagnant in that 1st half and Fabio's ambition to go forward provided more in the attack on United's right side.
* Nani continued to be extremely threatening and the Portuguese winger looked much better than he did versus Marseille. He appeared to be over his injury, both psychologically and physically. The result of this was Steinsson beginning to get pinned back and he no longer was providing the same support for Elmander in the attack on the right side.
* With Bolton beginning to lose influence on the one side they were previously effective, and with Sturridge not providing much in attack, Bolton manager Owen Coyle decided to bring on Lee in the 60th minute for Sturridge. Lee is more of a natural wide player and Elmander moved to his more familiar role up front in support of Davies.
* Aside from this right side, Bolton's only other avenue of limited success in attack was long-balls sent in to Davies. When the right side became less effective, Bolton became one-dimensional and less effective. Combine that with United growing more ambitious in attack, the home-side began to dictate the match. Giggs was getting forward more in this half than he was in the opening one and Fabio was providing Valencia with the option of overlapping runs on the right side.
* It must have been instruction from Coyle, because Wheater was noticeably tasked to tracking Rooney this half, no matter how deep Wazza came for the ball. Many of Giggs of runs were past Rooney into the space that Wheater left behind. Valencia began to come inside a bit more as well. United did well to react to Bolton's adjustment of having Wheater track Rooney.
* In the 76th minute, Evans made a rash challenge; the United center-back came in with his left boot up and left the ground on a challenge to Holden. The result was Holden being stretcher-ed off and Evans being sent off, thus United were down to 10-men. Carrick moved to center-back but United remained ambitious. Neither Giggs or Rooney dropped off much in the central portion of the pitch and it was clear that United still seeked to chase a match-winning goal.
* Not much changed after the Evans' red-card except that the game became much more open. Naturally, Bolton were finding holes in the United defense, and the home-side were fortunate that substitute Matthew Taylor couldn't do more with the wide-open header that he had when the defense failed to track him on a cross. United kept going forward chasing a goal and the they were rewarded for their ambition in the 88th minute with Berbatov's winner.
* United were the better side in the 2nd half and deserved victory in my humble opinion. They finished the match with a 57%-43% possession advantage and finished with 6 shots on goal in comparison to Bolton's 2.
* There wasn't a single stand-out player to me in this match, but I felt that a number of United players had strong games. For my 'man of the match', I'll go with Nani. I thought the winger showed that he was back and he looked to be in the form that has many discussing his merits for player of the year. My guess is that the poll results for this will show various opinions on who deserved to be 'man of the match.'
* Coming into this match, with the consideration of the recent congested fixture list and the significant injuries the club has suffered from, I just wanted three points and I didn't care how it was done. The 1st half was rubbish, but United can claim that they deserved the 1-0 scoreline after a solid 2nd half gave them a slight margin over Bolton in terms in quality for the match.
* The international break couldn't come at a better time. After Arsenal dropped two points today at the Hawthorns, United are in terrific position in all three competitions. They are five points clear in league on Arsenal (who have a game in hand though), are in the semi-final of the FA Cup, and the quarter-final of the UEFA Champions League. The biggest concern and worry is the health of the squad. Over the next two weeks, considerable time will be spent on the treatment table for our squad.... let the healing begin. We likely won't have a good idea who's available after the break until it nears closer. We do know Evans won't be available after today's red card.
* I thought Smalling played his best match today where Nemanja Vidic wasn't available. He was confident, mature, and mostly well-positioned throughout the afternoon. A case could certainly be made for him as 'man of the match'. With Rio Ferdinand likely out for the season, Smalling is easing the concerns of supporters with his continual stand-out play.
* If Vidic isn't available to return after the international break, I'd like to see Fabio at right-back if Brown is forced to deputize at center-back. Of course, this is with the assumption that John O'Shea and Rafael still aren't able to return by then.
* Berbatov or Chicharito? Chicharito or Berbatov? I honestly don't really have a preference on who starts. In fact, this is a great problem to have because it means we have three quality strikers. However, it was nice seeing Berbatov contribute off the bench by proving that he too can score in a substitute's role. Each striker brings different traits, but the common trait that they all have is quality. I'm not worried about this conundrum at all. In Fergie I trust.