I should have moved on from Manchester United's drab performance versus Fulham last weekend -- especially since they captured three vital points -- but the stench of it has lingered for me throughout the week. I just can't shake it. After the embarrassment and the perceived shift in balance of power after the 1-6 derby disaster, United picked themselves up and clawed their way to level on points with the 'noisy neighbours' at the top of the table after a five month absence. After Manchester City's recent dropped points to Stoke City -- thanks to robotic Peter Crouch's wonder strike for the Potters -- the scene was set for a grand restoration of power: an over-matched Fulham side coming to Old Trafford with an opportunity to close the goal differential gap while going top of the table. United did what was ultimately needed -- with some assistance from referee Michael Oliver -- but it was in a limp fashion.
To be honest, I'm quite happy that we're playing a Blackburn Rovers side that humiliated United on Sir Alex Ferguson's 70th birthday. Steve Kean's men entered United's home and punched everyone in the mouth while they were celebrating a grand occasion for the current patriarch of Old Trafford. Perhaps all of this a bit dramatic (it is), but I would be thrilled if these were the thoughts of United's coaching staff and players ahead of the match at Ewood Park. I hope there's fire in their bellies and I hope for a convincing performance.
Kean has deployed his side in a 4-4-1-1ish shape and with the same starting XI for their past three matches. However, there's a decent chance that a more conservative 4-1-4-1 shape will be used when the leaders visit. Blackburn only average 42.2% possession in league matches this season so it's likely that United will have the ball for most of the night. Therefore, in an obviously simplistic explanation, United will need to patiently break the home side down while also also keeping things fortified on the right-side of defense -- Blackburn's left-side is their creative hub. There's also that beast Yakubu up front. I don't fancy Fergie will read this today and then say to himself, "Bloody hell, that Gene bloke is a god damn genius! (*)" Nonetheless, here's the United starting XI I'd like to see at Ewood Park and the general roles each player would be utilized in (after the jump...).
(*) Maybe he will? I'm Carlos Queiroz 2.0! Step aside Phelan, there's a new deputy sheriff in town.
* In the diagram above, the solid arrows indicate the general movement of these players while the dotted-arrows display some of the passes that those players will/should be looking for.
* David de Gea (goalkeeper): My brilliant suggestion for the Spaniard? Use your hands to stop the football when it appears that it might cross the goal-line and ripple the net. Oh, also try to command the box when Morten Gamst Pedersen uses his left-boot to whip in dangerous balls from set-pieces.
* Rio Ferdinand (center-back): The 33-year-old with the chronic back problem shockingly came off last weekend when his back apparently caused him a problem that is chronic. If available, Rio hopefully continues the ways of his recent fine form. This includes providing cover for when Patrice Evra acts like an idiot and gets caught and when Jonny Evans steps out to engage an attacker. His strong on the ball skills will be vital as well as United will continually work the ball from back to attack.
* Jonny Evans (center-back): Just do your thing Jonny -- be the outstanding defender that you are! His understanding with Rio is tremendous but the duo will be up against a formidable foe in Yakubu. The Nigerian bossed United's center-backs in the reverse fixture, but the duo that day included Michael Carrick playing out-of-position due to the plethora of injuries at the time. I anticipate Evans will be up to the task but I'm still more comfortable when he's up against a striker whose game is based around movement rather than physicality.
* Rafael (right-back): I nearly leaned towards Phil Jones because of two reasons: (1) He may be extra-motivated (**) to play against his old club and (2) he also provides extra aerial presence against Blackburn's set-pieces. But I chose Rafa for one reason: He's in fine form and I'd prefer for him to keep stringing together strong performances before he breaks again. United's right-back will be a key player in this match because as previously mentioned, this tends to be the side where Blackburn create their most chances from.
(**) How would I know this anyway? He never responded when I inquired about this on Twitter.
* Patrice Evra (left-back): He's hasn't been stellar by any means as of late but at least he hasn't been terrible -- which is an improvement from his form for most of the season. He combines well with Ashley Young so whenever I see the English winger on the left-flank, I hope to see his French mate motoring up the touchline so the two can combine in attacking moves. I just hope Jason Lowe and Mauro Formica don't break them up like the English Channel.
* Michael Carrick/Paul Scholes (central-midfield): These two pivots will be key for United as they'll attempt to break down Blackburn. If I had a soul left, I'd wager it in the belief that United will undoubtedly dominate possession in this match. The two maestros will need do their part in building attacking moves by linking the midfield and attack and also by bring the full-backs into play by sliding the ball out to them. It'll be metronomic as they patiently swing the ball from side-to-side while looking for gaps to probe but they can also provide incisive long balls to the flanks for United's dangerous wingers. If they can dictate play, then Blackburn will be forced to close them down. If they do that, then gaps open up higher up the pitch for United's attackers. This is part of what makes effective deep-lying playmakers simplistically beautifully.
* Antonio Valencia (right-winger): Antonio, just get yourself into positions to receive.... Scholes, Carrick, and Wazza will find you. From there, have a go son.
* Ashley Young (left-winger): When we overtake City this week on goal differential, I hope one of Ash's trademark curlers to the far-post is in the highlight reel. By the way, if you know of a young lad that prefers to operate on the flanks when he steps onto the pitch, tell him to watch Young closely -- the most unappreciated aspect of the England international's game is his brilliant movement.
* Wayne Rooney (between-the-lines terror): I've told Chicha to stay high. Blackburn's CB's will be pissing themselves because of the Mexican's pace so Wazza should have acres of space underneath between the lines. The United talisman can combine with Young and Evra in building quick and one-touch attacking moves and he can also provide the balance in attack by spraying long-balls out to the right touchline for Valencia. Direct and width on the right while fluidity and interchanging on the left -- Wazza can orchestrate this balance and variety in attack.
* Javier Hernandez (out-and-out striker): Sorry Danny, you're sitting this one out -- at least from the start. Chicha, we're going create chances early and often so we need you to do what you do best -- put them away. Work the channels, press the opposition when possession is lost, stretch play and create space for Wazza underneath, blah blah blah... just bag goals.