Blues 1 Manchester United 1 .. Ron's Report

Last updated : 29 December 2010 By Richard Barker

It was a point Blues probably just about deserved, more for their first half display than their second, and again it was evidence of the character that Alex McLeish appears to have instilled in the side - particularly in games against the bigger teams.

McLeish opted for a 4-1-4-1 formation with Barry Ferguson in a deep role in front of the back four, Seb Larsson, Lee Bowyer, Craig Gardner and Jean Beausejour in front of him and Cameron Jerome up front.  Whilst United picked Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov, Rooney actually played wide left meaning both sides went with loan strikers.

The first half could have been split into two itself, with United on top for the first half of the first half and Blues on top for the second half of the first half.  In the early stages Blues were a little tentative and slow in closing United down.  Their fluidity, passing and movement were all excellent and there were worrying signs for Blues.  Rooney was drifting inside too easily whilst Ryan Giggs and Anderson kept popping up in the space between Blues' midfield and defence and causing problems.  Thankfully United's end product was lacking and apart from Giggs hitting the post with a cross, Ben Foster wasn't really tested.

Blues began to impose themselves on the game a little more as the half progressed and even took control of proceedings.  United were pinned back as Blues won a number of corners and free-kicks inside their half.  United's away support tend never to shut up - the fact that for ten minutes before half-time they did shows that Blues were causing concern.  A bit like United at the other end though, despite the pressure, they never really tested Edwin Van Der Sar.

United came out in the second half with a little more tempo about them and again the game was fairly even.  It was entertaining too, even if there weren't many chances.  With Rooney and Berbatov, you know what you'll get - one a bundle of pace and energy, the other drifting out of the game regularly looking disinterested.  Strangely, however, it was Berbatov who really was excellent and Rooney whose unproductive season seemed to continue.

Berbatov was comfortably the best player on the pitch and if anyone was going to make a breakthrough, it was him.  Sure enough, he did.  United injected some real pace into their attack and Berbatov was played in on the edge of the Blues area.  The ball was slightly under his feet when he received it and after his first touch but he was still able to finish superbly to make it 1-0.  Anyone who watches football will have seen United do this countless times - not necessarily perform at their best but then strike at a key time.

Rather than stirring Blues into forcing them back, the goal actually led to United's best 10-15 minutes of the game.  Berbatov hit the post and as Blues slightly over-committed, United poured forward on the counter attack.  They still lacked that cutting edge though and it would eventually come back to haunt them.

Blues brought Alexander Hleb on for Larsson.  Bowyer went to the left, Beausejour to the right and Hleb played in the hole behind Jerome.  There's no doubt that Hleb made a difference for Blues.  Not everything that he tried came off, but he wanted to be on the ball.  He would drop deep to look for the ball and, once on it, he would look to make things happen.  When you have someone like that, of course it's not going to come off everytime, but sometimes it will.  People around me were still moaning about him a bit which was bizarre.  If you want ten outfield players who pick safe passes all game, great, but you'll never, ever score a goal.

Hleb tried to make things happen and, crucially, held on to the ball.  Too many of the rest of the forward thinking Blues players see the ball as a hot potato and want to get rid of it as soon as they receive it.  All you end up doing is surrendering possession.  If someone is prepared to hold onto the ball it means that people are able to get up and support him, people are able to look to move into space and suddenly you're retaining possession in the final third.  Hleb brings this and it's something that James McFadden and Christian Benitez were able to do last season.  If you can get people who are prepared to take the ball in the final third, it's simple logic that this will mean more players can get forward and more chances will come.  Without Hleb and McFadden, Blues are unable to do this.  Beausejour looks like he could, to an extent, but he is still (at present) more willing to knock the ball back inside or cross too early.

Sure enough, Blues goal came because they were able to pin United back by actually retaining some possession in dangerous areas.  Hleb and Kevin Phillips (on for Cameron Jerome) both played their part by just hanging on to the ball.  By the time the ball came back to Hleb, Stephen Carr was in an advanced role and he was found.  Given that Blues had had possession for a little while, this also meant that Roger Johnson had been able to join in and Carr knocked the ball back to him.  Johnson crossed and Nikola Zigic (on for Beausejour) pushed Rio Ferdinand over and punched the ball to Bowyer who slid the ball home at the far post.

When you watch a lot of football you get an instinct for when fouls are going to be given or the offiside flag is going to go up, and I have to say that in so many ways Bowyer's goal just didn't look right.  It looked like a goal that you expect to be disallowed for any number of reasons.  I don't even think I celebrated it properly as I was just waiting for the flag to go up or the whistle to go to Lee Mason's mouth.  Nothing happened though.  I'm not complaining at all.  The fans had been on Lee Mason's back over a few perceived bad decisions (I actually think he had a good game and got most things right), so whether that played a part in this thinking, who knows?  Whether he felt he'd given a few soft decisions to United because of the crowd's fairly vocal displeasure, I'm not quite sure, but whatever the reason, I suspect that there were a few million football fans watching whilst not exactly sympathising with United as a contorversial last minute equaliser went in against them.

Blues probably deserved a point.  It wasn't a stirring display by them, but they were fairly solid, did the basics fairly well and, as they so often do, they kept going until the end.  United weren't at their best - particularly in the final third - but it was a good point for Blues.  Really and truly, the six games you play against Chelsea, United and Arsenal should probably be written off at the start of the season.  Anything you get from those is a bonus.  Blues have four points from three of those six games now.  On the one hand, that is a great bonus already.  On the other hand, it only goes to demonstrate how many points have been dropped against 'weaker' opposition.

One thing that Blues have to learn is the benefit of having someone who is willing to get themselves on the ball in the opposition's danger areas.  Jerome and Zigic have their own attributes, but they're not that kind of player.  Simply having one or two players prepared to hold onto the ball for a few seconds, try and move forwards, allow others to support, etc, suddenly means that play moves up twenty yards or so and the opposition are on the back foot.  Blues have to learn this.  It's the only way that they'll get better.  Whether Hleb can now bring that (if fit) or whether Blues invest in someone like Robbie Keane, it needs to happen.

Good result though, and a good way to bounce back from that Wolves performance.