Belt and braces United restore Ferguson dignity
EVERTON 0 MANCHESTER UTD 1
WE reach the week of paeans to Alex Ferguson's 25 years at Old Trafford, a theatre with dreams attached, populated by the type of footballer who, as the manager once reminded us, is somebody "with imagination, who sees the bigger picture".
But a clock was turned back as he travelled to the landmark. A Manchester derby even more dreadful than that 1989 occasion which left him reflecting that "every time somebody looks at me I feel like I have betrayed that man" reduced Manchester United to the kind of meagre preoccupations that belong to other teams, not them.
Park Ji-Sung talked of how they had discussed "team shape", Ferguson acknowledged his concern about "the stats -- everyone's telling us about the stats about the chances (created) against us", and Everton, quite frankly, could not believe the sense of anxiety playing out in front of them.
It was a United of belt and braces, with Wayne Rooney shackled to central midfield just to be on the safe side.
"I always said he could quite easily be a midfield player," David Moyes reflected of his former protege, though Rooney has never actually seen it quite like that.
He was about 14 when an officious youth team coach at Everton's Centre of Excellence told him he would be working on his defending.
"I'm a striker. I want to practise striking," he replied.
On saturday, Jack Rodwell said United "weren't the same side" that contested last season's blood and thunder 3-3 draw.
"We expected them to press us hard and a lot more. They were there for the taking," he added -- not your typical post-match analysis of this opposition.
Moyes, meanwhile, said he could not remember an encounter with Ferguson in which his own goalkeeper had been worked less.
That suicidally ambitious quality in United which has had a habit over 25 years of leaving Ferguson "on the bench having three heart attacks and contorted with stomach pains", as he once so memorably put it, has always been hardened and tempered with an ability to hold teams off.
Bryan Robson, Roy Keane and Paul Scholes have seen to that and though it is a fool who writes off Ferguson's prospects of producing someone to fill the Scholes-shaped hole, successors are not exactly leaping out from the bushes.
Phil Jones may be the man. Paul Pogba's promise lies ahead. But Lou Macari was right to fear for Tom Cleverley, whose lean and neat midfield exposition at Goodison revealed why he is such a hope.
"I'm just getting a little bit worried that it seems our whole future depends on Tom Cleverley," Macari said on Saturday night. "It's getting a little bit out of hand -- this young lad who has come into the team and is learning the game and getting better, that without him we are going to fall apart. That is very, very unfair -- to put that weight on his shoulders."
Rodwell, a player Ferguson has admired and had ambitions to sign 18 months ago, is the type of individual they could use, though his may be the case of the road not taken for Ferguson.
The manager signed Jones instead -- and not a minute too early judging by the way the light is fading on Rio Ferdinand. On Friday, Ferdinand was confident of selection but, with only the modest challenge of Otelul Galati to come in midweek, there appears no reason for the 32-year-old's absence on Saturday than the manager's doubts. It is of no consequence that Nemanja Vidic views Ferdinand very differently.
Privately, Moyes believes that Patrice Evra's challenge on Magaye Gueye in injury-time might have warranted an Everton penalty, but there were no complaints.
Everton are a far more impoverished side in the final third than the one, with the departed Steven Pienaar and Mikel Arteta among the scorers, that gave United such a run last year.
"I find it hard to say and I hate myself for saying it, but the bit we were missing needs money to buy it," Moyes justifiably said.
United's midfield could also use some bolstering in the transfer market, though their landscape flattens out now after a difficult period: Sunderland, Swansea, Newcastle, Aston Villa, Wolves and QPR are to come.
"We always have confidence through the Christmas period and we're looking forward to doing well in that period as we have in the last few years," said Park, the midfielder who demonstrated why he is called 'Three Lung Park'.
Manchester City face Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool in that period, but Ferguson knows now they are a worry.
However, power shifts tend to be declared too readily on the basis of solitary results and no one knows better than Ferguson that it is mucky little wins such as this that collect championships, not just seductive goal feasts.
Each of Ferguson's titles has been accumulated through his club's capacity to grind out three points without functioning near half-throttle.
As he compiles his memoirs of 25 years at Old Trafford, the less romantic one-nils may be recalled as fondly as any battering his teams have dished out.
Like all the best generals, Ferguson is adept not only at recognising when to go on the offensive, but also when to unashamedly cry 'retreat'. This, then, was a triumph in the art of implementing a bunker mentality.
United scored the 19th-minute winner during the only period of the game where they left their trench. A single, classy move involving Cleverley, Danny Welbeck and Evra allowed poacher Javier Hernandez to reap the rewards. The rearguard action then began and their defence rarely looked like being breached. (© Independent News Service)