Monday 11 November 2019

Imperious Cook puts a halt to United run with defensive master class

Bournemouth's Steve Cook applauds fans after the final whistle. Photo: Mark Kerton/PA Wire
Bournemouth's Steve Cook applauds fans after the final whistle. Photo: Mark Kerton/PA Wire

Jim White

With a whipping wind and rain, the weather was dire on the south coast on Saturday. Throughout this game, rubbish was strewn across the Vitality Stadium pitch. But enough about Manchester United's midfield.

Insipid as his own team's performance might have been, the real reason Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's mini-revival ground to a halt with a 1-0 defeat in Bournemouth was the nature of the opposition. United ran into a brick wall, the Bournemouth backline giving a masterclass in the refusal to yield.

Eddie Howe's problems this season have stemmed from his side's failure to score. Bournemouth did not net once in October. But why they were not in the kind of freefall that might be associated with such return is that for three matches on the trot they have not conceded a goal. How Solskjaer must look on with envy, with only 13 points from 11 games - United's lowest total at this stage of a season for 33 years.

He spent over £100million trying to shore up his defence this summer - yet this was the 11th successive away league game in which his expensively-assembled back-five has failed to register a clean sheet.

At the heart of the Bournemouth resistance was a centre-back pairing as effective as any in the Premier League. Steve Cook and Nathan Ake were towering against United, nullifying a forward line that in their last couple of outings had looked as if they might spark.

Very different players from very different footballing backgrounds - one the no-nonsense strongman who made his way up from the lower leagues; the other the smooth, intelligent sweeper schooled at Chelsea - the two complement each other perfectly.

"Cookie is very aggressive aerially, loves to defend, is very good on crosses," Howe explained after the pair's demonstration of their value. "Nathan reads the game very well, he's got that composure you notice immediately. They're playing very well together."

What was particularly impressive about the pair's understanding was the speed with which they adapted their tactics. More than once in the first 20 minutes, United's fleet-footed front-three threatened to take advantage of gaps behind the Bournemouth midfield. But Cook and Ake quickly worked out how to stop it happening.

"They picked the second ball up quite a few times and broke and had space," explained Cook, who was making his 150th Premier League appearance. "So we had a quiet word, came up to condense the pitch and I think that nullified [Daniel] James quite well. [Marcus] Rashford and [Anthony] Martial are top, top players and in really good form. So we felt that if we dealt with those two, we'd go a long way to winning the game.

"We showed them wide, kept them on their weaker foot and, fortunately, I think we limited them to not many shots."

It is the kind of clear-headed reasoning that has enabled Cook smoothly to advance from League One to the Premier League.


"It shouldn't be underestimated how difficult that transition is," his manager insisted. And Cook's ability to cope with upward mobility suggests he is ready to make another step. Given the manner in which he effectively shackled a current England starter, several times sliding in at the last to stop Rashford having a sniff of goal, an international call-up is not inconceivable.

"After all, at 28 he is in his prime and Howe, when asked if Gareth Southgate had been in touch about Cook's excellence, said: "All he's got to do is perform at his best for us. Displays like that will do his cause no harm."

The visitors had no answer to Bournemouth's defensive bulwark. And Joshua King made use of some lacklustre defending at the other end to snap up the only goal.

With Cook and Ake in such imperious form behind him, against opposition as hollow as this, King's strike was always going to be enough.

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