In their second surprise result of the campaign, Blackburn Rovers proved opportunistic, spoiling Sir Alex Ferguson’s 70th birthday at Old Trafford with a 3-2 shocker over second place Manchester United.
The home side started the match with a weakened lineup, not uncommon with the congested holiday fixture list and an opponent as downtrodden as Blackburn. Ferguson started in a skewed 4-3-3. He rested Wayne Rooney, not even entering him in the lineup. Javier Hernandez was an advanced forward, with Danny Welbeck and Dimitar Berbatov playing deeper roles. Welbeck dropped into a left wing role when organized defensively, delivering two banks of four when the Rovers decided to attack. Rafael da Silva received his first start this season, but not as a fullback, rather in a less-familiar central midfield role. Nani played primarily on the right as a deep winger, but was given freedom to switch sides. Ji Sung Park was a deep playmaking midfielder.
Steve Kean also started a weakened side, but he stuck with a similar 4-1-4-1 formation that drew at Anfield on Boxing Day. Yakubu was the only dedicated attacker. There were a couple of personnel changes. Due to an injury to Junior Hoilett, Morton Gamst Pedersen was pushed to the left. Ruben Rochina and Radosav Petrovic played centrally in front of holding midfielder Steven N’Zonzi.
As could be expected at home, Manchester United dominated the match in terms of possession and chances. The focal point of the Red Devil attack was Park playing as a deep playmaker. Early on Blackburn recognized this. As shown to the left, after only five minutes, they tweaked their formation to push Petrovic ahead of the midfield slightly. This allowed them to put pressure on Park. Spatially, Mauro Formica was asked to play narrower on the right, which then opened up space for Patrice Evra to work that side of the pitch. Evra had the second-most passes for United in the match, next to Antonio Valencia.
But in that September match against Arsenal, Blackburn showed that they can play the counterattack efficiently. In that match against the Gunners they were outshot 23-10 and outpossessed 69%-31%. In Saturday’s victory, the numbers were comparable: 27-11 for shots, and 63%-37% for possession. Of course against Arsenal the Rovers benefited from two own goals. This game they received a fortuitous penalty in the 16th minute, as Berbatov yanked down Christopher Samba off a free kick. Yakubu converted for the opening goal.
That lead played into Blackburn’s tactical bent. With Blackburn clogging the central areas with Petrovic, Rochina, and Nzonzi, Manchester United needed to rely on the play of Nani and Evra to provide width. But Nani wasn’t quite as sharp as he usually can be with his crosses, and given the disadvantage the Red Devils had in the size department, the first half was disappointing for Manchester United in the final third. Only three out of twenty crosses attempted by the Red Devils were successfully completed in the first half.
There was another element that was at play in this match: overconfidence. The fact Ferguson selected a weak side was only one part of this. Ferguson’s midweek call to Kean wishing him well seems a little disingenuous (perhaps buttering the bread before devouring it). There was the birthday tribute. And two guys who always seemed to be instrumental in forging a United comeback, Wayne Rooney and Ryan Giggs, weren’t even on the bench. Ferguson’s bench read like a group who he expected to ride out a crooked-numbered lead.
I wouldn’t say that United lolled through this match, though. They played well for much of contest. Were they razor-sharp? No, but the halftime sub of Anderson for Hernandez (allowing for the less-inventive 4-4-2 shown at right) was certainly a signal that their Gaffer wasn’t amused and meant “business.” But luck fell Yakubu’s way in the 51st minute. Michael Carrick’s clearance from the 18 struck Yakubu perfectly, and after evading Phil Jones the Nigerian forward struck a mean blast through David de Gea to double the lead.
At that point, Kean wanted to adjust even more defensive by removing Barcelona product Rochina (not known for his defending). But Manchester pulled one back before the next stoppage, and fittingly it was Rochina that lost Rafael long enough for the Brazilian right fullback to get the ball to Berbatov for a slick finish. At that point Rochina made way for Josh Morris who played the left while Pederson drifted central.
In the long run, the pressure applied by the Red Devils became too much for Blackburn to resist, and a failed clearance by Pedersen yielded Berbatov’s second goal. Valencia made a run past 17-year-old Adam Henley and his cross set up the equalizer for the Bulgarian forward. Berbatov has had a renaissance over the holiday stretch, notching six goals in three games started.
The comeback completed with thirty minutes remaining, it seemed United would find at least one more goal to extend Blackburn’s misery (or at least preserve the draw). But the Rovers’ wildcard is always their aerial attack on the set piece, and that was the dagger in the 80th minute of this match. Halfback Grant Hanley overpowered de Gea in the area off a corner kick and headed home the deflection from the initial contact to earn Blackburn their first away win of the campaign. The Spanish goalkeeper’s decision to attack was suspect, with Blackburn’s obvious size advantage. The frantic attempts by United to equalize a second time were unsuccessful, and Blackburn earned a crucial three points in the race to avoid relegation.
Of course last year Manchester United was first beaten by Wolves, so it’s not uncommon for the Red Devils to drop a match to a relegation candidate. The distinction was that this was on home turf. They have now lost two home matches in this campaign, which is two more than in their title run last year.