We had some tough fixtures in December including a week-long stretch where we faced Chelsea, Marseille, and Arsenal back-to-back. Add the short resting period between games that comes during the holiday season, and we were lucky to still be top at the end of the month.
We clinched our qualification to the Champions League's knockout rounds with a 0-0 draw against Juventus at home. A 5-1 thumping of Anderlecht ensured first place in the group. All that with one game to go in the group stage. Not too shabby considering the personnel at hand.
Apart from Juventus, our toughest game this month was surprisingly against Hull. Defensively, they were very compact. Offensively, they used a slow and methodical tempo, waiting for our players to get dragged out of position to make their move. They took the lead early in the second half when Fábio lost his mark. We equalized soon after but found it very hard to get the winner. Switching Chicharito from Poacher to Advanced Forward gave us better control in the final third and it was an inspired backheel from the Mexican that allowed Kagawa to score the winning goal in the 88th minute.
It wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns though. We had another rash of injuries to contend with as Rafael, Giggs, and Jones all went down at some point during the month. Consequently, Santon and Carrick both had to play more than their fair share of games. On the positive side, Januzaj got plenty of playtime this month but I hope we won’t get anymore injuries in the fixture-heavy month of December. Our flanks and central midfield are already bare as is. We could use a bit of luck in the injury department for once.
Liverpool FC. I hate them in real life. I hate them in Football Manager. They always give me trouble and this time was no different. Our 4-2-3-1 had no answer for their 4-1-2-2-1 and we lost 1-0 after they scored an early goal. A disappointing loss considering we managed to keep Suarez quiet for the whole 90 and they had only one shot on target.
The international break was right after the Liverpool game so the players didn’t have to linger on that narrow defeat. Of course, international breaks always come with their lot of bad news and it was announced that Robin van Persie would be out for two months after picking a knee injury while playing for the Netherlands. It was frustrating news since he had just come back to full fitness after getting injured in the Community Shield game and we had two difficult games coming up – a League clash against Spurs and a Champions League fixture against Juventus.
Against Spurs, I went with a very defensive team with Phil Jones, Fellaini, and Carrick in the middle. It was a gamble that turned out to be surprisingly effective. Although Spurs had most of the possession, they never bothered De Gea and we comfortably won 2-0.
Juventus was a completely different beast. The opposition report suggested that we play 4-4-2 against the Italian giants. Although it felt like suicide, I had no choice really since Yacob was our only fresh Defensive Midfielder. And so, we set out with a flat 4-4-2 with De Gea in goal; Evra, Evans, Ferdinand, Fábio in defense; Young, Yacob, Giggs, Valencia in midfield; Chicharito and Rooney up front.
I was very nervous both before and during the game but the players did the job and we emerged as the unlikely winners with Jonny Evans scoring both of our goals.
This win combined with the win against Marseille earlier in the month put us in great position in our Champions League group. Beating Juventus away was a massive win and I hope we repeat the feat at home next month.
As mentioned last time, our first competitive game of the season was the Community Shield match against Wigan. Readers of this blog know that I like to employ a five-man midfield with either a DM or an AMC depending on the opposition. In this game, I opted for a 4-2-3-1 with Lindegaard in goal; Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra in defense; Yacob and Fellaini in central midfield, the former as a Ball-Winning Midfielder, the latter as a Box-to-Box Midfielder. Young and Valencia played on the wings. Finally, Rooney was placed in the hole behind Van Persie as an Advanced Playmaker.
It took us a while to get going but we finally scored early in the second half and ended up winning 2-0, the first of hopefully many trophies this season. On the negative side, we lost Van Persie to injury and it was revealed that he would be out for three weeks – terrible news for the start of the season.
However, Van Persie's injury turned out to be a blessing in disguise for our next two games as Kagawa stepped up to the plate magnificently, pulling the strings in both our 4-1 win over Stoke and 4-0 win over Southampton.
We initially found it hard to break through Stoke’s Christmas tree formation but a simple instruction to “Exploit the Flanks” opened up all the space we needed to get our game going. Against Southampton, we focused on attacking down the right flank since Luke Shaw was having a mare against Valencia and yet it was Ashley Young on the left who ended up scoring a hattrick.
Off the pitch, the transfer window is quietly closing in England. We sent a couple more players out on loan on deadline day and didn’t bring any reinforcements other than our summer signings. Our depth will be tested in the coming weeks when both the Capital One Cup and the Champions League get underway.