Manchester United’s dependence on Wayne Rooney has been considerable this season, but David Moyes’ side has developed the knack of finding a way to win, and in the Liverpudlian’s injury-enforced absence they did so again.
Having seen a much-changed side thoroughly out-played by Norwich during what became an almost embarrassingly one-sided first-half, Moyes sent on Danny Welbeck and the England forward obliged with an opportunistic goal to give his team a sixth successive victory.
“We would have started Danny, but he’s played a lot of games and we’re trying to make sure we give the squad the right opportunities to play, to show what they can do,” said Moyes, who had made five changes to the team which started at Hull on Boxing Day.
The return from injury of centre-half Nemanja Vidic meant Chris Smalling could move to right-back, covering for the injured Rafael da Silva, but it was in midfield and up front that the former Everton manager really shook things up. Antonio Valencia’s suspension and the decision not to risk Rooney – whom Moyes said was nursing an adductor problem in his groin – saw Ryan Giggs, Michael Carrick and Shinji Kagawa starting alongside Tom Cleverley, while Javier Hernandez replaced Welbeck up front.
None particularly impressed, especially during the first half when it looked as though Norwich manager Chris Hughton’s decision to bring in Wes Hoolahan for Johan Elmander was going to be by far the more influential decision. Busy and inventive, Hoolahan was at the heart of the Norwich moves which, after a cautious first 15 minutes, saw the Canaries create a series of chances. The first, and one of the best, fell to full-back Russell Martin, who after running on to a Robert Snodgrass pass produced such an accurate shot from a narrow angle that United goalkeeper David De Gea had to be at his most alert and agile to keep out.
Gary Hooper, turning on the ball in the United penalty area, should have done better than shoot straight at De Gea, Snodgrass curled a shot wide, and Sebastian Bassong, with a header from a Snodgrass corner, also required De Gea to make a save.
Remarkably it was the 37th minute before United finally had what might be described a clear attempt on goal, Carrick shooting high from distance, and City looked certain to go in at half-time with a deserved lead when Snodgrass and Hoolahan combined to carve out an opening that Hoolahan wasted by hitting a poor shot against the legs of Jonny Evans.
Moyes switched his midfielders around, Ashley Young moving to the left and Kagawa into the centre, but it was the introduction of Welbeck and a switch to a 4-4-2 formation that resulted in a major improvement in the second period. Even then, City nearly went ahead when the impressively pacy Nathan Redmond, played in by Hoolahan, flashed a shot inches past the post with De Gea beaten, but soon afterwards United took what proved to be a decisive lead.
Norwich central defender Ryan Bennett should have cleared, but Welbeck closed him down, and while the rebound fell kindly for the England forward, he took full advantage by pushing the ball past Ruddy, and from a rapidly narrowing angle, turning it into the empty net.
How much of a part Welbeck can expect to play once Rooney and Robin van Persie return will be interesting to see, but it will be a large one according to Moyes.
“I think if you look at Danny now, he’s a big part of Manchester United. I think he’s a really good, good player, but what he needs to become is a good, good finisher, and here he did great to round the goalkeeper.
Hughton was “massively disappointed” not to have taken something from the game. “We certainly didn’t deserve to lose,” he said. We were excellent in the first half, but when you have your best period you have to capitalise.
“But we were good in the second half as well, their biggest threat was on the counter-attack, and their goal was fortunate. But when it falls to someone of Welbeck’s quality you expect them to score.”
Norwich (4-2-3-1): Ruddy: Martin, R Bennett, Bassong, Olsson; Fer, Johnson; Snodgrass (Murphy, 79), Hoolahan (Elmander, 89), Redmond; Hooper (Van Wolfswinkel, 69).
Manchester United (4-1-4-1): De Gea: Smalling, Vidic, Evans, Evra: Carrick: Young, Cleverley, Giggs (Welbeck, h-t), Kagawa (Januzaj, 69); Hernandez (Fletcher, 86).
Referee: Phil Dowd.
Man of the match: Hoolahan (Norwich)
Match rating: 6/10