Are Reds too short on firepower?

November 11, 2009 Tags: Reads 6 comments

While Manchester United’s supporters digest a third defeat away from Old Trafford this season, Sir Alex Ferguson is left to mull over the causes. United was largely unlucky in falling to a 1-0 loss at Stamford Bridge on Sunday but Ferguson’s team, packed full of talent, has failed to score in the defeats to Burnley, Liverpool and Chelsea.

The question is, why?

True, the Scot’s team not only dominated proceedings at Stamford Bridge but was the victim of some injudicious officialdom along the way. Meanwhile at Anfield Ferguson can’t point to the failure to expel Jamie Carragher, whose professional foul on Michael Owen went unpunished. But in apportioning blame at officials – cathartic though it is – it is easy to miss a bigger picture.

In August, Rant argued that United need to score roughly 114 goals this campaign to match last season’s performance. This figure, mitigated by United’s non-involvement in the European Super Cup or World Club Cup, is challenging not least because the team lost 41 goals when Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo left the club.

Common logic – certainly among those who wrote to Rant back in August – said that Ferguson’s side would spread the goals around more evenly, with Anderson, Antonio Valencia and Nani all expected to chip in more goals from midfield than in earlier seasons.

Indeed of United’s 33 goals in 18 competitive games this season, 13 have come from outside United’s forwards of Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov, Michael Owen and Danny Welbeck. Moreover, United’s goals-per-game ratio of 1.83 compares favourably with last season’s 1.80 in all competitions.

Perhaps of greatest concern, though, is that almost one-third of United’s goals came in two games against Wigan and Manchester City. Add Tottenham Hotspur away into the equation and United’s goals-per-game ratio against all but those three sides is disastrously poor. In three games against the ‘top four’, for example, United’s has scored just twice – one a disputed penalty, the other an outrageous own goal.

The serious question now is whether United, without Ronaldo, has become a flat-track bully able to turn over the mediocre but likely to struggle against the top sides. Cast aside the Burnley defeat as a ‘blip’, but the defeats to Chelsea and Liverpool, together with indifferent victories over Arsenal and German champions Wolfsburg, support this theory.

The easy – almost clichéd – conclusion is that United miss Ronaldo and Tevez. Ronaldo, histrionics and media circus aside, is one of the most destructive talents ever to grace a United shirt. In big games with no clear tactical or technical advantage, Ronaldo dug United out of more than one hole.

But in Rooney, Berbatov and Owen, United possesses three strikers of proven international worth. Moreover, the performances of United’s talisman and his Bulgarian colleague have been of an exceptionally high standard this term. Owen, meanwhile, has scored four times from just six starts for the club.

Yesterday, new Ranter Dan bemoaned the loss of Paul Scholes’ midfield goalscoring . He’s right. But that only tells half the tale. Over recent seasons United has stocked up on wingers and deep-lying midfielders. With Anderson playing in front of the back-four, United has four defensive central players. That Scholes rarely makes it beyond the half-way line these days ups the quotient to five.

The easy solution, for most fans at least, is for United to spend and then spend some more. The talents of Franc Ribéry, David Villa and David Silva, mentioned recently in dispatches, would each add to Sir Alex’ attacking options.

But is the make-up of United’s squad or Ferguson’s prefered tactical formation to blame for the apparent dearth of goals? After all, in the summer Darren Fletcher spoke of a “more compact and rigid” United formation and there isn’t a single central midfielder player that gets ahead of the ball in United’s squad. For all the talk of Valencia upping his goal tally, there is compelling evidence that the player is a line hugger – by trade or design – of a very old-fashioned kind.

The compact tactical system also places greater emphasis on United’s defence. Yet this season the back-four that kept 14 Premier League clean sheets in a row is struggling for form and consistency amid growing long-term injury concerns over Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. In tight games against leading teams, one chance or one mistake is the difference between defeat and victory. Silverware or an empty cupboard.

In August Rant predicted that United would score 104 goals in all competitions this season. The team is just under a third of the way there. Whether it’ll be enough to bring home some silverware is another thing altogether.


Farrukh - November 11, 2009 Reply

As much as it has been made to sound like an obituary, I still believe it is too early for something so drastic. In times this season, when the need arose the most, we have had people coming good case in point valencia for the decisive goals, fletcher in the derby, scholes getting the second against moscow. These are all examples that there are goals within the time. I guess the instability at the back is more of a cause for concern more then anything, and it is affecting the team negatively. I, for one, certainly have not lost hope and long may this continue.

Bobby - November 11, 2009 Reply

The tabloid will never stop writing about man utd, but I think this is a problem of their own making since they set the standards very high they should be ready be nailed every time they do not score, every time they are beaten and every time they buy and they player do not hit the ground running.Either way they press will not stop writing when it come to MAN utd. This am saying because even when CR7 never scored against the big teams they said he can not thrive under pressure, now that he is gone man utd is lacking CR7 a player who would open opponents like Chelsea.

J-Diz - November 11, 2009 Reply

Very true about “CR7” Bobby. I remember how people used to call Ronaldo a flat track bully – now, supposedly, it is the whole united team.

GH - November 12, 2009 Reply

I would argue that it’s the STRIKERS that have the problem of never getting ahead of the ball in dangerous areas. Every time United have the ball in a central area in and around the box, both Rooney and Berbatov can always be found looking to dictate the play rather than waiting on the shoulder of the defenders anticipating a ball slid through. It is fine in a 4-4-2 for one player to do that, but not two.

Actually, correct that, Rooney is like that when he isn’t in the middle of a scoring spree. When he is in a free-scoring run, he is far more willing to involve himself less in the all-round play and be available for the ball slipped in behind. Rooney scores in batches because of his own unwillingness to be patient.

Michael Owen (and to a point Danny Welbeck) plays in exactly this position, and, although his finishing could have been better, United have created quite a few chances when he’s been on. Ferguson needs to work out how best to use Owen, as the tendency at the moment is to introduce him too late to have an influence.

Of course there is a burden on the rest of the team to produce goals. Fletcher, although not the best finisher, does put himself into good goalscoring positions, and this should be played upon more by the team. Anderson promises more as a goal threat and must deliver, while one great finish from 25 yards in 30 attempts will not do from Carrick – with his passing ability he should be the one playing the slide rule pass behind the defence.

Although we have a lot of personnel, the wide areas continue to worry in terms of goals. I would like to see more rotation in this area, with the likes of Obertan, Tosic and Welbeck given more game time, especially on the left (I feel Valencia is doing well on the right), where at the moment Giggs is only useful in certain games and Nani still frustrates. All three mention have great potential and the ability to make a starting spot their own – if they are given a chance to.

Frank Scicluna - November 14, 2009 Reply

Just a note to ponder. After 12 Premier League matches this season we have scored 23 goals – without Ronaldo and Tevez.

After the same number of Premier matches last season we had 24 goals including a 5-0 win over Stoke City WITH Tevez available for all and Ronaldo for half of those matches due to his early season injury.

Is it THAT big a difference that we need to be so concerned about our so called lack of goals?

Ed - November 14, 2009 Reply

Perhaps another way to look at the problem is this. United’s goal difference of +11 is around half that of Chelsea (+21) and Arsenal’s (+22). Arsenal has also scored nearly 20 more goals in all competitions than United already this season.

Add your comment