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.