Fans have criticised Sir Alex Ferguson for the selection he deployed against Rangers on Tuesday night. Vindication for his critics came in the lack of creativity shown by the Scot’s team during the dour scoreless draw. Despite dominating possession, United was largely reduced to goalmouth scrambles and long-range shots.
However, those wholesale changes also made the game interesting, with United fans offered the chance to pass judgement on some of the fringe players who came into the team.
At the back, Fabio da Silva and Chris Smalling, both of whom were among the better performers on the pitch, were given an opportunity to shine. Smalling, in particular, looked calm and collected, with only one clumsy challenge giving any cause for concern.
True, it wasn’t the sternest of tests for the young defender, with Rangers camped in their own half. Smalling and partner Rio Ferdinand rarely had to see off the threat of Glaswegian counter-attacks but the former Fulham defenders passing was impressive, as he often found players in space who were able to move the ball up-field.
Fabio also looked secure at the back, with one sliding tackle in particular rousing the Old Trafford faithful. The Brazilian also showed a willingness to get forward and his substitution for Jonny Evans in the 75th minute made little sense. Fabio, whilst not always accurate with his crossing, at least presented an outlet for United on the left.
In the midfield, Darron Gibson and Park Ji-Sung came into the team, replacing two players who have impressed this season – Nani and Paul Scholes.
Gibson has been much criticised for his role against Rangers, being too often driven to shoot from range. But in his defence, with Rangers camped inside their own area, Wayne Rooney and Darren Fletcher often looked to the Irishman as an outlet.
Amongst several wild efforts, two shots just missing the target either side of half time were impressive. Furthermore, Gibson at least tried to spread the play to the wings from time to time, providing more openings than, say, Michael Carrick might have done.
Park, who played on both wings, was generally poor following an average World Cup. Whilst the Korean worked hard to win possession, he looked bereft of ideas too. When given space to run, he dithered first, before invariably being outmuscled. It’s not an universally accepted view of course, but many supporters struggle to see where Park fits into the side. He lacks the kind of final ball the team was crying out for last night.
Up-front Rooney and Javier Hernández struggled to get into the game. The Mexican fell victim to the poor delivery and Rangers’ defensive resilience. Meanwhile, Rooney still looked uncomfortable, playing the ball into a packed box or back to Gibson when he was better placed to shoot himself.
As the game wore on, with Fabio and Valencia departed – the latter in tragic circumstances – the situation became even worse for United’s strikers. The Reds finished the game essentially playing four centre-backs and, with Hernandez on the right-wing after the introduction of Michael Owen, there was little to no delivery from the flanks at all.
Overall, Ferguson got the tactics wrong, insofar as the Scot should have left at least one of Dimitar Berbatov, Nani or Scholes on the bench. United lacked the little bit of invention that could have cracked Rangers’ resolve.
However, that is not to say United’s second string is second-rate. There are positives: Smalling and Fabio looked comfortable at the back, Gibson, who had difficult job in the circumstances, was often United’s only real threat, and Hernández fell victim to the game.
In fact, the greatest disappointments aside from the result were Park’s performance and Ferguson’s substitutions.