There is a certain romance about Manchester United’s play this season; an innocent we’ll-score-one-more-than you attitude that is a refreshing change from the stifled tactics of so much modern football. Yet, United’s plethora of attacking talent has been forced to work at its maximum simply because Sir Alex Ferguson’s men have defended so poorly. The Reds may be top goalscorers in the Premier League this season, but there is a vulnerability that is likely to prove costly against the nation’s finer teams.
Indeed, not only has Ferguson’s team defended with sometimes comic ineptitude this season, but United has picked up an unfortunate habit of conceding early goals. The Reds have now fallen behind in eight of 12 matches this season – a run that has included two Premier League defeats, with more surely to come unless Ferguson can right a listing ship.
Just four points behind Chelsea domestically, and a point away from qualification for the knock out stages in Europe, there is little, superficially at least, for Ferguson to fret over. Yet, United’s 70-year-old manager will appreciate as well as any just how destructive poor defending is likely to be in fixtures to come this season, not least the Reds’ visit to Stamford Bridge this Sunday.
The greatest worry, however, is that short of reigning in United’s attacking instincts, Ferguson can do little more with the resource at his disposal. It is a weakness that threatens to undermine the club’s season.
“I can’t understand our defending. It’s been the story of our season,” admitted Ferguson after United beat SC Braga at Old Trafford on Tuesday.
“Starting badly and losing goals and fighting back to rescue games. It’s the front players who are doing that for us. Some of our football was terrific, some fantastic football. We created a lot of chances. But it is a concern we are losing goals.
“I can’t get to the bottom of it. If you analyse all the goals we are losing, they are all different types, a cross and then a cutback and players free in the box. It is difficult to put my finger on it. We are certainly not getting good starts to games, that’s for sure. We will sort it, I am sure of that.”
Ferguson’s problems start in the engine room where no combination of the half-dozen central midfielders at the club is able to provide the kind protection a fragmented back-four desperately requires. True, injuries have occurred with little respite, with Nemanja Vidić, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones still out, while Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans have also missed game in the campaign. But United’s trouble runs deeper.
The only constant may be change in United’s back-four, yet there are problems of Ferguson’s own making too. Indeed, Braga’s early double at Old Trafford this week owed much to the manager’s baffling decision to deploy Michael Carrick at centre-half. The 30-year-old Geordie may have fine defensive instincts, but that does not always make a defender of the highest quality. This much has become obvious in the dozen or so games Carrick has played in the centre of defence over the past three years; a truism Ferguson oddly denies.
“I think we did the right thing,” adds Ferguson
“It wasn’t Michael Carrick’s fault for the first goal. He did his job well. You have to look at the big picture, Rio at his age, with a big game against Chelsea on Sunday, Chelsea on the Wednesday, Arsenal Saturday. We have a massive programme and it is important to utilise the squad. OK, at the moment with Vidić out and Jones and Smalling not available then putting Michael back there is not the best, but he did his job well.”
This is an observation reserve defenders Scott Wootton and Michael Keane will ponder, although the point is moot if Ferguson has no faith in the young pair against one of the Europe’s weaker opponents.
More serious, though, is that question of tactical balance in a side that will surely be stumped by the next opponent that can defend with solidity and break at genuine speed. It has left Ferdinand in particular exposed at times, not least in recent matches at Old Trafford against Tottenham Hotspur and Stoke City.
In midfield Carrick’s defensive instincts in the holding role offer much, but when deployed alongside 37-year-old Paul Scholes the former Spurs player is forced to cover far too much ground for comfort. Meanwhile, neither Tom Cleverley nor Anderson offer the requisite protection, and Darren Fletcher is only just returning to full fitness. Far too often has United been open to the simplest of counter-attacks.
The genuine concern, of course, is that no combination will solve the problem in central midfield, and United’s defence will continue to suffer as a result. This is an argument bolstered by Ferguson himself, who has deployed a narrow midfield diamond in recent matches at CFR Cluj and Newcastle United in an attempt to offer a little more solidity.
This is a tactical shake-up that may not have blunted the side’s goalscoring, but certainly ensures Rooney, Cleverley and Shinji Kagawa are deployed outside their best positions.
It is easy to proffer that Ferguson would countenance no such tactical shenanigans if, for example, he was able to deploy Scholes and Roy Keane in their pomp. This is an observation that leads to an obvious conclusion – the real debate is less about tactics and injuries than it is about personnel – and begs a tougher question – why has United stocked up on attacking talent, ignoring once again the imbalance in the squad?
“We can’t keep doing that,” admitted Rooney after United conceded two sloppy goals against Stoke. “If we want to be successful this season, we can’t keep doing that.”
It is a rejoinder that might apply to more than one aspect of United’s defending this season.