Ferguson on the defensive over errors

October 25, 2012 Tags: , , Reads 20 comments

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.


Clive - October 25, 2012 Reply

So Ed – if you could bring in a couple of new players tomorrow to correct the imbalance (other than scholes and keane in their pomp) who would you go for? Another question is will he start both giggs and scholes against chelsea, or just one?

Allan - October 26, 2012 Reply

Completely agreed, Ed. It has been two seasons when all United sources, including mostly fans, were concerned about finding a replacement for Paul Scholes. On the other hand, we have been really weak exactly in the opposite from him: a holding midfielder, who can protect the defence and keeper.

We have great central midfielders who can attack very well and be a real threat. Carrick, Cleverley, even Anderson can do that role. However, when it comes to have a real hound in front of our centre backs, we have been really poor, maybe since Roy Keane departure.

If I could have any influence on United scouting, that would be the #1 role that I would be looking for.

Coach Herbie - October 26, 2012 Reply

I would love to see any of you guys hired as scouts. You are the only ones with any common sense and you all know our problems from day one. So what the hell is wrong with Fergie? Our great club should not be going through all these problems. If its not defence, its midfield or both.
If I ever get my hands on Fergie’s email address, I will post it on this site and we can all terrorize Fergie until he finally gets it right. I must admit, we are still in a good position, but the defence and midfield are giving fans nightmares. I do believe Fergie will spend in January but will he spend wisely. This asshole is crazy enough to buy another striker and leave the defence as is.

Damian Garside - October 26, 2012 Reply

If AF starts with Scholes and Giggs against Chelsea with all their pace and current momentum, it will mean that he has something seriously wrong upstairs. As the Bard said: “madness in great ones must not unwatched go”.

Etienne Olivier - October 26, 2012 Reply

I can see it now, Scholes and Carrick and Cleverley will start against Chelsea. That might possibly be our best combination in a 3-man midfield. Question is, is it good enough to beat the best in Europe? Surely only if Giggs was playing wide left.

@Coach Herbie you are quite right, it seems unfathomable that United have these simple problems that all of us can see. So what happens if SAF doesn’t sign a bullish CM in the next two or three years before he retires? It leaves us vulnerable and weak in the one area where we cannot afford to be because football today flows through the middle of the park. Unless one or two of the Academy can seriously put their hand up, the likes of Ryan Tunnicliffe and Lingard have impressed. But have they not been putting up their hands?

Ed you’re absolutely right, in fact I was pretty furious when Carrick started against Braga, not so much because he is uncomfortable in defence, but more because either one of Keane or Wootton, both of whom are regular defenders and in need of experience, weren’t even given a chance.

Anyway my rant is done. Roll on Chelsea

Alfonso Bedoya - October 26, 2012 Reply

I think there is some genuine interest in Strootman, and he could be the box to box player we’ve been waiting for since Keane left… problem is, as usual we’ve dicked about so long that his price may now be beyond United, or we’ll simply get outbid by a rival.

We obviously have some weak spots in the squad, but I’m more concerned with the weak spots in management… we’ve got some ridiculous policies when it comes to transfers and scouting.

Digga - October 26, 2012 Reply

i don’t think we’ll buy in january at all. by then vidic, jones and smalling will all be back and fletcher should be back in full swing.

a lot people have the opinion that we don’t have the right players in center midfield (me included), but what we do have is a lot of bodies. carrick, flech, clev, ando, kagawa, scholes, giggs – all to fit into one or two spots in the team

if SAF can be accused of anything, it isn’t a lack of faith in his players. he’s a belligerent fuck at times, and i don’t even think its faith in the personnel, he just doesn’t ever want to admit fault in his own prior judgment.

unless we off-load, which i can’t see happening with the impending retirements of giggs and scholes, he will stick and we will continue to get what were getting…

marlon - October 26, 2012 Reply

Not sure I agree with everything here. I read an article a week ago (can’t find it) that said we had only conceded one counter attacking goal this season (I assume vs. Spurs). It would seem Fergie has made some bad decisions, somehow spending £100m in two years without a CM who can contribute immediately. If you look at the 5 major signings in that period who have covered almost £90m of the spending (De Gea, Young, Jones, Kagawa, van Persie) I don’t disagree with any of those. De Gea and Young filled obvious gaps in the squad and Kagawa seems an obvious candidate to replace the creativity we’ll lose from midfield when Giggs/Scholes retire.

Jones and van Persie were more opportunistic moves and although that 40m could’ve been spent elsewhere, I’m not sure I would – before his brace vs. Braga, Hernandez had not scored in 13 apps and had a poor 2nd season. Welbeck had shown no sign of improving his finishing despite playing around 40 games last season (still hasn’t). Berbatov was a bad fit for the side. Rooney has always been a ‘streaky’ striker – we needed another striker. Jones is one of the best English prospects – whether he ends up at CB or DM, I’m glad he’s at United.

I think the lack of an obvious defensive mid in the squad is intentional – clearly not paying off right now, but Fergie is clearly trying to change the way we play. Carrick, who shouldered the entire defensive burden of the midfield last season, seems to have been told to go forward and attack more (averaged 5.4 tackles+interceptions last season; just 2.7 this season). When we have a player who has proven he can be an effective defensive force as part of a two man midfield, and he isn’t playing in that role, clearly the problem goes deeper than personnel. Fergie has no intention of buying a ball winning CM – when was the last proper rumour about one – whereas we’ve very publicly missed out on Nasri, Sneijder, Benzema, Hazard and Lucas. As for that diamond, I think it was forced on Fergie by the players he had available. If our three wingers are fit and on form, there’s no way he plays the diamond and his persistence with it is merely due to his odd obsession with being unpredictable.

If you analyse the goals we have conceded there has been one or two from counter attacks, but the vast majority from crosses and an inability to deal with them – we’ve already conceded three own goals. We are doing a bad job of closing down wide men and a bad job of marking men in the box.

I definitely agree that our midfield could do with a defensive presence (or just Carrick correctly deployed), but that cannot be blamed for the defensive incompetence we have seen so far.

Mongoletsi - October 26, 2012 Reply

Is this the real Herbie? I actually agree with him!

TopTopRed - October 26, 2012 Reply

If M. Keane or Wooton were played and a somewhat similar goal was possibly conceder, people would be saying: “Carrick has not been brilliant at CB but has been OK. Why didn’t SAF play him instead because of his experience. This rotation is what cost us in Europe last year.” Hindsight is a beautiful thing….
There is a reason we are sitting here complaining and he is about to guide the team to the knock-out stages of the CL for the umpteenth time. And no Fergie isn’t always right before somebody catches feelings.

Etienne - October 26, 2012 Reply

@Marlon spot-on about Carrick, we’ve definitely seen him involved in the attacking side of things alot more so far this season

uncleknobheadforfucksake - October 26, 2012 Reply

carrick at centre half is almost as bad as park in centre mid

bman - October 26, 2012 Reply

It was madness for us not to go for Vidal when he went to Juve two summers ago. Exactly what we needed, and now he’s boss for the Italians. The same Italians who are now also crowing about Pogba being the new Viera.

steggo - October 29, 2012 Reply

The real madness is letting the likes of Pogba go.I find it frustrating that young players who are apparently “on the fringe” are not given a first team chance in positions that we are obviously struggling in.

Calvino - October 29, 2012 Reply

The Pogba situation is still a big mystery to me. The boss probably did not rate him highly or he had attitude issues. Absolutely amazing that he was allowed to leave. Same with the left centre-back that joined Spurs. Can’t remember his name game.

Alfonso Bedoya - October 29, 2012 Reply

I think it was probably a personality issue… Pogba was very young, but already showing signs of arrogance… Ferguson doesn’t usually take to big heads, unless of course the player calls him “a father figure”… then the player can do no wrong.

Denton Davey - October 29, 2012 Reply

Two players – Owen Hargreaves and DarrenFletcherinho (in his “football genius” mode) would make this discussion redundant.

Unfortunately, both have had serious health issues and it’s still unlikely – in my opinion – that Darren will ever return to the upwards career-curve he was on in 2009. If that were to happen then I’d be over-joyed.

We all love a try-er and he’s been exactly that guy since he first broke through – troubled by injuries in his late teens, inconsistency in his early twenties, and what looked like redemption in his mid-twenties before he was felled by ulcerative colitis. If Shakespeare was a UTD fan-boy then he’d write another “Scottish play” about the tragedy of Fletcherinho.

Denton Davey - October 29, 2012 Reply

Alfonso Bedoya @ 2:03: “I think it was probably a personality issue… Pogba was very young, but already showing signs of arrogance”

Yeah, sure; BUT he never got any serious playing-time which would suggest that SAF rated ThreeLungPark more highly when-push-came-to-shove.

For whatever reason that SAF might have had, I think that Marion (@ 1:37) is on the right track: “I think the lack of an obvious defensive mid in the squad is intentional – clearly not paying off right now, but Fergie is clearly trying to change the way we play”.

I guess that SAF decided that Pogba was likely to be a square-peg-in-a-round-hole. No question about the kid’s talent but was he “right for UTD” ? That’s the mantra we hear a lot when SAF discusses his new signings

Or, maybe, he was just tapped-up by Juventus and his agent so that there was nothing to keep him at OT ? Didn’t Fergy say that a deal was “already done with Juve” when this issue became a tempest-in-his-teacup last winter ?

uncleknobheadforfucksake - October 29, 2012 Reply

hargreaves was a terrible player and we were a worse team when he played, except when he was moved out to the wing and fullback, which was within a few months of his signing such was his shiteness in midfield, cant pass protect and took ages to even control the ball, also regularly caught behind the play

fletchers promotion from squaddie to first teamer was one of the reasons for the decline in our play post winning the cl(the others being parks promotion ahead of giggs and berbatovs signing) an average rounabouter at his peak who cant pass, better player than hargreaves tho

Alfonso Bedoya - October 29, 2012 Reply

At least Fletcher was a United product… Hargreaves was a £17mill, floppy haired, waste of boots.

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