No defence for Reds under attack

Truth is truth, to the end of reckoning.
The Tempest – Act I, Scene II, 1610

If there is any veracity in Shakespeare’s axiom then the Bard might also recognise that no team can prosper with a defence quite as exposed as Manchester United’s. In defeat to Norwich City on Saturday Sir Alex Ferguson’s outfit conceded first – not for the first time this season –  and most certainly not the last. On this occasion, however, the Scot’s team had not the wherewithal to mount yet another comeback.

It was, of course, always going to be this way, with United seemingly teetering on the edge of defeat in perpetuity this season. While Norwich’s victory surprised, defeat per se cannot; not at the rate and regularity with which Ferguson’s side has leaked goals of late.

Indeed, with 17 goals given up in just 12 league games Ferguson’s side is on course to top 50 ceded in the campaign. No team has won the title during the Premier League era with that level of fragility at the back. Only United, with 45 in the against column during the 1999/2000 campaign, comes close.

In this there is verisimilitude – it is almost unthinkable that Ferguson’s side will regain the Premier League title  or, cynics might point out, claim any silverware at all, unless his side tightens up at the back.

With just three clean sheets in 18 games this season, compared to 24 in 54 last, there has been a marked change in United’s defensive solidity. It is a change not solely born of another injury crisis. After all, while Nemanja Vidić has already missed a sizable chunk of the season, the giant Serbian was absent for the second half of the previous campaign.

Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans and Phil Jones have all missed parts of both . Evans’ return to fitness has brought no greater security, while both Rafael da Silva and Patrice Evra will justifiably point to a resurgence in form this season.

In East Anglia United suffered as much for lack of shape in central midfield as from a creaky back-four. The partnership of Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs has rarely offered a solid base from which to build. In fact, few Reds will recall an occasion, save for United’s victory over Chelsea in the Champions League semi-final, April 2011, that the pair has dominated an opposition.

While Carrick retained an impressive pass completion rate at Carrow Road, Giggs lost possession on one occasion in five. In the final third the Welshman’s ratio of misplaced passing increases significantly. Wasted possession that only invites opposition pressure.

More concerning though is the defensive contribution: Giggs made just three tackles against Norwich. There were no interceptions, blocks, or clearances. Carrick, meanwhile, made just one interception and four tackles. None of these data points says anything about the open positional play that allowed Norwich to break at will.

None of these faults are new, but when United’s plethora of attacking resources misfire – as they did in Norfolk – then Ferguson’s problems are myriad. While United enjoyed more than 62 per cent of the ball, only two of the half dozen saves Norwich’s John Ruddy made – from Ashley Young and Sebastien Bassong – were more than routine for a stopper of the Cornishman’s growing stature.

“We had a lot of possession and one or two half-chances without having any great chances, but it just wasn’t our night,” admitted Ferguson.

“The players we’ve got are used to making comebacks, particularly in the last minutes of matches. We’re always a threat. We were in some respects tonight also, but they defended really well and the goalkeeper’s made two or three really good saves at vital moments.

“It was a marvelous cross and a magnificent header – there was nothing the goalkeeper could do about that. We were too long in delaying our crosses. We should have got the ball in earlier. But we just didn’t get into the space behind them, it just didn’t happen for us. Norwich got plenty of men behind the ball and closed out all of the spaces.”

This is, of course, a tame excuse for a performance that was infuriating for it’s lack of urgency or cohesion. Much the same was said of United’s last visit to East Anglia. Now, as then, passing and possession statistics say little about Norwich’s dynamism compares to United’s insipid lethargy.

Yet, Ferguson will at least find solace in a fixture list that throws up five gimmes before the Reds make the short trip across Manchester to face City at Eastlands in December. The midweek dead rubber against Galatasaray is followed by home bankers with Queens Park Rangers, West Ham United and a trip to Reading.

But none of those games is a foregone conclusion until Ferguson’s side is willing, or able, to close up the shop, while retaining the attacking verve that fans have enjoyed this season. Of this are the very best sides made.

Last season Ferguson’s men secured five clean sheets in a row during the autumn, and then another series of four during the run in. Each came at a crucial period. There is, surely, no better time to ameliorate the worst of United’s defensive problems than in the weeks leading up to this season’s first derby.

More of the same can invite only one outcome by the time United’s campaign ends next May. Or, as Shakespeare might add, what’s past is prologue.

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Comments

  1. Andrew says

    Norwich deserved to beat Man Utd and I think that should be appreciated. The wanted to win the game and worked harder than we did to get the three points. I think this is probably the laziest and most complacent Man Utd squad we have had in years.

    The defensive issue is mainly down to the team not defending together and not having the right balance. We have been strong defensively in recent years and we’ve been capable of keeping clean sheets. We cannot any more and we can’t even get a draw when we play badly. We either win or lose. We have had 3 defeats by mid-November. Can we really win the league? I doubt it.

    Giggs and Scholes are finished and we are just ruining Cleverley, Anderson and Powell by not giving them more matches t play. I cannot see any sense in playing Giggs in central midfield against a team that has been playing 5 in midfield this season. There is no energy or tempo when Carrick is lined up alongside Giggs or Scholes.

  2. marlon says

    Given his consistency, I think Carrick is a good barometer of our midfield’s performance. Last season he averaged 3 tackles and 2.4 interceptions per game – this season 1.6 and 1.7. I don’t think he is playing worse or is suffering from fatigue so the change is tactical. After last season, Fergie was clearly pissed that we lost on GD and so went and spent £24 million on a 29 year old, injury prone genius. I think he has also told the whole team to attack more. With the addition of RVP, Rooney is now playing as both a 10 and CM, rather than a 9 and 10 as he was last season. Theoretically this should add to our defensive solidity. In practise however, both our CMs are attacking much more and can frequently be found on the edge of the opposition box rather than 20/30 yards back as both Scholes and Carrick were last year. We’ve tried to turn our holding midfield pair into two box to box players and it has failed miserably to the detriment of the entire team, especially when this burden is most often placed on our older, less athletic players.

    This has perhaps come from an attempt from Fergie to help the team continue to evolve into a team that can press high up the pitch (we are 2nd in the league in tackles/game this season). With the lack of pace from our CBs and CMs (you can get away with it if it’s one or the other), this is not working – the same happened to Chelsea last year. We need to let our CMs sit, or bring in Anderson and Cleverley and accept the inevitable mistakes they will make. Our attackers should be good enough that we don’t need our CMs to join them.

    The biggest thing missing from our Norwich performance was a no. 10. Without Rooney and Kagawa available, I assumed RVP would play there, but we went with a flat two up front and hoped that Giggs, an old man, would be able to fulfil his duties both as a CM and chief creator. In the end he couldn’t handle both roles. We should’ve had another CM with Carrick and played Giggs behind a striker. With an otherwise functional XI, we could’ve afforded to carry Giggs in a more attacking role. I see what Fergie was trying to achieve, but he tried to do too much. He promised Hernandez a start, but couldn’t drop RVP. He didn’t want to sacrifice width and without Rooney he needed creativity in the middle as well (other than Rooney, Giggs is the only creative player we’ve had in the middle for years). Worst of all though, when it didn’t work, he didn’t adapt.

  3. Denton Davey says

    “We should have got the ball in earlier. But we just didn’t get into the space behind them, it just didn’t happen for us.”

    “the space behind them” – it’s as if SAF is living in some sort of parallel universe in which old-fashioned wingers are nowadays the key to unlocking defences. Alas, it just doesn’t work that way anymore – and no other team is so reliant on the two-winger system as SAF’s.

    That is part of the problem, the other part (which is complementary and can’t be considered separately) concerns the exposure of the midfield-two – they’re over-manned and three of them (Carrick, Scholes, Giggs) aren’t very mobile in defence so they play conservatively, don’t run at the opposition defenders, and create a huge space between the midfield and attack.

    Pinging 50- or 60-yarders to the wings will only work with wingers who run hell-for-leather to the bye-line and then square the ball into the box, onto the bonce of an onrushing attacker. Currently, Ashley Young, AV7, and Nani aren’t quick enough to play that game – all three slow the game down rather than raising its tempo.

    Problems should breed solutions – in this case, switching away from a rigid 4-4-2 towards a system (4-2-3-1 or 4-3-2-1) which relies on the full-backs for width and tries to play the ball quickly by running-at the opposition defenders seems to the be the way to maximize the skills of KagawaBunga, RVP, Chicharito, and TheWayneBoy while giving playing time to Anderson/Cleverley. Even a 4-1-4-1 with Michael Carrick in the shielding role would work better.

    • Damian Garside says

      Love the AF in a parallel universe idea: makes me think that when he leaves OT he will be like Fringe’s Walter Bishop when we first see him in the hospital (before Oivia and Peter remove him).

      Why can’t he try detgubg different: using wingback, other distinctively dfferent formations that Kagiwa as playmaker can fit into (it looks like he is a square peg looking for a round hole in a 4-4-2 system.

  4. BT says

    I know this is over-dramatic, but as soon as I heard the team I messaged my son to say “Fergie’s handed the title to City”. How come we can all see the pointlessness of 4-4-2 with wingers who a) cut inside and pass backwards or b) stop and stand still when they encounter a defender – against five-man midfields containing young, fit, strong players; the desperate long-ball game that follows, all straight to the other team’s defence; the massive gap between our rigid attack and defence; the complete absence of a central midfield; and the utter mediocrity of Carrick, Giggs and (against anyone prepared to move or press) Scholes – oh, while keeping young, mobile players on the bench so they can follow Pogba to other title-winning teams where they play every week. Complete insanity. How come not a single member of the coaching staff at United can see any of this?

  5. Alfonso BedoyaAlfonso Bedoya says

    Commenter said:
    Norwich deserved to beat Man Utd and I think that should be appreciated. The wanted to win the game and worked harder than we did to get the three points.

    They deserved to beat the team Ferguson fielded… Rooney crocked… so Ferguson plays Giggs… brilliant…

  6. uncleknobheadffsuncleknobheadforfucksake says

    we play better when andershites in the team, and generally win when cleverleys in, and nani is clearly better than either winger we’ve got by an obviously massive distance

    and yet taggarts immediate reaction to going a goal down was switching to a giggs scholes carrick young midfield,

    young is even worse than park

  7. Martin says

    Surely Norwich was a great opportunity to go 4-3-3. No Rooney so Fletcher/Cleverly/Anderson (or Carrick) in the middle, RVP and 2 wingers up top. Sorry Javier, no start this week either, you are too valuable off the bench.

    As for the squad that has gone to Turkey, despite the fact that the group is won, pretty good chance of improving the balance in your Betfair account. Lay.

  8. Sameer says

    unitedrant does not have the right to call the greatest manager of all time “Ferguson”.
    It’s “Sir Alex” or “Sir Alex Ferguson” please!

  9. Denton Davey says

    Martin @ 3:40: “RVP and 2 wingers up top. ”

    Pay attention !

    Ashley Young and Valencia – “2 wingers up top” – were part of the problem, NOT part of the solution.

  10. marlon says

    Just saw this quote from Quieroz on manutd.com:
    “Asking a team to win the league without a top-class defensive midfielder is like sending a climber up Everest without oxygen.”

  11. minde says

    fergusson became senile idiot, how people can’t understand that?? it’spointless to discuss his team selections because they are just a load of senile deluded rubbish, fuck off fergie and take your buddies glazers with you you fucking cunt

  12. Alfonso BedoyaAlfonso Bedoya says

    Calvino said:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/2012/nov/18/norwich-city-manchester-united-premier-league

    Best report and what I have been saying for a long time. Then again, most ofnyounhave said same above. I have been seething all weekend and even now I am not feeling any better.

    The problem with articles like that… Ferguson just gets his back up, determined to do it his way and prove them wrong… expect more of the same…and Ferguson to sneer at the doubters when the same team/tactics beats the likes of QPR 2-1 with a last minute goal scored off Chicos arse… and Ferguson to say it was, “character and experience got us the win against a very determined team”…

  13. Damian Garside says

    Alf, I think AFs desire to prove people wrong is starting to become a loony obsession : lhe is constantly rejecting football sense to try and show the world something. Please what we want to see us United thump everybody from here on including and especially City as they romp to the title. Not going to happen. And a lucky title win not going to happen either: depends on too many teams that have resolve and consistency slipping up big time,

  14. Clive says

    I love that quote from Fergie:

    “The players we’ve got are used to making comebacks, particularly in the last minutes of matches. We’re always a threat. We were in some respects tonight also, but they defended really well and the goalkeeper’s made two or three really good saves at vital moments.”

    Yes Fergie – and why are we continually having to make comebacks in matches? Is it because you keep playing ****ing scholes or giggs instead of a fully fit tom cleverley? I mean a jokes a joke but its getting ridiculous now – this is the reason we lost the league last year and looks like history is repeating itself.

    The other thing that annoys me is we just look toothless and not to mention boring when dads army are playing – on the plus side though – with the likes of cleverley and anderson playing against Galatasary – we’ll actually have a good performance to look forwar too :-) and then they’ll get dropped for the important games – well done Fergie.

  15. Sidsidney says

    Thing is some of the goals we’ve conceded aren’t the result of bad formations or tactics – they’re the result of shitness; shitness from experienced players like Ferdinand and Evans. It’s not thinking, not concentrating, not being aware that has been costing us.
    There isn’t a lot you can do when good players are being shit other than perservere. One thing that would fucking help a bit is having someone other than Carrick – someone more aggressive – to screen the defence (who have been the biggest culprits of shitness) because at times they’re overrun. Villa was a good example. Once they got the ball off us, or we gave it away, they were straight on our defence and chaos ensued.
    Mancini’s more cautious approach is working better than our gung ho approach. City are currently shit n all, but they’re still unbeaten.

  16. uncleknobheadffsuncleknobheadforfucksake says

    hoolahan and ireland have both spent 90 minutes swanning about in the hole under zero pressure in our last two games, carricks had to try and protect the defence on his own, and hes shite at it, and looks increasingly less interested in doing it

  17. bman says

    uncleknobheadforfucksake said:
    hoolahan and ireland have both spent 90 minutes swanning about in the hole under zero pressure in our last two games, carricks had to try and protect the defence on his own, and hes shite at it, and looks increasingly less interested in doing it

    Yeah I noticed the same thing, it looks like our crap defending is holding back an already pretty crap midfield. That might explain why we seem to so slow at recovering possession and going on the counterattack. I think one reason why Valencia had a bad game against Norwich is because he was always getting the ball too late and too far back, with the opposition’s winger and full back already in theor defensive positions lined up against him. He’s not Ronaldo, he’s not going to go through two men.

  18. Sidsidney says

    Interesting analysis
    Wins at Chelsea, Newcastle and Liverpool are cancelled out by losing at home to Tottenham, away at Norwich and away at Everton
    These are the ‘should wins’ that will probably decide the title

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