Second gear might just be enough for lethargic Reds

It is a truism that Manchester United has rarely, if ever, hit top form this season. The Premier League’s top goal scorers may have entertained at times, finding the net 32 times in 13 Premier League games, but the unit has rarely, it seems, worked as a collective. Sir Alex Ferguson’s team is on course for 90 plus domestic league goals, but may well concede half as many at the other end. More worrying for the Scot is his team’s propensity to play only in bursts.

Saturday’s clash with Queens Park Rangers is a case in point, with United failing to keep a clean sheet for the 17th time in 20 games, while scoring three in a 15 minute second half spell to win the match.

It’s hard to argue with the results – United sits top of the Premier League and has comfortably qualified for the knock – out stages in Europe. Yet, there is a growing sense that Ferguson’s team cannot keep ceding goals if it is to succeed in the Spring, while there must equally be a step change in performance levels.

This is an observation that Saturday’s emotional goalscorer, Darren Fletcher, understands all too clearly, with the Scot demanding improved performances from the Reds after the weekend’s unconvincing victory over QPR.

“We’re very frustrated,” Fletcher told MUTV. “It shouldn’t take going a goal behind for us to start playing. The only positive thing we can take from it is that every time we do it we seem to respond. But we can’t keep making a habit of it.

“We want to go on a run of winning games now and not keep conceding first. After the defeat at Norwich and at Galatasaray it was important we got a win today. Hopefully now we can kick on and see an improvement in our performances.

“It’s great to be back and to score goals but it has to be in winning teams. That’s what made today special. It wasn’t great to go a goal down in my first league game back. I was thinking: ‘Here we go’. But the lads always respond and the most pleasing thing for me about my goal was that it put us 2-1 up.”

Fletcher’s call-to-action pays little credence to QPR performance. After all the west London outfit lived with United for all but a short spell in the second half. The Reds’ performance was at times lethargic, and far too often insipid, on a day when many supporters had expected something a little more dynamic.

Indeed, the question of United’s rejoinder to going a goal, or sometimes two, behind has been oft-debated this season, although Ferguson’s side was unable to respond at Everton and Norwich City, or against Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford. Despite the Reds’ lofty league position those defeats could yet haunt Ferguson’s men.

The warning is clear though: if the Scot’s side leaks goals at more than one per game, United will continue losing matches in the campaign.

“Conceding first is a bad habit but it’s good that we can turn it around,” added goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard, who was preferred to David de Gea on Saturday

“Last weekend against Norwich we were not able do it. I don’t think we should have conceded in this match, it is very disappointing. I asked one of my team-mates in the locker room about what would have happened if we hadn’t conceded a goal. It was like a wake-up call for us.”

In that Ferguson is surely troubled – he is seemingly unable to bolster a defensive unit that, despite intermittent changes, has contained five internationals in almost every match this season. This is a question unanswered in the campaign to date, with the Reds conceding first in 13 of 20 fixtures.

More concerning though is Lindegaard’s admission that his team-mates now require the spur of conceding to kick on. After all, talk is undoubtedly cheap when the Dane, Fletcher and company have been unable to right a listing ship, defensively at least, for much of the campaign. If motivation has now become such a problem that the team cannot find its optimum, without the pressure of potential defeat, then Ferguson has much work to do.

Yet, Manchester City’s draw with Chelsea on Sunday leaves the Reds heading the Premier League table with a third of the season now complete. The lesson, if any is to be drawn, from challengers’ inconsistency, is that Ferguson’s side need not be of his finest vintage to claim domestic league title 20 in May.

“We only played for 10 minutes,” admitted Ferguson of United’s performance against QPR. “We expected an improved performance from Queens Park Rangers. We saw that today, they fought very hard. But in terms of our own quality we only played for 10 minutes.”

“It’s always important to win. We want to challenge for the title this season and victories like this when we’re not playing at our best are important.”

Yet the question of what is now “United’s best” remains relevant. Ferguson’s United side may well contain a plethora of attacking talent, but it is undoubtedly hamstrung in other areas. On Saturday Javier Hernández once again rescued Ferguson’s men – a habit the young Mexican has invariably found in recent months. Hernández and his attacking cohort will not always do so.

Good for the United that the club’s rivals have similar weaknesses, amply demonstrated by English clubs’ poor performance in the Champions League group stages. City’s inability to convert draws to victories, especially away from home, has become costly. Meanwhile, Chelsea – with yet another manager – lacks as much direction as quality in central midfield.

In Europe, come the early-spring knock-out stages, none of this will be relevant to Ferguson’s side. But for now, domestically, performances such as that against QPR on Saturday may well be enough to see the Scot’s side home. In what could yet be Ferguson’s final campaign the Scot may want for little more.

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Comments

  1. Denton Davey says

    Too much tinkering.

    Rio, Giggs, and Scholes should only be emergency players.

    Ashley Young should be sent to Coventry (or whatever the footie-equivalent might be).

  2. says

    I think you’re going through a very dangerous line, Ed. At the moment, the table shows indeed we don’t need to be at top gear to bring our trophy back, and there’s no question against these numbers.

    However, we are still vulnerable to our rivals’ weaknesses. We depend that Sergio Aguero keep being unable to compete with the top scorers, we depend that Eden Hazard and Juan Mata keep struggling to bring back victories for Chelsea. Isn’t that exactly what happened last season? We needed City to losing 8 pts to close the gap, and after they started to make a final sequence of victories, we just threw it away.

    If we really have intention to be league champions again we can’t even think of other clubs’ form. We should be better than the best they can play, and make damn sure we get our both hands on the trophy. We can’t even think of counting with others’ slips.

    • Damian Garside says

      You are making a lot of sense here — thanks for your input. But just let me add that if we DO win the title not at our best, it will mean that the EPL loses something as a sporting spectacle. We need to play at our best and beat the others at their best: they can slip and we can steal ahead in the final straight, or romp home on style: but with style and conviction — not by default as the least sorry of a sorry bunch. Not the United way.

  3. brianofnazarethbrianofnazareth says

    uncleknobheadforfucksake said:
    cap championed young

    its no wonder hes fucked off

    Young is absolute SHITE. As is Welbeck.

    We need to start with Chunky Anderson every time.

  4. bman says

    I didn’t think Young was a world-beater, but I have to confess I thought he’d be better than he has. He looks absolutely shit out there. Fucking hell, how much better would things be if we’d bought Hazard.

  5. Alfonso BedoyaAlfonso Bedoya says

    Young has one trick… cutting inside and curling into the far corner… it looks class when he pulls it off… but it’s sure as fuck not worth his place at United.

  6. SpudiatorSpudiator says

    Commenter said:
    Too much tinkering.

    Rio, Giggs, and Scholes should only be emergency players.

    Ashley Young should be sent to Coventry (or whatever the footie-equivalent might be).

    The football equivalent of being sent to Coventry would probably be to actually be sent to Coventry (City).

  7. Denton Davey says

    sidney @ 4:51: “he lifted his shirt to the press to show that he isn’t a fat bastard”

    I saw that – shadow lines of a six-pack, too. His running-speed was also very impressive on Saturday. He’s extremely one-footed – like Valencia – but when his mojo is working then his left foot is like a wand.

  8. AnantaxAnantax says

    I must say i have been impressed with Rafael. He was disastrous in the first few games but then has seemed to find his feet quite well.

    As for our lethargic play, I think we’re being found out a bit this season. We’re not good enough to tiki taka past opponents who park the bus yet dont have the one or two special players who beat their man and make something happen. Val was good last season, but he is in poor form past few games.

    I think Fergie will eventually either turn to Ando Clev Powell Fletch for our midfield, which will bring more energy. Question is whether these four have enough quality.

    Or we buy someone in January – which in the era of Glazernomics might be unrealistic (?)

  9. bman says

    Anantax said:
    As for our lethargic play, I think we’re being found out a bit this season. We’re not good enough to tiki taka past opponents who park the bus yet dont have the one or two special players who beat their man and make something happen.

    Yeah I agree. Having some players that are great dribblers and can take the ball past the man in front of them is vital — that’s the most effective way to unlock a well-organised defense, because then the defenders have to retreat backwards (or someone come up to meet you). We can only try to unlock a good defense with clever passing, and that’s much harder to do. That’s why Tony V has stood out for us since he joined despite being a fairly limited player, because he’s practically the only guy we have who can beat a defender and carry the ball forward, thus completely undermining the offside trap and the defensive line.
    There’s actually not that many players who are good at beating someone on the dribble, even our best players like Rooney and RVP aren’t really that good at it, so far as I can see. Dembele would have been a good addition for us for that reason, apart from some defensive steel in midfield, we also need some non-passing X factor.

  10. bman says

    That’s also why Ando is *potentially* more effective for us than Cleverly. Cleverly’s ok, and he’s a tidy passer, but when he’s living up to his talents Ando can actually carry the ball past opposition players and really open things up.

  11. Alfonso BedoyaAlfonso Bedoya says

    Anderson has great vision… nearly as good as Scholes… his pass isn’t as good, but he spots the aggressive ball immediately… that’s a gift.

  12. Will says

    Anderson’s first instinct, it seems, is to go forward and he has great acceleration that can take him past players quickly. He’s really the only midfielder we have with this quality. If he can stay fit and focused he has to start, perhaps with Fletcher covering behind. Fletch has a cool head, and rarely does anything silly; means no place for Carrick or Scholes but I can’t help feel the defence may benefit as a result. Cleverly moves the ball sideways very well but not always a great deal else – think United are still not compact to enough for his short passing game to be that effective for us. Also we desperately need Rooney or Kagawa in the hole seeking the ball from central midfield, that we we’re so much more dynamic (even if Young’s legs have all but gone). Feel we have to start Nani and bear with him; he’s capable of genius in the way Valencia isn’t although when on form he makes up for it with brute power). Attack seems to be our best/only form of defence.

  13. davek says

    is this the same anderson that has had over five years at utd and countless chances to impress?
    I remember the COC game v Chelsea where he was pretty good for 70 mins before completely running out of steam and at the same time Giggs played the full 120min.
    Don’t get me wrong he’s talented and I love him to play well for more than 4/5 games in a row it just has happened in all the time he’s been at the club so I won’t hold my breath.

  14. Pikey McScumPikey McScum says

    uncleknobheadforfucksake said:
    i want dannis view on this

    I want a view of Kelly Brook’s front-passage but we can’t have eveything we want…

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