There are a couple of things to be said about United’s last transfer window. First, it was the most successful window that the club has enjoyed since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. Yet, there is still work to be done to fine tune the squad. One position is at centre-back, and more specifically who should partner the impressive Eric Bailly.
Two months into the summer 2015 transfer window and Louis Van Gaal has certainly strengthened Manchester United’s squad with a quintet of acquisitions. Matteo Darmian is a huge upgrade over Antonio Valencia at right-back and Memphis Depay adds flair and a sense of unpredictability to United’s forward line. Morgan Schneiderlin and the star of United’s transfer window, Bastian Schweinsteiger, provide the Reds with a midfield duo capable of holding its own against high-class opponents.
In defence there is reason to think Van Gaal might just stick with what he now has. Van Gaal’s philosophy revolves around balance being omnipresent in the starting eleven. There is a strong argument that the purchase of a central defender is essential if the Dutchman is to achieve that goal. After all, since the departure of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, United has often lacked a commanding defender to bring calm to the apparent chaos. Yet, Van Gaal showed faith with the options he had last season, providing each defender with a chance to stake his claim. It has paid some dividend.
After being sent off against Manchester City in November Chris Smalling was United’s most impressive centre-back. Smalling’s determined performances were augmented by some crucial goals, including a thunderous header against City to complete his redemption. Especially towards the latter end of the season, Smalling was transformed into a defensive leader, and has carried on this impressive form into the new season.
The former Fulham man was central to victories over Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa. Smalling’s positioning has been exceptional, allowing him to neutralize Harry Kane on the opening day and Villa’s Rudy Gested. The England international’s passing is also more assured than a year ago, although it remains a cause for concern against an opposition that presses. If Smalling continues this rate of development he could fulfil the potential Sir Alex Ferguson predicted five years ago.
Meanwhile, Van Gaal has transformed Daley Blind into a central defender this season, with the Dutch international providing balance on the left. Blind doesn’t boast pace, power or height, but has looked assured in the new role. Blind adds intelligence to the backline and his ability to bring the ball out from the back has instigated several United attacks. The former Ajax player has also formed a good understanding with Smalling.
Still, Blind has been caught out a few times in dangerous areas – alarming considering the Dutchman doesn’t have the recovery pace to make up for shortcomings. It is an observation that means Marcos Rojo could well replace Blind in the starting eleven when fit.
Rojo showed flashes of quality last season and his aggression reminds supporters of the Serbian rock, Vidic. The Argentine’s reading of the game and his passing range must improve if he is to succeed at United though, while Rojo ‘s positional ill-discipline left more than one gap at the back last season. Nevertheless, the former Sporting man has real character and his robust tackling was a strong feature.
Rojo is perhaps the most suitable partner for Smalling and averages a similar number of tackles and interceptions per game. Rojo also boasts an impressive number of clearances.
Phil Jones has always held the potential to be a force for the Reds, but injury problems consistently ruin any momentum. Jones’ injuries persisted last season, with the former Blackburn Rovers man taking part in just 22 games. In keeping with the pattern Jones’ has missed the opening three weeks of this season. He was a member of the starting eleven during United’s best period of football from March to April, where the Reds’ defence conceded just four goals, forming a resolute partnership with Smalling.
Jones started pre-season brightly, although disappointed against PSG in the final tour game. His positional awareness remains a real weakness at times, most notably allowing a Zlatan Ibrahamovic space to slot a home for PSG. It points to a pivotal season, with a high probability of it being his last chance in Manchester.
Jonny Evans, by contrast, is near an Old Trafford exit. Evans’ alarming regression since Ferguson’s retirement continued in 2014/15. The Irishman is an excellent reader of the game, but is bereft of confidence and looks frightened of the ball. It seems unlikely that he will ever recapture his place at United and a move away from the Old Trafford spotlight seems highly likely for the former academy player.
Meanwhile, youth players Paddy McNair and Tyler Blackett were thrown into the team last season as injuries took hold. McNair was a surprise starter against Everton in November and barely put a foot wrong in the months to come. He handled the physical presence of Romelu Lukaku, efficiently nullifying the Belgian’s impact. McNair’s reading is impressive, although lapses in concentration caused mistimed tackles and unnecessary fouls at times. McNair has some work to do if he is to become a fixture in the United first team, but the Irishman isn’t fazed by the standard in the Premier League.
Blackett, meanwhile, showed promise on the left side of defence, although all momentum was lost after being part of the United horror show at Leicester City. Despite being frozen out of the first team as the season wore on, the Manchester native looked calm and assured when given the opportunity. Blackett is the type of ball playing defender that Van Gaal typically adores. After signing new contracts at the club, big things are expected of both the youngsters in the coming years.
Improvement to individuals suggests that, unless a truly world-class defender becomes available, Van Gaal will stick with what he has. After all, there has been a stark improvement United’s defending this season. The individuals have progressed and the understanding between them has created a strong unit after a full pre-season under the Dutchman.
It is no simple task to please Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal. The veteran Dutchman should be in good spirits given his side’s form of late: seven matches, six victories, in which United has earned 19 points to reach the Premier League’s top three. United’s difficult start to the campaign now forgotten, the outlook is a little more rosy at Old Trafford once again, even if the Reds dropped two points in last weekend’s fixture with Aston Villa. The dominant narrative of the past 18 months is now overturned; United is no longer a club on the slide, but one recovering strongly under Van Gaal’s leadership.
Yet, the Dutchman is far from happy with a fixture list that brings five games over the festive period, including last Saturday’s draw at Villa Park. On Friday Van Gaal’s outfit faces Newcastle United at Old Trafford, with a trip to Tottenham Hotspur less than 48 hours later.
“We have to play these two matches and that is normal in the Premier League. I cannot change that,” moaned Van Gaal last week. “A lot of matches in so few days is, in my opinion, ridiculous.” Welcome to England, Louis.
Yet, it is a run of fixtures that, despite the festive burden, should bring United plenty of points; those matches with Newcastle and Tottenham are followed by a game at Stoke, where the home side has a mixed record this season. Van Gaal’s outfit will legitimately hope to capture nine points from three winnable games before the FA Cup fixture with Yeovil Town in Somerset.
Van Gaal has plenty of resources to throw at games over the next few weeks too, with a sick list that is shorter than at almost any stage this season. Not least in defence, where United has been hit hardest in recent months. Indeed, it is David de Gea alone of United’s frontline backline that is yet to succumb to injury. Chris Smalling, Rafael da Silva, Jonny Evans, Phil Jones, Luke Shaw, and Marcos Rojo, by contrast, have each spent time in United’s high-tech Carrington medical facility. It is a location with which the former quartet is overly familiar.
Not for much longer it seems, with Evans and Jones now fit, and Rafael making the bench against Villa. In the coming days Rojo, Shaw and Smalling could feature against Newcastle or Tottenham. The relief coursing through Van Gaal’s coaching team is no doubt strong, although judgement will soon pass on the Dutchman’s regime that is not caveated in the language of injury.
In the treatment room
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Injuries are only part of Van Gaal’s defensive challenge though. Assuming no further enforced absence in the weeks ahead – a wild premise under the prevailing circumstances – Van Gaal will enjoy the luxury of finding the right balance in a defence that has leaked 18 goals in the Premier League. It is a problem exacerbated on the road where United has conceded a dozen goals – more than 15th-placed West Bromwich Albion.
Many of United’s defensive problems have been precipitated by frequent revisions in Van Gaal’s tactical philosophy, often switching from a three to a four-man defence week-to-week, even when turnover in personnel is also high. Indeed, 13 players have featured in Van Gaal’s defence at some point over the campaign, not including United’s humiliating defeat at Milton Keynes Dons in the Capital One Cup.
Injury has played a significant part in this equation, of course, but it is far from the whole explanation of Van Gaal’s tactical variation. After all, in recent matches midfielder Michael Carrick has been pressed into a defensive role as part of a three-man rearguard with Patrick McNair and Tyler Blackett left on the bench.
Fitness notwithstanding there also remain questions of all defenders in the Dutchman’s squad. At right-back Antonio Valencia has deputised for much of the campaign, prompting Van Gaal to revive a three-man defence that has not always imbued confidence. Few believe the Ecuadorian is a long-term solution. Meanwhile, Rafael’s maturity has been a long-time coming, but it is the Brazilian’s fitness that undermines the player’s future at Old Trafford. After all, the 23-year-old has only once featured in more than 20 Premier League games across a campaign – seven seasons after making his United debut.
Much the same comment can be passed of Smalling, Evans and Jones. While each is talented, although not without faults, none has remained fit long enough to hold down a place in United’s first team. The former has averaged just 14 Premier League starts per season over four full campaigns. Evans a touch over 18 games on average in six full seasons with United. Jones 21 over three. No matter how rare the talent it is without value in the treatment room.
Van Gaal must hope that early season injuries to new acquisitions Shaw and Rojo are no more than teething problems and not a forebears of a pattern to come. Meanwhile, Blackett and McNair remain callow – and out of contract next summer with seemingly no guarantee that new deals will be signed.
While the Dutchman has rejected the notion that the club can spend its way out of the challenge Borussia Dortmund’s Matts Hummels is presumably high on Van Gaal’s wanted list should Ed Woodward sign off on yet more spending this winter. Not that the German international has always remained fit over the past two seasons either. Valencia’s Nicolas Otamendi is a potential alternate.
“Do we have to buy players? No. We have more than enough,” was Van Gaal’s rejoinder earlier this month. Yet, there is little doubt circumstance demands he should strengthen. After all, it is the observation that his defensive cohort cannot be trusted when it comes to fitness or form that diverts the eye towards the transfer market.
There is a much at stake. Talk of a challenge for the Premier League title is presumptuous at this stage, but neither is a spot in Europe next season guaranteed. Not least if Van Gaal’s side continues to suffer injuries in the rearguard. And history says further absences are likely even if Van Gaal has a full compliment of defenders to choose from in January.
In the meantime the Dutchman will labour through a period he says his players find “fun.” Only if they remain fit, of course.
Manchester United’s loss to West Bromwich Albion on Saturday was the third reverse in the Premier League this season. Many of David Moyes’ problems tie in the tactics the former Everton manager has deployed, which have impacted both defence and attack.
One of the key concepts behind Moyes’ 4-4-1-1 formation is to develop two points of attack. By contrast two pure strikers offers essentially only one target to aim for. With a forward deployed in the hole, however, the team uses the number ten to feed its advanced forward, or provide other attacking players passing options.
The two banks of four used in Moyes’ prefered 4-4-1-1 formation offers a solid defensive base – it is a relatively simple shape that offers cover as the midfield four closely tracks the opposition midfield. And with at least one forward staying in the opposition half the team can quickly attack on the counter.
However, these two banks of four are rigid and the formation needs careful calibration if the side wants to avoid becoming overly direct. After all, the system deploys nobody to mark the opposition number ten so the gap between the defence and midfield needs to be narrow in order to squeeze the space in which opposition playmakers can operate.
This space has to be carefully managed, lest the team is forced deep, especially where the defence is immobile. The consequence is the requirement for a high line if the team is to play attacking football. It was this gap that Samir Nasri expertly exploited in the recent derby, ravaging United’s defence in the Reds 4-1 defeat at the Etihad.
Jonny Evans’ return, a mobile and seasoned defender, offers hope and Rafael da Silva should soon regain match fitness to take up his position on the right. It will allow Moyes to use Phil Jones or Chris Smalling in their natural position at centre back. However, United’s new conservatism under Moyes suggests that Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand will feature prominently in the future. There are times that call for a deep line, but being forced into it is a different matter entirely.
The most significant weakness in United’s two banks of four is that against most systems in modern football there is no spare man at the back. With the Reds’ central midfielders, wingers and full-backs completely occupied man-for-man by the opposition, United’s central defenders are left to deal with two opposition forwards by themselves.
The system also requires central midfielders to act as a duo; a staggered pair in the middle can easily be outmaneuvered. Moyes’ apparent faith in Anderson is perhaps an attempt at enabling a midfielder to join the attack while maintaining a deep line, trusting the Brazilian’s pace to quickly return to midfield in defensive situations.
With the engine room pinned back United’s attacking thrust must come from the flanks. In Moyes’ 4-4-1-1 the Reds’ wide midfielders must hug the byline – getting caught out in central positions can put the team in an undesirable situation where central midfielders are dragged out wide and the wide men are forced to cover through the middle.
Part of United’s problem this season lies in Wayne Rooney. The former Everton player is in very good form, but he has been deployed as a second striker. Rooney comes deep only when the opposition is in possession for a prolonged period of time and bombs forward as soon as United regains the ball.
With Vidić and Ferdinand uncomfortable in a high line, Michael Carrick and his partner cannot push up the pitch without compromising United’s defensive integrity. Carrick and Maroune Fellaini’s lack of pace exacerbates this problem.
Ryan Giggs, Antonio Valencia and Adnan Januzaj can all play the traditional wide role, but the fact that United doesn’t have a genuine aerial presence bar the new Belgian acquisition limits the usefulness of this quintessentially British approach to football.
The unexpected defeat to West Brom on Saturday epitomizes the problems both in defence and attack inherent in Moyes’ 4-4-1-1. Perhaps emboldened by Evans’ return, the Reds pushed high up the pitch. Anderson and Carrick, in particular, enjoyed time on the ball, although West Brom’s midfield stuck close enough to the United duo to limit the incision or penetration from the middle.
Meanwhile, United used a mixed approach on the flanks. Nani played well in the first half, but was seldom seen after the break. On the right the Portuguese attacked the byline and crossed. Yet, with little height in United’s forward line, West Brom opted to defend the box, allowing the winger space and time to play.
While Rooney and Javier Hernández failed to penetrate the deep-lying West Brom defence, a breakthrough appeared possible with Nani delivering sharp crosses and United having good possession.
During the opening period Nani and Shinji Kagawa also drifted inside. With Rooney seemingly neither playing up front or in the hole United’s nominal wingers offered additional passing options in central attacking midfield.
This changed at half-time when Moyes introduced Adnan Januzaj and removed Kagawa, who failed to provide much creativity from the left. However, the former Everton manager put the left-footed Belgian youngster on the right and switched Nani to the left. The intention was clear – central midfielders spreading the play wide, wingers cutting in and full-backs crossing. It is a sound, if predictable, tactic that was often been used by Moyes in a decade at Everton.
Yet, the Scot failed to recognize the difference between his current and previous clubs. The approach in the first half offered great flexibility. The lack of running from central midfield was disappointing, but Nani at least put in several quality crosses.
The second half rendered United predictable. Rooney continued to storm forward, leaving nobody operating in the hole. Carrick and Anderson, who was replaced by Fellaini, were nullified by West Brom’s engine room and there was no one linking the forwards and midfielders.
Robin Van Persie, just back from injury, was introduced, but the delivery from Buttner and Jones was poor and, with the Belgian midfielder sitting deep, there was little aerial prowess in the box to threaten the West Brom defence.
Two goals conceded at Old Trafford and four the Etihad showcase the defensive frailty inherent in the current United set up. United’s central midfielders were occupied by their counterparts. There was no spare man at the back and the defence was pulled out of shape by the opposition, leaving the Reds extremely vulnerable with far too many gaps.
The concept of using Rooney as a second striker is attractive if United can genuinely create a presence in the hole. Kagawa is having great difficulty in fulfilling that role, with Moyes insisting that the former Dortmund player defend as a wide man in two banks of four. Meanwhile, United’s midfield pair needs to move as one unit to preserve the Reds’ defensive shape and cannot consistently provide runners from deep.
It leads to an obvious conclusion: a dedicated holding midfielder is required. Rafael Benitez, a manager well versed in the 4-2-3-1 system, has always argued that both central midfielders need to stay deep to accommodate two attacking full-backs. Indeed, Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid side included Alvaro Arbeloa, a solid defender, at right-back. United, however, does not possess a forward in Cristiano Ronaldo’s mould and the utility of whipping crosses into the box is limited.
Such a move is virtually impossible in Moyes’ 4-4-1-1 with wide players holding a defensive responsibility and unable to cut in. The in vogue concept that ‘central midfielders take turns going forward’ requires a number ten like Toni Kroos at Bayern Munich who comes deep and forms a midfield triangle in the middle to play the ball out of defence. In Moyes’ 4-4-1-1 though, the number ten dropping deep leaves the number nine – normally van Persie – completely isolated.
There are other questions too. Of late David De Gea has been passing the ball out to defenders rather than putting it in the opposition half. It is probably a measure to retain possession and defensive shape, but the move has considerably slowed down United’s tempo, leaving the opposition ample time to set up defensively.
Perhaps a tactical shift to 4-3-3 is possible should Moyes persist with the rapid introduction of Januzaj into the first team. But with four good strikers and a number ten of Kagawa’s pedigree in the squad, the formation isn’t Moyes’ best option.
However, shifting to a 4-2-3-1 might allow the number ten to drop deep and let defenders move the ball quickly and accurately up the field without isolating the advanced forward. The central midfield will have to sit deep though, with Evra and Rafael aggressive attackers and head and shoulders above United’s alternate full-backs. Rooney can play the Kroos role, but the problem of fitting in five central forwards into two spots has lingered on from last season.
Alternatively, a midfield diamond solves a lot of Moyes’ problems. A dedicated holding midfielder provides defensive cover and enables other central midfielders to join the attack. With three central forwards, Moyes can take full advantage of a variety of strikers at his disposal. However, the suspicion remains that the new United manager is too cautious for such an adventurous endeavor.
It is still early days – Moyes has been in charge for only a handful of games at United. The former Everton manager has been exposed to great pressure, but his excuse that he is still getting to know the squad rings hollow. The Scot has assessed his team during preseason and all evidence suggests that he was approached about being Ferguson’s success long before the official announcement.
United’s abysmal failure in the transfer market, aided and abetted by Ed Woodward, is understandable. Neither Woodward nor Moyes has ever operated at the top end of the market.
United’s offensive failure is disappointing; that United’s defence has been repeatedly breached too is appalling given that Moyes’ reputation is built on solidity.
“It was agony,” said Sir Alex Ferguson on Saturday night, “the worst defending of this season.” Indeed, the Scot’s statement is one with which many Manchester United supporters can agree, although the plethora of choices in that inglorious competition says much. Once again Ferguson’s side came back from the brink to win on Saturday; this time against a limited, if spirited, Reading side that picked apart United’s back four with an ease that debased many experienced international.
On this evidence the Reds will not just come close to losing more games this season, but drop vital points in a title race that surely begins in earnest with United’s visit to Eastlands next Sunday. With the Reds’ defensive performances seemingly regressing few supporters will view the derby against Manchester City in the comfortable glow that a Premier League lead should bring.
Ferguson’s defence – or more accurately, the team’s paucity of watchful sanctuary – has become the story of the campaign to date. Just five clean sheets in 22 matches says much, while 21 goals conceded in the Premier League is a greater total than Sunderland in 17th place.
Yet, Ferguson’s side sits atop of the Premier League ahead of next weekend’s derby; United’s 36 points based largely on the Scot’s decision to bolster his attacking options last summer. It is a strategy that has partially worked, of course, with Robin van Persie contributing 13 goals in the campaign to date. On this form the Dutchman should come close to matching the 37 goals scored in all competitions for Arsenal last season.
Yet, United’s habitual need to recovered from deficit, married to embarrassingly loose defensive performances, threatens to undermine a campaign that will bring far greater challenges that Brian McDermott’s Berkshire side offered.
“We’re needing to rescue the situation all the time,” admitted Ferguson. “Fortunately we have players who can do that. If we defend like that against Manchester City, I might need to play myself.”
The Scot is unlikely to find the situation quite so amusing if his side fails to fulfill the defensive basics as the campaign draws on. Beaten three times from set pieces at the Madejski, by the conclusion goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard was suffering from the brand of nervous debility so often attached to rival David de Gea over the past 18 months.
Still, Ferguson’s solution in replacing Rafael da Silva with Chris Smalling on 30 minutes had more than a touch of closing the stable door half-an-hour too late. Smalling’s height, explained Ferguson, offered a solution to Reading’s penetration at set pieces. That the former Fulham defender made just a single successful header in more than an hour on the pitch might suggest otherwise.
More important than a rapid-fire substitution was United’s readjustment after half-time with Wayne Rooney and Ashley Young dropping back into wide areas to protect the Reds’ over-stretched full-backs. The pair’s negligence in leaving both Rafael and Patrice Evra exposed to Reading’s wide players in two-versus-one situations brought the hosts much joy during the opening half.
The attacking rejoinder was swift, of course, with Rooney, van Persie, and at times Young, offering significant penetration. Far too much for McDermott’s pourous outfit. Anderson, too, enjoyed some attacking freedom before yet another injury ruined the Brazilian’s evening. None of the quartet offered much to United’s defensive cause though.
Still, there is some pre-Christmas cheer, with United captain Nemanja Vidić due to return in the Champions League dead rubber with CFR Cluj on Wednesday. The Serbian defender will at least add security in the air, even if the 30-year-old has been far from an imperious past this season.
“He’s a battler, an absolute competitor,” adds Ferguson of his captain. “He’s got that dour, uncompromising way of his. He likes defending – that’s what he does.
“I knew Vida was doing really well with the physios. He was doing his football training with them in terms of turning and striking the ball but he came into training last Monday with the first team and did okay.”
It is unlikely, however, that Vidić will start against City next weekend given the Serbian’s sparsity of matches for the club over the past 18 months. Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans, both culpable at times for poorly defending the high ball against Reading, will surely start at Eastlands.
The real challenge, of course, is not truly in how Ferguson’s defence shapes up, although Evans form of late is a genuine concern, but whether the Scot can balance a midfield that has swung between exposing it’s full-backs and central defenders in turn with each new evolution in tactical thinking.
Indeed, a flat-two in central midfield has too often been the Reds soft underbelly, ruthlessly exposed, for example, by Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford earlier this season. Meanwhile, Ferguson’s decision to play a narrow three on Saturday served only to encourage the hosts to play wide.
In this United’s 70-year-old manager has no easy task against City. Anderson’s injury robs the Scot of one option in central midfield, leaving Ferguson more likely to start with Paul Scholes and Darren Fletcher along side Michael Carrick in a narrow midfield than he is to throw caution to the wind. In any case, injuries to Antonio Valencia and Nani significantly restrict Ferguson’s options in wide areas.
Still, the Scot is prone to surprise against City – none quite so depressing for United supporters as the Reds’ Premier League loss to the blues at Eastlands last season. The United manager’s negative tactical outlook backfired just as significantly as United’s collapse at Old Trafford earlier in the campaign.
And those results may leave Ferguson caught between tool schools of thought; one bent on augmenting United’s fragile defensive unit; the other set up to attack Roberto Mancini’s outfit in its own home. It is, after all, a truism that Ferguson is seemingly yet to find his most effective unit this season.
Still, the defence will be top of mind. “If you make mistakes like that defending then you are going to have to do rescue jobs every week,” said the Scot on Saturday evening. After Saturday’s tactical mess, it’s a statement United’s manager may do well to heed.
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.
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.
Picture the scene: a massacre of x-rated horror. Certainly not one for the kids; not on a Sunday tea time at least. But this was not some far-flung war-torn land ignored by the west, but Manchester United’s defensive shape, seemingly disregarded by Sir Alex Ferguson. It was brutally exposed by newly promoted Southampton at St Mary’s on Sunday, and oh-so-nearly cost United a second defeat of the campaign.
After all, there have been plenty warnings. Everton bullied United’s back four at Goodison on the opening day of the season, while Fulham should have scored more than an Old Trafford double last month. That is to say nothing of the four the Toffees scored at the back end of last season in a tragi-comic end to the campaign.
Yet, at St Mary’s the old frailties recurred, with both full-backs caught out of position too often, while Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić looked far from the tried-and-trust partnership of old.
True, injuries have disrupted United’s preparations and consistency. Patrice Evra aside, each of Ferguson’s first team defenders has spent time in the physio suite over the past year. Ferguson’s side started the campaign missing four central defenders in Jonny Evans, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Ferdinand. Few squads could cope with that level of disruption, let alone record two victories the opening three matches of the campaign.
Yet, it’s an analysis that misses the underlying point, and downplays the structural problems in Ferguson’s side. Defensive numbers are plentiful at Old Trafford, but after a summer of more generous than usual transfer spend, the question of squad balance still rears its ugly head.
On the south coast the Reds suffered not only for mistakes in defence – Southampton ruthlessly exploited defensive weaknesses at full-back – but a genuine lack of cover through central midfield. Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley, ever neat in possession, were unable to prevent the newly promoted outfit breaking forward in numbers. All too often Ferguson’s side aided Nigel Adkins’ side by committing up to seven players forward, while leaving gaping holes in the rear-guard.
In this there is no surprise that captain Vidić offered an honest assessment of United’ defensive performance after conceding twice on Sunday. Yet, with five goals against already this season, it is an admission that only tells half the story of the Reds’ troubles.
“It was a difficult game and we conceded two goals we’re not happy with at all,” Vidić told MUTV.
“We’ve been told before the game what Southampton’s strengths are, what their game is and what they’re trying to achieve. In the end, they did it so it’s disappointing. I have to say, we are not really pleased with the goals we’ve conceded. There was a lack of concentration, I think, for all four goals we lost [in the last two games] but we have to work on it.
“You have to say we’ve had a lot of turbulence in defence with so many changes and people going in and going out. We didn’t have a constant back four and sometimes it causes a problem, but we look forward to the next games. We have over a week to improve our fitness and obviously our form so we are going to be right for the next game in the Premier League.”
Yet, there is also a question of balance. Those jokes about Ferguson perfecting a new formation – the doughnut – ring true. That, somehow, United’s team has the perfect shape, but nothing in the centre. Judging by the Reds’ defensive concentration this season fans might have cause to wonder whether the joke goes far enough, although after Sunday the premise certainly holds.
And with Vidić now fit, Ferdinand restored, and Evans on the way back, Ferguson has more cover in defence than for some time. Jones, now in full training, and Smalling will provide more cover in the weeks ahead. None of the returnees can ensure United’s midfield offers sufficient cover; nor the Reds’ shape enough protection.
One critical, but perhaps realistic assessment, is that United’s 70-year-old manager has gambled, in recruiting Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa this summer, that more goals will paper over weaknesses in midfield. Particularly the defensive and physical side of United’s engine room that is too frequently exploited to be ignored.
It’s a bet that is already placing significant faith in van Persie’s ability to maintain the goal-a-game start to his United career. On Sunday the Dutchman’s hat-trick secured a last-gasp victory; van Persie won’t always be able to repeat that trick.
In this it is hard to be critical – United fans want attacking football, played in the very finest traditions of the 134-year-old club. All too often in recent years style has been subservient to substance, while neither flourished last season. The sight of Kagawa flitting in between attack and midfield dictating play, and van Persie ruthlessly finishing chances, is one supporters will surely enjoy this season.
Yet, in moving to a progressive formation, and a more attacking philosophy, there is also some irony. After all captain Vidić began the season by demanding United seeks points in precedent to entertainment.
“Sometimes the main thing is to play for three points, not just to enjoy games,” admitted the giant Serbian in August.
“We want to play great football but we want three points and we want the title. I think this year we understand that. But when you don’t win the title, the next year is the one where you think ‘I have to push more, I have to work harder, I have to do better than last year.’”
Hard work alone will not help Ferguson’s men strike the right balance between flooding forward in search of goals, and keeping the ship water-tight. Defensive shape – and midfield personnel – will have just as significant say in the title race this season.
The real question is whether the returning injured can ameliorate the defensive mistakes of the past month. If not, then much as supporters found after last season’s humiliating defeat to City at Old Trafford, Ferguson is likely to eschew attacking prowess in favour of more defensive stability.
In that there is much to ponder.
Manchester United has suffered a December horribilis, with Sir Alex Ferguson’s side dumped out of the Champions League, Nemanja Vidić ruled out for nine months after a shocking triple knee ligament injury, and now Darren Fletcher laid-low with a serious long-term bowel disease. While the European loss robs United of glory, and revenue, player absentees ensure Ferguson’s side is weaker for the Premier League season.
Fletcher’s absence means that Ferguson is down to just two fit senior central midfielders, with wingers, defenders and strikers expected to fill the void before Anderson and Tom Cleverley return at some point in 2012. Meanwhile, the loss of captain Vidić leaves United’s manager with Rio Ferdinand as his only experienced central defender. But should the United manager enter the transfer market in the coming window?
Sir Alex Ferguson likes width. Throughout the 69-year-old’s tactical tinkering over the years the one constant has been his reliance on wingers, or at least wide-men. United’s recent game against Norwich City at Old Trafford epitomises the Scot’s philosophy.
On Saturday United found it difficult to break down a well organised Norwich defence and Sir Alex’ solution during the second half was to move Ji-Sung Park to the right and have the South Korean cut in and then provide cover for a marauding Antonio Valencia, who had the game at right-back.
There were a number of options open to the Scot. United could have, for example, introduced a more advanced midfielder, or deployed Wayne Rooney deeper, to facilitate play in the middle of the pitch. Instead, the United manager opted for width, as he so often does.
In this there is also a curiosity. In Ferguson’s recent teams United has, more often than not, deployed right-backs that tend to be less attacking than their counterparts on the left. Another puzzling fact is that frequently United’s right-backs have been converted centre-backs. Over the past two decades Chris Casper, Wes Brown, John O’Shea and Chris Smalling are all natural centre-backs who have filled in on the right. Even Gary Neville played many games in the centre as a youth.
One reason for this phenomenon is availability. These centre-backs have often been forced into stints on the right because United had no ‘proper’ attacking right-backs. Indeed, before the Da Silva twins arrived at Old Trafford in 2008, United hadn’t been particularly blessed in the area of attacking right full-backs.
Yet a more probable explanation involves tactics. Sir Alex’ claim that he has “never used” 4-4-2 notwithstanding, United’s tactics have involved close variants of the system over the years. In the Premier League, where 4-4-2 remains the formation du jour, United cannot deploy two attacking full-backs unless a midfielder holds deep, lest United faces an two versus two at the back.
Asking one full-back to hold back is a realistic option, which frees central midfielders to concentrate solely on running the game. The loss, of course, is that the thrust from deep is lessened when deploying less attacking full-backs. The blow is softened should the winger ahead of him provide genuine width, which is, of course, something that Luis Nani or Valencia do very well. The benefit of freeing your full-backs from creative burdens is that the man remains fully focused on defence, becoming an auxiliary centre-back in the process. In such cases a centre-back playing wide doesn’t seem so alien an idea after all.
There is another issue. Ferguson’s current version of 4-4-2 features no dedicated defensive midfielder – not even on the rare occasions Darren Fletcher is playing. In fact more often than not two central midfielders have bombed on this season, so the fact that United’s right-back, usually Smalling, holds back more often than Patrice Evra on the left, and that the former Fulham man has been preferred to Fabio, suggests that the United manager has been instructing his right-back to be more defensive. It’s a tactical plan fully supported by the theory presented above. The question is whether this is enough to maintain a sound defence.
The evidence suggests otherwise. David De Gea has been forced into more saves than any other goalkeeper in the Premier League. This statistic suggests that United’s defence has been rather porous. In fact, the open defence has started to hinder United’s attack by allowing the opposition more time on the ball than deserved. This is a problem that needs to be fixed soon.
One option open to Ferguson is to further instruct United’s full-backs to limit their forages forward, retaining three at the back more often. Another is to replace the current ad hoc system of one central midfielder holding while the other joins the attack, with a more rigid system and a traditional holding player.
Fans might bristle at the suggestion of being more defensive but they must remember the dictum that solid defense wins trophies. Following United’s 3-3 draw with FC Basel in midweek it is a point openly made by Ferguson too.