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Defending the indefensible

September 3, 2012 Tags: , , , Reads 56 comments

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.

Preview: Southampton versus United

September 2, 2012 Tags: , Matches 133 comments

The only constant, they say, is change and Southampton’s promotion to the Premier League after seven years in the wilderness is a welcome one for many supporters. Perhaps not for Sir Alex Ferguson though who has not always enjoyed the best of times on the south coast. Not least because two of the 70-year-old manager’s most ignominious defeats during his quarter-century in charge of Manchester United came at Southampton’s hands.

Indeed, Reds will not easily forget the Hampshire side’s 6-3 drubbing of United in 1996, nor the infamous grey kit that ’caused’ the Reds’ downfall six months earlier. Ferguson can be thankful that United’s players will at least be able to see each other at St Mary’s on Sunday; the team’s nifty new white kit will be on show for the first time this season.

Kits and colours aside, United head to St Mary’s seeking momentum after last weekend’s home victory over Fulham at Old Trafford. With the Saints having lost two Premier League games on the bounce, Ferguson’s side should make the lengthy trip south with confidence.

However, injuries continue to bite into the Scot’s defence, although Northern Irishman Jonny Evans should make his first start of the season after returning from ankle surgery this summer. Evans rehabilitation will allow Michael Carrick to join Tom Cleverley in midfield.

Elsewhere Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand will be unavailable until after the international break, while Ashley Young has a minor knock. Chris Smalling and Phil Jones remain on the sidelines.

“Centre-back is our main concern at the moment,” admitted Ferguson, who is managing United in the league for the 1,000th time.

“Jonny Evans played on Wednesday [for the reserves] and came through fine. He’s the strongest option we’ve got. Phil Jones has done some training but isn’t ready yet. Ferdinand’s in the same boat. At least we have one centre-back available, which is an improvement. It allows us to put Michael Carrick back in midfield.

“Wayne [Rooney’s] out for four weeks. It’s nothing serious on the actual gash – it’s a bad one but it was treated carefully very quickly. We don’t expect any complications from it. I think he’ll be back in four weeks. The fact it’s a gash and not a muscle or joint injury means he can do a lot of work in the gymnasium. We’re not too bad with that.”

In Rooney’s absence Robin van Persie should start for the second week in succession, while Ferguson is likely to move Carrick into midfield.

Elsewhere Nani could come back into the United side after missing out on Ferguson’s squad entirely for the match against Fulham last week. Young’s injury ensures the Reds are short in wide areas.

“It was nice of the FA to let everyone know that Ashley Young is injured,” added Ferguson.

“There is no point giving them any information now. We have a game on Sunday and why should we alert our opponents who is fit and who is not fit. It won’t happen again. He’s out, he got a knee injury last week, although it’s not serious. Obviously he will be ready in a couple of weeks’ time.”

Southampton v Manchester United, St Mary's, 2 September 2012Meanwhile, midfielder Darren Fletcher is unlikely to make Ferguson’s squad despite appearing in two reserve fixtures in recent weeks. The Scottish international has not played for United’s first team since November 2011 after taking time out for a persistent bowel condition.

Fletcher, who appeared disturbingly gaunt in recent months, has gained strength according to his manager and is in contention to make United’s Premier and Champions League squad lists this season.

“The first thing to mention is he has put weight back on now, he’s back to his normal weight from two to three years ago,” added Ferguson

“He’s training well every day. He played the other night and did really well but I don’t know where he’s at, to be honest. With the condition he has, and has to deal with, it’s wait and see. If he keeps doing as well as he’s doing then he will come into contention because he’s a fantastic player.”

Meanwhile, Southampton may hand a début to Zambia forward Emmanuel Mayuka, although Japanese defender Maya Yoshida and £12 million striker Gastón Ramírez cannot play for the Saints until after the international break.

Whatever the hosts’ line-up few expect anything bar a United win. Despite those headline-grabbing losses at Southampton, United has won on three of the club’s four Premier League trips to St Mary’s, including a 2-1 win in May 2005 that relegated Southampton to the Championship. In between, United has emerged victorious in two FA Cup ties on the south coast.

And who would deny Ferguson victory his 1,000 league match in charge of the Reds? In the intervening 25 years the Scot has emerged victorious 598 times, with 233 drawn and 168 defeats. Sunday is unlikely to be the 169th.

Match Details
Southampton v Manchester United – Premier League, St Mary’s – Sunday 2 September 2012, 4pm

Possible Teams
Southampton (4-1-4-1): K Davis; Clyne, Hooiveld, Fonte, Fox; Schneiderlin; do Prado, S Davis, Lallana, Rodriguez; Mayuka. Subs from: Gazzaniga, Richardson, Shaw, Seaborne, Ward-Prowse, Puncheon, Sharp, Lambert, Lee, De Ridder

United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Evans, Vidic, Evra; Cleverley, Carrick; Valencia, Kagawa, Nani; Van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Wooton, Büttner, Powell, Giggs, Anderson, Scholes, ;Welbeck, Macheda, Hernández

Referee: M Dean
Assistants: J Collin, J Brooks
Fourth Official: M Halsey

Southampton: LL
United: LW

Last 10: ;Southampton 1, United 9, draw 0
Overall: Southampton 24, United 52, draw 26


  • Southampton lost 2-0 to Wigan Athletic last weekend, although ;Morgan Schneiderlin ;impressed with an ;incredible 7.29 miles covered in the game;
  • Schneiderlin covered ;7.31 miles against Manchester City on the opening weekend of the Premier League, meaning the Frenchman holds first and second position in the EA SPORTS Performance Index for distance covered in a single game;
  • Captain Adam Lallana covered ;the second highest amount of ground after Schneiderlin in both games and registered the fastest top speed of any Southampton player with 19.05 mph;
  • Meanwhile, Ferguson’s side is making a habit of nervy victories this season after scraping to a 3-2 win over Fulham last weekend;
  • Robin van Persie scored on his full début for United and covered 5.99 miles, second only to Tom Cleverley who covered an impressive 6.4 miles for the Reds;
  • Cleverley also completed 46 passes in the Fulham half, the most of any player in the last round of games, while the midfielder has completed ;90 passes in his opponent’s half so far this season;
  • Adam Lallana is Southampton’s top passer, but he has completed just over half Cleverley’s number with 50 passes in his opponent’s half.


Reds into fifth round but only just

January 29, 2011 Tags: , Matches 18 comments

Twice in a week Manchester United has come from behind to win. Twice Sir Alex Ferguson’s side has displayed a level of ineptitude that threatened defeat. Indeed, much like United’s tie with Blackpool at Bloomfield Road on Tuesday, Ferguson’s outfit was second best for much of today’s FA Cup Fourth round tie with Southampton.

Yet, with a will-to-win that is second to none and two second-half goals from Michael Owen and Javier Hernández, United qualified for the fifth round for the eight time in the past nine years.

Ferguson can take little heart from his team’s performance though despite the win, with several fringe first team players covering themselves in very little glory. Southampton manager Nigel Adkins, by contrast, will rue the energy that ebbed away from his side in the last half an hour of an absorbing cup tie.

“The first half we struggled all the way through it,” said United assistant manager Mike Phelan.

“The played extremely well and the system they used was working to plan. Our system wasn’t. We changed it a little bit at half time and then we tried to make amends in the second half by introducing a couple of new players.

“We’ve played players who are not getting as many games as we’d like to give them and we tinkered a little bit with the formation, which is unusual for us. The difference was the formation change – it changed the game.”

Ferguson though contributed to United’s first-half malaise, selecting for the second time in the week, a side devoid of balance and width. With Owen in an unfamiliar role behind strikers Gabriel Obertan and Hernández, and Darron Gibson making another strong case for permanent exclusion from the squad, United’s play was sloppy, casual and shapeless for much of the opening hour.

Southampton played with greater confidence from the start, but with rumoured United transfer target Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain struggling to impose on United’s unfamiliar back-four and début goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard, the home side was restricted to long-range free kicks.

But United rarely threatened save for Owen’s miscued cross that hit corner of post and bar, and another speculative effort from the former Liverpool striker that flew wide.

Indeed, the home side always looked the most threatening and Richard Chaplow took full advantage of Jonny Evans’ poor clearance and Chris Smalling’s hesitancy to lash past Lindegaard on the stroke of half-time. The stunning finish reward for Southampton’s bright play.

Little changed in the opening minutes of the second period, as United struggled to find any rhythm and the hosts sought a second. The Saints left-back Dan Harding almost doubled the advantage, toe-poking a shot wide after a stunning run through United’s defence.

It was enough for Ferguson, who hauled off the ineffective Gibson and Anderson for Ryan Giggs and Nani, finally offering the width United had lacked for an hour. Those supporters of a crueller disposition might argue the former pair saw an hour more than necessary.

And the changes paid almost immediate dividends as United injected both pace and width into the game. First Nani crossed for Owen to poke wide from close range before Obertan delivered for the striker’s equaliser. There was a touch of fortune to United’s goal though, with the Frenchman’s crossing hitting Danny Seaborne and sitting up for Owen to head home on 65 minutes.

Ten minutes later and United sealed the win as Giggs, influential once again, intercepted Ryan Dickson’s pass and played in Hernández to strike home his second goal in a week.

“Obviously they played well, they’re flying high in their division, and always in FA Cups – no matter what standard you’re playing against – it’s always really tough for sort of 45 minutes or an hour,” said goalscorer Owen, who scored his tenth goal for the club.

“Inevitably, you know, the better quality – and it’s not fitness, obviously they’ve got to run more to keep up with us in many ways and then they tire – and it’s often the way that the better teams come good in the last half hour.”

That United was the better team in name only for much of the matters little now; Ferguson can at least look forward to the Reds’ inclusion in Sunday’s fifth round draw ahead of Aston Villa’s visit to Old Trafford on Tuesday night.

Yet the Scot must also be concerned with his squad’s quality after Gibson, Anderson, Obertan, Smalling and Evans all disappointed. On this evidence alone Ferguson must surely wonder whether Gibson or Obertan will ever make it at the club.

No such worries about Hernández though, who continues to impress during his debut season at Old Trafford.

“He’s only had one chance and he’s scored – one chance, one goal is a tremendous ratio,” Ferguson told MUTV.

“He has great feet in and around the box and gets his shots away quickly with hardly any backlift. His workrate is fantastic and he’s always on the move.

“Sometimes we make it difficult for ourselves, but in fairness I maybe meddled with the system by trying a diamond in the middle of the pitch.

“Manchester United are used to playing with width and I think that [the system] was a problem for us. It wasn’t working at all.”

Pretty or effective it was not but a cup victory nonetheless.

Match Facts
Southampton – 442 – Bialkowski; Harding, Fonte, Butterfield, Seaborne; Schneiderlin, Guly (N’Guessan 79), Oxlade-Chamberlain, Barnard (Dickson 73); Chaplow (Gobern 84), Lambert.

United – 433 – Lindegaard; Fabio Da Silva (Brown 46), Smalling, Evans, O’Shea; Anderson (Nani 58), Scholes, Gibson (Giggs 58); Owen, Hernandez, Obertan.

Attendance – 28,792
Man of the Match – Ryan Giggs

Possession: Southampton 49% – 51% United
Attempts: 12 – 11
On Target: 6 – 6
Corners: 5 – 3
Fouls: 13 – 6

Reds take strong squad to Soton

January 29, 2011 Tags: , Matches 100 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson has taken a strong squad South for this afternoon’s FA Cup fourth round tie at League One Southampton. Mindful of last season’s early exit, the Manchester United manager is set on an easy passage through to the fifth round in a competition that the Reds have not won in more than six years now.

Edwin van der Sar will not feature, Patrice Evra is missing following a family bereavement, Rio Ferdinand is injured and Rafael da Silva will miss the game following his concussion against Blackpool on Tuesday but most of Ferguson’s big guns travel. Still, it is likely the Scot will make significant changes to the United team that came from two goals down against the seasiders during the week.

Indeed, after another horrendous Wayne Rooney performance and a fine Javier Hernández goal against Blackpool, United’s £30 million striker may well be under threat. Fringe players such as Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans, Gabriel Obertan and Darron Gibson could also feature.

Michael Carrick is also available following injury, while Anderson could feature after missing out during midweek.

There could also be a debut for £4 million Danish goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard, who officially joined during the winter transfer window. The 26-year-old was on United’s bench for the trip to Blackpool and will compete with Tomasz Kuszazck for a place in Ferguson’s first XI.

“Michael will train today and hopefully he will be okay to travel,” Ferguson said on Friday.

“We picked up one or two bruises at Blackpool the other night – it was quite a physical game, but we’ll still take a strong squad because it won’t be an easy match; away games in cup ties never are.

“I went to see Southampton play Oldham earlier this month and they won 6-0. They’re having a good season. They play good football and I’m sure they’ll have a go.”

The Saints, who dropped out of the Premier League fives years ago, are now own by the estate of late Swiss businessman Markus Liebherr, whose dream was to take the South coast club back into the top flight. Indeed, with Southampton now riding high in League One there is some light at the end of a very dark tunnel. The club is fortunate to still exist after falling into administration two years ago, for which the Football League administered a 10 point penalty.

Manager Nigel Adkins, who took over in September following a highly successful spell in charge of Scunthorpe United in the Championship, now has his side playing attractive attacking football in the Southampton tradition, with the club on course for a place in the League One play-offs come May.

Chalkboard versus SouthamptonIn Adam Lallana and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain the Saints have in-demand talents. Indeed, if tabloid rumours carry any weight, Ferguson is interested in midfielder Oxlade-Chamberlain, who has burst onto the scene this season. Son of former professional Mark Chamberlain, the teenager may command a £10 million fee, with Arsenal also in the hunt. Having lost out to Arsenal for Cardiff teenager Aaron Ramsey, Ferguson’s determination to land Oxlade-Chamberlain may win the day.

Meanwhile, Adkins Saints could be without captain Dean Hammond, who has a calf problem, and Lallana, who has missed two matches with a knee injury.

Nobody at United is taking Southampton for granted though, especially given the lengthy time since the club last won England’s premier cup competition.

“The manager has already had a little word with us over the last couple of days in training telling us how frustrated he is that he has not been able to get his hands on the trophy,” said defender Smalling, who is likely to start.

“We will be going all out for him and ourselves, and hopefully we can impose our presence on the game nice and early.

“Some people make changes in the FA Cup and view it different ways, but it’s an important competition to us and one we want to win.”

More than three thousand travelling Reds will attest to that, and with United on a five-match winning sequence against the Saints in all competitions confidence is surely high. Little chance then of Southampton repeating the club’s most famous win, at Wembley in 1976 when the Saints beat United 1-0 – via Bobby Stokes much-debated – to win the FA Cup.

Southampton – 442 – Davis; Richardson, Dickson, Fonte, Harding; Jaidi, Guly, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Schneiderlin; Chaplow, Lambert. Subs from: Bialkowski, Butterfield, Martin, Seaborne, Gobern, Barnard, Doble

United – 442 – Lindegaard; Fabio da Silva, Vidic, Smalling, O’Shea; Nani, Carrick, Anderson, Obertan; Hernández, Berbatov. Subs from: Kuzszazk, Evans, Brown, Gibson, Owen, Bébé, Giggs, Fletcher, Rooney.

Referee: Martin Atkinson
Assistant referees: Simon Beck and Mike Mullarkey
Fourth official: Kevin Friend

Southampton – WWWWDL
United – DWWWWW