October 18, 2010 Leave a comment
Manchester United still remain unbeaten this season, despite being put through the wringer. Crippling debt, several draws, uninspiring performances and a certain striker allegedly wanting out of the club. Dave Stubbings looks in-depth at United’s problems on the field.
Another match and another draw for Manchester United. Two more goals conceded as questions are asked again about their defence, questions which failed to be answered.
It is worth pointing out that United have not lost yet this season. However they’ve conceded two goals or more in five games already this season, something that happened only six times in the whole of last year.
Wayne Rooney’s form (or lack of) continues to be a hotly debated topic with many wondering what happened to the player who, before Man United’s quarter-final against Bayern Munich appeared to be scoring for fun.
Rooney’s problems though appear to be much more than just a lack of form as he continues to be a shadow of the player he was last season. His ability to control a ball and run with it have deserted him and his shooting has been just awful at times this season. The cliché ‘can’t hit a barn door’ would be a suitable one to use, however after recent performances Rooney would be lucky if he even hit the barn.
Two goals in 21 games and only one this term for his club after 34 in the 09/10 season is a shocking return by any striker’s standards.However the poor performances of United’s number 10 are distracting from other areas which could harm their chances of picking up silverware this season.
Let’s start with the defence.
Three years ago Patrice Evra was being raved about by the United fans. His tackling, constant running and persistent attacking threat made him an Old Trafford favourite with some claiming he was the best left-back in the world. However since France’s disastrous World Cup he’s lacked most of these qualities as mistakes come thick and fast.
You only have to watch the build up to the West Brom equaliser last weekend to see what I mean, as he failed to clear his lines not once but twice and just ambles back after giving away possession, a far cry from a few years ago. His other habit of 2010, attempted overhead clearances have also failed dismally. Ronaldinho’s goal at the San Siro and Pienaar’s strike last month are two examples of a terrible idea, poorly executed.
On the opposite flank though, things are much worse. John O’Shea’s season has been poor to say the least, both when playing right back and centre midfield.
Whereas Chelsea’s full backs, Ashley Cole and Branislav Ivanovic get forward and provide crosses and even goals, without abandoning any of their defensive responsibilities (usually as the other stays back and helps the centre-backs), it’s a skill O’Shea simply doesn’t have as he timidly passes, match after match. O’Shea’s inability send over a decent cross restricts the winger ahead of him (whether it be Nani or Valencia) and whenever he does decide to venture into the opponents’ penalty area, he turns into a hindrance for his team-mates.
From one extreme to the other though, as Rafael is the opposite. While some of his crossing at times is superb, he appears to forget that he is a defender and constantly wanders off leaving a huge hole on United’s right flank, dragging one of the centre backs out wide.
Rafael is Old Trafford’s version of Glen Johnson. Yes he’s good at crossing and can occasionally score but doesn’t track back enough and rashly dives in for many a tackle; both players play like wing backs in a 4-4-2 formation and it simply doesn’t work. In other European leagues, Rafael would excel but unfortunately the Premier League isn’t a forgiving mistress and you get found out quickly when not in line with the rest of the back four.
What about the other two right backs? Well Wes Brown never appears to be fit enough while Gary Neville is past it and should no longer be considered for most matches.
The centre backs are exactly blameless either. Rio Ferdinand may be fit now but he’s been in and out with injuries so often he struggles to find consistency. However a half-fit Ferdinand is still better than a fully fit Johnny Evans, a man who brings a wonderful air of panic to the United defence the opposition come forward. Also, if anyone can explain the definition of the word ‘mark’ to the Northern Irishman, please write to Carrington Training Ground, Birch Road, Manchester.
This ramble about the defences lets the midfield off however. Owen Hargreaves must surely have a season ticket with Virgin Atlantic now, with his frequent flying to America to see his knee specialist.
Ferguson’s first choice midfield partnership this season of Darren Fletcher and Paul Scholes are solid but perhaps no longer good enough to help United push for the league or European success.
Whilst Fletcher remains as tenacious as ever, he lacks that presence which other top teams have. Chelsea’s Michael Essien is a shining example of the sort of midfielder United need; a tough tackler who can dominate a game. His partner Paul Scholes still has the vision to pick out a fantastic pass, but at 35 is getting on a bit and struggles to play 90 minutes, let alone play week in week out.
Don’t get me wrong, Scholes is a fantastic player and he’s still a joy to watch with his range of passing and shots but he can’t run like he used to, and it’s plain for all to see, especially in the last 15-20 minutes of a game.
However the lack of depth in midfield is apparent as Scholes’ younger team-mates struggle to make a case to be picked. The out of favour Anderson and Michael Carrick, both bought for large amounts of money, continue to frustrate with neither ever given a run of games long enough to force their way into Fergie’s plans.
As for Darron Gibson, one long range shot on target every other match does not constitute a top quality midfielder. He may have scored nine goals in a United shirt but strikes against Southampton, Derby and Scunthorpe make up a third of this tally with two of his league goals coming against Hull and West Ham.
This air of nostalgia around Old Trafford and a misguided belief that the likes of Scholes and fellow midfielder Ryan Giggs can dig United out of a hole whenever the going gets tough.While Giggs and Scholes can still link up wonderfully, as shown by the Welshman’s volley against Newcastle in August, it is worth mentioning that against quicker, more skilful opponents they will not have the time and freedom offered by the Magpies/James Perch.
The lack of outstanding replacements means that they are still being picked regularly, when at other clubs they’d be considered squad players by now. Can United afford the replacements?
The Glazers have always said they can afford any player Sir Alex chooses. However the common consensus appears to be that the Old Trafford coffers are running dry. How true that is remains to be seen. After all Ferguson did splash out £16m on Valencia in 2009 and £7.4m on Bebe this time round (quite why remains to be seen) hints that there is some money there.
Maybe questions should be asked of the manager’s judgement. Shocking as it may sound, he may not be quite the master he once was. Stagnant performances against Rangers and Sunderland as well as a subdued second half against West Brom were a far cry from the United of years gone by.
The decision to replace Fabio da Silva with another defender in the 0-0 draw against Rangers while overlooking Anderson and striker Federico Macheda was a curious one.
While the 1-0 win in Valencia was achieved through the classic counter-attack, it was against the run of play and a type of goal rarely scored by United at the moment; a far cry from the free-flowing football which was common as recently as 2008.
The gap left by Cristiano Ronaldo is evident. If you want an example of the classic counter attacking football United played when he was there, cast your mind back to the 2006/7 season when he and Rooney ripped Bolton to shreds.
A season later United had a strike force of Rooney, Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez and Nani which was boosted in the summer of 2008 with Berbatov and Macheda (for two matches anyway). Add to the mix an in-form Carrick plus Scholes and Giggs, both two years younger and it was a much more free flowing United side.
However with the loss of Ronaldo and Tevez (officially £105m worth of talent) has made United a much more rigid side. Valencia and Nani are much more orthodox wingers, and as good as they are, do not have that ability to roam which Ronaldo did. There’s no point in asking them to be like Ronaldo but it appears United did not prepare for life after the £80m man and have become too predictable.
This air of nostalgia could hamper United moving forward in the next few years. It’s worth noting that nobody is infallible and as good as the likes of Ferguson, Scholes and Giggs have been for Old Trafford, nothing lasts forever.
Just ask Liverpool.