After storming off the blocks at the start of the season and seemingly looking unstoppable, Manchester United’s engine is slowly running out of steam. The lethargic nature of play is a far cry from the buccaneering style that saw opponents swept away with relative ease earlier in the season. The nadir came with the drubbing by the noisy neighbor but the rot had set in much earlier. Here, I attempt to explain the three main reasons behind the poor form while offering a prognosis of the near future as we approach the halfway point of the season.
1. Squad Composition
The end of last season (2010-11) saw a change of guard at United. Stalwarts of the club retired and deadwood was cleared to pave way for the building of Fergie’s last great team. Out went the old guard, with the squad replenished by young hungry players to complement the existing core of the team. What was lost in terms of experience and composure was replaced with youthful vigor and vitality. Crucially though, squad balance was not addressed.
The composition of the defence is solid with a right blend of talented young pretenders and experienced players. The caveat to this has been the injuries sustained by the defenders at different times of the season that has seen United use 14 different back four combinations in just 17 games this season. It goes without saying that a solid back four is a settled one. Partnerships, good understanding, communication and all that. Talented as the defenders are, the chopping and changing has a destabilizing effect that coupled with limited protection from midfield (more on that later), results in a shaky defensive unit.
Midfield. United’s Achilles heel. Lacking in both quality and quantity, the center of the park is clearly our weak underbelly. Many a column have been written explaining United’s weak midfield. For the best part of the last ten years, our midfield has been functional at best. The most glaring weakness has been the lack of defensive midfielder. There was a joke doing the rounds that when Keane retired, many thought Fergie would retire his jersey number 16. Little did we know he’d retire the whole defensive midfielder position in his honour. We haven’t been strong in this position ever since Keane started going downhill circa 2003. Even when we had Hargreaves in 07-08, he nominally played from an inside right position and rarely played infront of the defence. Alan Smith, Anderson, Carrick, Fletcher have all been tried there and failed. All originally attacking players, all unsuccessfully converted to a defensive position. Their creativity stifled and their defensive abilities clearly limited, they have all ended up being duds, central midfielders who cannot create nor destroy. Apart from Cleverley, all our CM’s are a variation of this can’t-defend-can’t-attack type of midfielders. The lack of specialization has seen an over emphasis on creativity from the wings and a burden on the defenders to be extra solid when repulsing opposition attacks.
Whatever the midfield lacks in quantity and variety the strike force has in abundance. At present, United boasts seven strikers in our books. Seven strikers who expect minutes on the pitch, or at least a bench spot at worst. With Rooney guaranteed a starting spot when fit, that leaves six strikers to fight for one position. With a need to keep everyone happy, and (as cynics would have it) compensate for the dearth in midfield, Sir has had to tinker with his formation by attempting to have as many strikers as possible at any given time on the pitch without necessarily destabilizing the team balance. Attempting to do it is one thing, succeeding in such attempts is another. This leads us to point number two, tactics.
As noted above, Sir Alex has made a prudent attempt at reconciling the paucity of midfield options and abundance in strikers with his team layout by switching to 4-4-2 from 4-3-3. A firm believer in 4-4-2, Sir Alex had to make the switch to 4-4-3 belatedly after a disastrous spell in Europe in the mid 2000’s. While most teams were adapting to the new wave of 4-3-3 following the success of Mourinho’s Porto team, Fergie stuck to his guns with his traditional 4-4-2. Having a squad in transition and a formation that proved a non-starter in Europe, United went several years without winning away in Europe, the nadir coming with the crashing elimination at the group stages of the Champions League in 2005. Hitting rock bottom gave Fergie the chance to rip everything apart and start afresh; rip he did, dispensing Ruud van Nistelrooy and Roy Keane and bringing in Michael Carrick with Rooney and Ronaldo now playing from wide to support the lone striker Saha.
As the great man explains, the lack of control in games necessitated the shift. “The idea behind the 4-3-3/4-5-1 is that you can control the midfield and keep possession of the ball – that’s always your aim when you use that formation,” Sir Alex says. “I believe the team that has possession of the ball has more opportunities to win the match. As for the 4-4-2, there is more emphasis in that formation placed on playing the ball forward and usually you use the two traditional wingers.”
The shift to three midfielders brought about arguably the most successful period in United’s history with four EPL titles and three European cup finals. The blueprint for this success was the dynamic 4-3-3 formation brilliantly executed at its peak by the Rooney-Ronaldo-Tevez triumvate. When Javier Hernandez started a scoring spree that made it nigh impossible to leave him out of the team mid last season, Sir Alex had to switch tactics to accommodate both him and the indispensable Rooney in the same team. Cue a switch to 4-4-2 with Rooney playing off Hernandez and dropping to help the midfielders when not in possession. For this formation to work though, you have to have the right players. They have to be very, very mobile and they have to be able to play when they get the ball. The double-legged win against Chelsea in the quarter final of UCL last term was a demonstration of this system executed perfectly; Giggs and Carrick played with great mobility and outstanding technique in the center of midfield.
Mobility and technical brilliance are not exactly in abundance at Old Trafford presently, most players having either one of those qualities but seldom both at once. With 4-3-3 still the favored formation by most teams at present, United’s midfield is outnumbered 3 to 2 in almost every game, inevitably forcing the two midfielders to sit dip. The two strikers as such become isolated. Hernandez, usually the most advanced of the two strikers, suffers most and his lack of hold up play is exposed ruthlessly. The midfielders available aren’t good enough. Worse still, none is a specialist player in breaking up play. The net effect is a disjointed unit; a midfield that cannot create nor attack, a midfield that is over powered and has to seat deep and a strike force that is isolated. Creativity is left exclusively to the wingers and a little dip in form or a formidable fullback opponent renders our play blunt, toothless.
The lack of right players to implement the new system has not only seen us concede a staggering number of chances and leaking goals but also a shortage of creativity and goal scoring opportunities for our strikers.
3. Poor form post-Cleverley injury
Compounding the problem of squad balance and tactical conundrums is the poor form displayed by some of our players. The purple patch in August and September was largely based on the form of Cleverley and Anderson and to an extent Nani and Ashley Young. The former duo dovetailed perfectly in the middle, playing quick short passes and releasing the ball wide at the earliest opportunity for the wingers to play early crosses in. Cleverley in particular gave a new dimension to the midfield. His quick incisive passing increased the tempo of our play right from his introduction in the Community shield to subsequent matches and brought the best out of Anderson. Crucially, creative duties were now being shared between the two central midfielders and the wingers.
Cleverley’s injury saw a massive dip in form from Anderson and consequently the whole team. The wingers too were not spared. Nani has been poor lately and so has been Young before injury took him out of the firing line. Antonio Valencia has been having a mare for the better part of the season, a reminder perhaps that like Eduardo, the hardest part to overcome after a massive injury is mental rather than physical. As noted earlier, a 4-4-2 system relies on wide play for creativity and having wingers in poor form renders the system redundant.
Going forward, there are a few issues that need to be addressed. Of paramount importance is squad balance. The strike force needs culling, if not for anything else, to stop forcing Fergie’s hand when choosing the formation to play with. As much as I love what he brings to the team, Dimatar Berbatov has to go in January. After being denied even a bench spot in Wembley despite being the league’s top scorer, the guy has no incentive whatsoever to perform. He still speaks highly of Ferguson and the team and has no desire to leave, but the truth is it serves everyone well if he transferred his talent to a place where he will be more appreciated. Ditto Diouf, a hard working player who unfortunately isn’t good enough to play for United. He should have been sold in the summer instead of having to play in the reserves, stunting his progress and denying Will Keane and John Cofie some playing time. That Macheda didn’t go out on loan was perhaps the most baffling move of the summer, well at least after the lack of a midfield purchase. January should provide such an opportunity, preferably a short term move to a premier league team where if he can benefit half as much as Welbeck at Sunderland, we’ll have one hell of a player in our hands.
When it comes to midfield, a radical surgery isn’t advisable mid season but some additions won’t go amiss seeing how thin that department is stocked. The clamour among United fans over the last few months was for the signing of a playmaker, a replacement for Scholes per se. While the mooted names of Modric and Sneijder would greatly enhance our squad, Cleverley, Anderson, Carrick and Giggs can all play relatively well in an advanced midfield position with a solid midfield pivot behind them. Strikingly though, there’s a gaping Keane-shaped hole in the middle of the pitch that needs plugging. That we have conceded the most shots on target bar a team or two in the league points to the lack of protection offered to the back four. The game against Basel in Europe highlighted the frailties in the middle of the park succinctly when the opposition had the ball, the Swiss side repeatedly by-passing our midfield and creating copious chances from right outside the box. My favored choice to fill this vacancy is a player who has shone over the last eighteen months in a Newcastle team punching above its collective weight. Cheik Tiote is a player who brings an assured solidity in midfield and is a deceptively good passer of the ball. His most outstanding feature though is his ability to win back the ball and rarely losing it thereafter. What he would bring to the team is a shield in front of the back four and freedom for his midfield partner to venture forward knowing he has his back covered. Having been bought for a meager three million pounds and Newcastle showing a willingness to offload key assests for a good price, his capture wouldn’t prove too difficult. Whether Fergie would sanction a move for a player who immediately leaves for African Cup of Nations duty after he signs is another question. Scott Parker would have been a good short term option but that boat has sailed.
Strikers: Rooney, Welbeck, Hernandez, Owen. Berbatov (out) Diouf (out) Macheda (loan)
Midfield: Cleverley, Anderson, Carrick, Fletcher, Tiote (in), Giggs, Park, Gibson, Pogba, Morrison
Defence: Rafael, Smalling, Jones, Evans, Rio, Vidic, Evra, Fabio, Fryers.
GK: De Gea, Lindegaard, Amos. Kuszczak (out)
In summary, the potential of this United side is staggering. David De Gea, Rafael, Fabio, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Thomas Cleverley, Chicharito and Danny Welbeck. All incredibly talented, all with massive room for improvement given they are barely out of their teens. This is without factoring in Nani, Valencia and Rooney, all still relatively young or the youth talents like Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison. In the short term, Cleverley will be back from injury and the likes of Nani, Young and hopefully Anderson will inevitably pick up some good form that will reverberate throughout the team. January should see some freshening up of the squad with Berbatov, Diouf, Macheda(loan) and Kuszczak allowed to leave. At a minimum, one midfield player ought to be added, preferably of a defensive nature. That should give the team a more balanced look, freeing Sir Alex’s hand to allow for some tactical elbow room and variety in formation. Essentially, fans should recognize that success in football is cyclic, a process that starts with the building, peaking and subsiding of great teams. Currently, this United team is at the onset of a new cycle, similar to where we were in 06-07 and as much as success is not guaranteed this season, the prognosis for the next few years seems amazingly bright. With a few tweaks here and there and factoring in this is the great man’s last attempt at building a great team, United fans should be rubbing the hands gleefully as we witness the greatest manager in football history work his magic for one last time.