United’s Midfield Abyss Threatens To Undermine Title Challenge
It’s hardly news to remark that Manchester United lack an imposing midfielder and have done since the shock departure of Roy Keane almost seven years ago; nor is it anything new or ground breaking to suggest the lack of one is what has let them down. When United lose a game, it is predictable, yet rarely wrong, to point to their central midfield underperforming.
After losing two of their opening six games of the season, Sir Alex Ferguson’s midfield problem is becoming more significant and more and more costly. Against Everton, one could almost forgive the dreadful performance. United had just returned from a money spinning, globe trotting pre-season and included Wayne Rooney and Nani when they clearly weren’t match fit. In addition, Michael Carrick was out of position in centre back, Nemanja Vidic was rusty on his return (though he performed well) and the Toffees had the monster of Fellaini.
On Saturday evening it was difficult to come up with any excuses for United’s dreadful showing against Tottenham, particularly in the first half. Spurs went to Old Trafford with a gameplan and executed it perfectly; they came to attack and not stand on ceremony to watch Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick roll out a masterclass. As the Reds poured forward in the second half there was plenty of reason to purr about Scholes’ unquestioned ability yet by that point Spurs’ plan had already struck gold.
Carrick and Scholes are clearly two of the classiest midfielders in the league and two of the best passers; yet, with neither being a combative or imposing presence, or offering any protection of any substance to their defenders, Rio Ferdinand was exposed time and again by the pace of the visitors, to devastating effect in the first half. Ferdinand’s decline is inevitable with age; as is that of Ryan Giggs’, yet though both have been heavily criticised for their performances, the finger of guilt is probably still best pointed at what United lacked in the middle of the park as it was that which proved so costly.
Just days earlier, Anderson and Tom Cleverley stated their cases with energetic displays against the busy and powerful Newcastle midfield, energy that was conspicuous by its absence against Tottenham.
The most disheartening thing for Ferguson was that the calming, experienced pairing of Carrick and Scholes was supposed to be a safe platform to screen his defence while he tinkered with a new formation that sees United operate with three floating attackers behind a front man. The pair looked like the furthest thing was a safe platform as Tottenham attacked wilfully, gleefully, with all the excitement of a child rushing to open their presents on Christmas Day.
It was as bad as the Red Devils had been since they were savagely mauled by neighbours Manchester City at Old Trafford almost a year ago; it’s no exaggeration to say Andres Villas-Boas’ decision to not be too ambitious did United a huge favour in the second half; and though United could look back on the second half with credit as they took the game to Spurs, the game was as good as up.
That second period saw the re-introduction of United’s familiar 4-4-2 formation, with Wayne Rooney coming on and Ferguson attempting to restore some familiarity to his team. It was a decision that, combined with Tottenham holding for what they had, almost paid off, but must now be giving Ferguson a serious headache.
Does he persevere with the faltering new system, and concede that he might have to play different deeper midfielders against higher quality opposition? Does he refer back to the 442 system, or a variant of, that has served him so well over the years? And what of Shinji Kagawa and Robin van Persie – after bright starts, they seem to have struggled over the last couple of weeks. Kagawa started so brightly that it looked like he could walk on snowflakes without leaving a print; the Japanese international was supposed to be the perfect player which the new system could be built around, yet he has looked as uncomfortable as his team-mates in the last fortnight.
United’s lack of presence in the centre of the pitch is becoming more obvious, more often. At the age of 70, even though Ferguson’s own career is drawing to a close, he never stops looking for a way to evolve his side and keep it competitive. There have been bursts of undeniable brilliance from United this season but those moments or spells have been outweighed by ordinary or below par performances; understandable at Everton, perhaps ultimately forgiveable against Tottenham, but fundamentally concerning against Fulham, Southampton, Galatasaray and for 45 minutes against Wigan.
With Ferguson’s hands tied until January at the earliest, the best he can now hope for is a leader to stand up and invigorate his side; Wayne Rooney’s return to something like his best would be just the tonic, but may be just a temporary fix for what could ultimately prove to be United’s achilles heel this season.
by: Wayne Barton, October 2, 2012