Thursday, 10 November 2011

The Curious Case of Manchester United

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As a Manchester United fan, it is becoming more and more difficult to bring myself to be excited to see us play. Don't get me wrong, I always get a great feeling knowing it is game day but that feeling is whittled away as the minutes go by come kick-off. This has to be the season where I've seen the ball given back to the opposition more than any other. More often than not, it is the same players and I'm not about to create a scapegoat like many out there. As much as I want to, it is well document and there's no need to tarnish my blog with repetitive comments.

There is a distinct problem at Manchester United this season and I'm going to try and dissect where the spark has gone and why we're conceding shots at an abnormal rate. I've read several pieces on various aspects of Manchester United over the last couple of months. These range from:

- Our failure to sign Wesley Sneijder
- Anderson at fault for everything
- Cleverley being injured has changed us
- Fletcher out of form
- Vidic missing a large proportion of games

Now it's surely not just down to one of these factors but a culmination of all that has made Manchester United what it is right now. I'd beg to differ in normal circumstances but this is why I'm here; to make sense of it all.

Paul Scholes and Edwin Van Der Sar are the main changes in personnel at the club when it comes to retirements/players sold. Now Scholes was a bit-part player last season so I don't think him not being there should cause too much trouble. Van Der Sar's absence is most probably a huge factor, though is it his fault we are conceding so many shots? Probably not. Think about it for a second, De Gea obviously hasn't grasped English yet so his communication is definitely poor, though what has this got to do with opposition teams having the space and chances to take a shot? Communication is key at set-piece situations and we're not the worst in the league when it comes to that, head on over to the Emirates if you want to see goals conceded at set pieces. He did look ropey at the beginning, though can you blame him for being the shot stopper for one of the largest sports teams on earth? At 21 years old? I'd love to know what you were doing at 21.

Naturally, this brings me on to new signings at the club. Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Ashley Young, Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck (the latter two are as good as new signings considering the marked improvement after loans at Premiership teams). All have looked very good in their first seasons at the club with the majority of plaudits being aimed at Phil Jones for his 'swashbuckling' style and Ashley Young for 'looking like he's been at the club for years'. Now I can't for the life of me see how adding these players to a team would make them worse. On the contrary, there was a new founded attacking verve at the club with crisp, short passes and a cut-throat attitude.

At the beginning of the season the wool was being slightly pulled over everyone's eyes and we were 'grinding out results' with our 'never say die attitude'. (Charity Shield anyone?) Many a writer has mentioned that as soon as Vidic/Cleverley got injured, our season started to slide the wrong way. This is where I am slightly baffled as what's the point in commenting on something so obvious? If that was the case, we wouldn't have such a big squad. I've also just read that we would not have needed Sneijder given how well Cleverley has been playing. This is somewhat true however comparing the two and using the example of an 8-2 win at Arsenal is completely unfounded and lazy.

Let me take you back a couple of months and you can make the decisions yourself. The Charity Shield was effectively the beginning to our season as well as Manchester City's. I was at the game and we completely outplayed them only to find ourselves 2-0 down at half time. We eventually won the game 3-2 with our 'never say die attitude' and here are the squad and stats:


Match Stats

Manchester City
Manchester United
6(4)Shots (on Goal)18(9)
8Corner Kicks7
44%Time of Possession56%
5Yellow Cards2
0Red Cards0

Notice that Cleverley isn't in the first eleven but cast your mind back and it was his impetus that changed us during the second half. Being a fan for over a decade has taught me that when Manchester United play bad in the first half, they get a kick up the backside at half time and are a completely changed team in the second half. A particular game against Spurs in 2009 as well as a game against the same opposition during the 01/02 season are distinct examples. This mentality is instilled in the club and it's tough to pinpoint one player as the reason for it.

Moving on to the next game against West Brom, which was a challenge seeing as the vile British Media were attacking our teenage goalkeeper and lauding our new midfield maestro.


Match Stats

West Bromwich Albion
Manchester United
16(3)Shots (on Goal)11(1)
6Corner Kicks5
41%Time of Possession59%
3Yellow Cards2
0Red Cards0

Michael Carrick was dropped in favour of Cleverley, for obvious reasons. Other than this, the team remained unchanged. West Brom have never really been a fearsome foe of Manchester United, however you can see from the stats that we were lucky to win with only one shot on target over 90 minutes. Despite having the lions share of the possession, we managed to concede 16 shots on our goal which is startling against a mid-table team such as this. I know that it's already common knowledge that Manchester United have conceded the most shots on goal in the league but like I said, I'm dissecting and attempting to prove some points, if any. Also, please note that it was in this game that Vidic was injured so keep that in mind as we go on.

Tottenham Hotspur were the visitors this time and although the game was won 3-0, there are a few talking points.


Match Stats

Manchester United
Tottenham Hotspur
28(14)Shots (on Goal)21(9)
11Corner Kicks3
53%Time of Possession47%
1Yellow Cards2
0Red Cards0

First, Luka Modric was absent from this game due to his saga with Chelsea which is a huge omission. I'm sure if he was on the pitch, this young Manchester United team wouldn't have won so comfortably. Secondly, the first half was quite dire with only 6 shots from the home side out of the 28 in total. Also of note is that the possession stats are not that different considering and that Spurs created a hell of a lot. Van Der Vaart and Kranjcar had a lot of the ball in dangerous positions and we were again lucky not to concede as De Gea looked a little nervous though did pull off some good saves. At a home game you'd have thought that shots on goal would have been a little conservative from the opposing team but again it was in the twenties. This time 21 shots were taken by Spurs, which is once again far too many. That now brings our tally to 37 shots against in 2 games.

So here we are, at the infamous 8-2 victory over Arsenal. A game that has given many a Manchester United fan bait when goading Arsenal supporters. I was one of them at first but have analysed the game again and feel that not all is being talked about. I'm not criticising my club at all. I'm just trying to open reader's eyes as to the failings that did occur without trying to gloss over them with scoring 8 goals in a game.


Match Stats

Manchester United
25(14)Shots (on Goal)20(8)
3Corner Kicks5
56%Time of Possession44%
2Yellow Cards2
0Red Cards1

The team remained unchanged from the Spurs game and Arsenal arrived trying to cope with the loss of two of their best players. To compensate, Arsene Wenger played an unknown player in the centre of midfield which was one of the many reasons Arsenal didn't look the same. After Manchester United went 1-0 up, Van Persie missed a penalty shortly after. Very uncharacteristic but surely would have had an impact on the game. Also something to note, Arsenal were not in the best of form coming into this game yet still managed to score twice against us but none against Liverpool at the Emirates. They also managed 20 shots and from a depleted side, and that doesn't make good reading. Our figure now rises to 57 shots against Manchester United's goal in 3 games. United did score 8 goals that day, however it papered over the cracks somewhat.

Enter Bolton, once a formidable force at the Reebok but times have changed and are at the foot of the table for losing their Sam Allardyce-ness. It's up to you if you view that as a good thing. Glancing over any results page on a website would show that this was another good win for Manchester United. You'd be right in some respects, however there were problems once again that came to the fore.


Match Stats

Bolton Wanderers
Manchester United
22(6)Shots (on Goal)14(8)
5Corner Kicks7
42%Time of Possession58%
2Yellow Cards0
0Red Cards0

After coming back from injury, Hernandez started over Welbeck with Evra, Evans and Jones deputising for Fabio, the injured Vidic and Smalling. A 5-0 win was recorded but this was not a walk in the park like the statistics make out. Once again we had the majority of possession, however this time conceded 22 shots on goal. Using simple maths, that's 79 shots against since the start of the season. A phenomenal figure. Bolton were quite unlucky not to register a goal in this game though lets not dwell on that, we can brush it under the carpet like most other things. Something else to note, Cleverley was ruthlessly injured in this game and from here, the much documented 'slide' occurs.

Benfica were our next opposition and the Charity Shield not included, were probably offering the sternest test to Manchester United this season. The match for a United fan was pretty dire with the ball being given away at an uncanny rate and Benfica having the better of the chances. As usual, Benfica are doing well in the Liga Sagres and are unbeaten in all competitions. You can see below that we were lucky to come away from this game with any points.


Match Stats

Manchester United
14(5)Shots (on Goal)4(2)
9Corner Kicks5
38%Time of Possession62%
3Yellow Cards2
0Red Cards0

Sir Alex decided to go with experience in this game and played Fletcher, Giggs, Valencia and Park to help us on a tricky away encounter. Despite having 62% possession, there were only 4 shots during the whole game. It is clear that there is something lost within the squad and I don't believe it to be down to an injury to Tom Cleverley. Benfica, however, managed 14 shots on goal and luckily only scored once. With an experienced team such as this, it's left me baffled as to why opposing teams are granted so much space and time on the ball. A major factor could be that our first choice defensive partnership are out injured with a new goalkeeper trying to arrange a makeshift back four. I also don't believe this to be at fault of Lindegaard who was pretty solid considering.

I'm going to halt my statistical analysis after this next set of figures as I believe this was the peak of Manchester United being far too open. Chelsea came to Old Trafford and this is never an easy game. A look at the scoreline would say otherwise but all that watched this game could see the deficiencies.


Match Stats

Manchester United
14(6)Shots (on Goal)22(8)
4Corner Kicks10
57%Time of Possession43%
2Yellow Cards3
0Red Cards0

This was one of the most open games in my memory against Chelsea, probably against anyone over the last few years and once again, Lady Luck played her hand and Manchester United walked away with a victory. Another stark case of having more possession, yet the opposing side creating the majority of the chances. Had it not been for Chelsea's profligacy in front of goal, this game could have had many more goals and the first home loss since last year. Torres's miss may have gained all the media attention but a team with this much talent has lost it's positional and tactical discipline. Out of interest, the amount of shots against has now risen to 115.

Jumping on the band-wagon has never been my style. I won't go down the route of claiming we need a world class attacking midfielder yet as there are many other factors to consider first. This is a team very much in transition and Sir Alex has been through this many times. He has destroyed and rebuilt countless squads capable of winning things and I still have faith. David De Gea is new to the team and has an awful amount of pressure keeping goals out for Manchester United. His footwork is endearing and Van Der Sar must have a wry smile watching him pick out a player 9 out of 10 times. However he is still inexperienced and cannot take the blame here as what were you expecting? Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic have only played together twice all season and without the latter, the team has never looked the same. In my opinion Ferdinand has become more of a liability than someone we can rely on and that's a shame as I believe he's reluctant to change his game to better help himself. He's clinging on to the old Ferdinand in the hope that he can still be that person and unfortunately that's not the case. I hope he sees the light soon as he will be a bit-part player and that is not something Manchester United want with a goalkeeper born in 1990 behind him. A new goalkeeper should not be this exposed to shots and it's a miracle that there wasn't a defeat in the games detailed above.

My personal thoughts are that we lack two midfielders and a defensive thought process. Since Queiroz left in 2008, the team has become more and more attacking with less emphasis placed on the other side of the game. He was a defensive minded coach and is the reason in 2008 United only let in 22 goals in a season. This year it's already on 12 with only 11 games played. I know that 6 were shipped in one game but from what I have mentioned throughout this post, it is a mixture of luck and other things that have made it this way. It's odd that we can keep the majority of possession yet the opponent can have the same or more shots on our goal. This would show that having the ball, albeit less of it, makes no difference as there is so much space awarded to the opposition and naive defensive tactics are playing into their hands.

Taking a look at our midfield is a cause for concern. The automatic feeling is that we lack a world-class player in that department. Even if all the players were fit, not one of them is world-class. Rooney playing in midfield for the past couple of games has shown what is needed. Awareness, touch, passing range, tracking back etc etc and this was done by a striker playing out of position.

Going through:

- Darren Fletcher: I don't hate him as much as I used to but I still don't see how he is of Manchester United class. A great engine but a poor immune system has made him stand out as a player that breaks up play and not known for his technical ability. I can't think of any real quality he has with the ball at his feet. This is a problem as I know Sir Alex is fond of him but he is not good enough to be the focal point of our midfield.
- Michael Carrick: Often rated by European players but does not get the respect he deserves in this country. Plays well in the Champions League (this season his pass completion has been above 90%) and plays even better next to a decent midfielder (Paul Scholes) ). Once he has an inferior player with him, he often gets exposed and has caused him to be dropped on a number of occasions. He has suffered since winning the Champions League as he needs better players around him, which he has not had.
- Anderson: One of the most frustrating players to watch since signing for United. After a great debut season, he has failed to hit those heights and if anything has regressed. His start to this current season was starting to show a great relationship with Tom Cleverley and this is not down to Anderson as since Cleverley's injury many Manchester United fans have come to the end of their tether with him. Unfortunately he has been made a scapegoat with his catalogue of misplaced passes but do remember that he is one of many players not playing well in the squad. Needs to play higher up the pitch in a midfield 3 rather than a 2 as he can be easily exposed with his lax awareness.
Tom Cleverley: A breath of fresh air to the squad. A crisp one and two touch player who this team has been crying out for. At 22 is not the saving grace of Manchester United but could be eventually if he carries on with this tangent of improvement. Another player who benefits in a 3 man midfield with someone to cover his forward advances. His partnership with Anderson worked as they both went forward and one came back (often Anderson). This left us in a great position when counter attacking. His participation in the sublime goal in the Charity Shield highlights his advantages. Though his positional play is not so great and is often overlooked which is a shame.

I won't go on to talk about Park and Giggs as they aren't players that will be in the centre of midfield for the majority of a season.

A combination of any of those midfielders above has many pros and cons. The underlying factor is that they aren't working as they should and it's something difficult to understand. It is the reason that I believe we are lacking 2 midfielders in our squad: 1 attacking and 1 defensively minded. At least one of these has to be world-class, as right now, no other team in the top divisions has a midfield as weak as ours: Chelsea - Mata, Man City - Silva/Toure, Barcelona - all of them, Real Madrid - Alonso/Kaka/Ozil, Inter - Sneijder, Bayern - Schweinsteiger. I could even say AC Milan have Seedorf and Van Bommel.

In order for our players to get the most out of games, the midfield can't be trusted as being good enough to carry the team. It is impossible at this moment in time. Rooney has looked excellent in midfield but I believe he is wasted there and our attacking impetus has waned in these matches. My thinking is that the formation needs to change and without any additions in January, our options are closer to home than you might think.

It is clear that Phil Jones isn't a traditional centre-back with his forward advances. He could shield our sloppy defence with Cleverley just in front taking the ball from him. Our wingers pick themselves and Hernandez is a no-brainer up front. That leaves 1 position free and I think Rooney would excel in the hole behind the striker yet being a striker himself. It is plain for all to see that his all round play is just like a number 10 should be so why not play there? He would still score goals and help out a midfield calling out for a player of his ability. For the sceptics reading this, a fully fit Carrick could quite easily sit in front of the defence and play short balls to the midfielder in front of him instead of Jones. He would be perfect for this role but he probably won't get the chance.

In summary, a change in formation and personnel is needed to bring Manchester United up to speed. No team in the top flight is relying on 4-4-2 this much and once the knock out rounds of the Champions League come around, it will be torn apart by any organised team. Therefore I leave you with my formation below and an ideal team. Feel free to pick it apart but you know that it is the right way forward. Scepticism will not win us the league but learning from our mistakes will.


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