The nightmare of rivals Manchester City lifting the coveted Premier League trophy was realised on the fateful afternoon of May 13. Manchester United’s horror was encapsulated in the disappointment of Phil Jones’ face as news filtered through that Manchester City had pinched the title from the fingertips of the Red Devils through two late goals. Losing by a virtue of eight goals, after leading by eight points through the near end of the season, it was a painful way to lose. The embarrassing Carling Cup, Champions League and Europa League exits showed how far United had fallen from being Champions League finalists just months before. It will take more than signings to get United out of this funk.
The midfield can be castigated to death for not having enough depth and quality in it – but buying quality central midfielders and then making them play in a 4-4-2, which is focused in a lot on wing play, will still provide the problem we have faced for these last three seasons. Signings complimented with a tactical shift will push United to get further in the Champions League and win back the trophy, that Manchester City so dramatically stole. However, with the signings we’ve made and the players we’ve been linked with, it seems we may be reciprocating the appropriation attitude shown by the Citizens title win, by stealing Mancini’s City philosophy.
United’s style of play has not changed too dramatically over the years. United regularly use the width of Old Trafford to get the full backs high up the pitch, which in turn allows wingers to whip crosses into the box. Nevertheless, the crosses that enter the box are not those that a target man who would be happy to receive, but across the floor. In addition to this, the crossing positions mostly come from within the box and not from the edge like many other teams. This is to maximise the chances of getting the ball into the dangerous corridor, which goalkeepers and defenders loathe. Rene Meulensteen, first team coach, focuses a lot of the wing play that Manchester United use by doing the Three Ball Routine with the team that helps not only the attackers, but also the defenders in their concentration.
Last season, a noticeable shift was with the attention to keeping the ball, almost endorsed by the Scholes and Carrick’s partnership that was penned together in January, although injuries played a huge part in this. The midfield pair are best when keeping the ball and controlling the midfield. Rooney’s ability to pass the ball increases the possession focus, along with Welbeck (in comparison to Chicharito who’s ball retention is considerably bad). At the beginning of the season, Ferguson wanted high pressing and direct football but injuries to Anderson and Cleverley made him change his plans to what we finished the season with.
Latest reports have seen us heavily linked with Brazilian Lucas Moura, and if you’re one to believe paper talk then we’ve just had a second bid of nearly 30 million pounds rejected by Sao Paulo. If Lucas Moura is drafted into United this summer, then it will seem like Ferguson is sampling what City did last season and creating a team that is similar to City in philosophy – only with younger and more energetic players. Regardless of the signing of Moura though, this system is still perfectly deployable; the signing of Shinji Kagawa means that Nani could simply slot in where Moura would be if he signed.
David De Gea vs Joe Hart
At the beginning of last season, David De Gea had difficulty acclimatizing to the physical and speedy nature of the Premier League. His record of conceding goals from outside the box immediately haunted him in the Community Shield where he failed to keep out Dzeko’s shot, a goal that put City 2-0 up on the periphery of half time. Mistakes against West Brom, Basel and Blackburn would see him dropped for three consecutive games, only coming back to have yet another horror show against Liverpool in the FA Cup. However, he did improve as the season went on and became one of the bright sparks in the run in for the Premier League title. Doubters at the start of the season were eating humble pie. On the other side of Manchester, Hart reportedly didn’t have any problems and performed to the best of his abilities, being named in the PFA Team of the Year, but from a slightly biased point of view I think we see just as many errors from Hart than other Premier League keepers. Regardlessly, they’re both young keepers with bright futures.
Rafael vs Pablo Zabaleta
At the beginning of last season, Zabaleta didn’t get a look in as it looked like Richards cemented his place in England’s squad for the Euro’s in Poland and Ukraine. However, despite Richards being fit enough to play, Mancini stuck with Zabaleta. Many believe that the Italian sees the Argentine as better defensively, thus him being the right-back during the run in. At Old Trafford, Rafael started the season with an injury so Chris Smalling and Phil Jones had to deputise in that position until around Christmas when Rafael started to get a run of games and truly impressed. Rafael and Zabaleta are very similar in the way they play their position. In these modern times, full backs are judged on how adept they are at attacking and not defending, which is the position they occupy on the pitch: the defence. The best full backs are better as defenders and can support the wingers in attack, something Zabaleta has to do a lot as City play with attacking midfielders and not wingers. Ashley Cole, Phillip Lahm, Branislav Ivanovic and Jose Enrique all fall into this category and the respective RBs of Manchester United and Manchester City do so, too. Zabaleta does not fit into the bracket that Cole conquers but Rafael certainly has the capability to become one of the best right backs we’ve seen and almost certainly, a sound permanent replacement for Gary Neville.
Chris Smalling vs Joleon Lescott
Lescott’s performances for Manchester City and England have been of a high quality, according to the journalists of this country – but Lescott remains a player that even splits City fans in half. Undoubtedly, he played well for both club and country and he was just as important as his partner at the Etihad is, but some just don’t stick to him. Smalling played primarily at right-back last season, but still provided fans with stellar performances, albeit littered with lapses of concentration that comes with the exuberance of youth. When Rafael came back, he reverted to his favoured position of centre-back and played alongside Ferdinand or Evans when one was rested or injured. Lescott and Smalling are similar to each other in the way they play, and they both vied against each other to gain the starting spot alongside Terry for the Euros. Smalling’s injury woes allowed Lescott to gain the position with little worry, but with Smalling set to be fit for start of the new season and his younger age, it’s not impossible to suggest Smalling might be the better player come 2014.
Nemanja Vidic vs Vincent Kompany
Vidic and Kompany remain the respective captains of their clubs; just one of the many similarities they share. Both defenders are one of the players in the team who wear their hearts on their sleeve, a quality that’s helped by the captains armband but both are solid as rock regardless. The only difference between the two last season is that before the halfway mark of the season, one continued to play well and the other suffered a season ending injury. Nemanja Vidic was the player who would suffer the cruel fate, missing out on the rest of the season, while Vincent Kompany would go on to play an integral role in guiding Man City to their first league title since 1968. United suffered many more injuries than City last season but the loss of Vidic to us was of course the most significant. Many of our fans feel that if our captain had been in the team as much as Kompany had been, then we would be celebrating the 20th league title in Manchester United history and it’s hard to argue against that.
Patrice Evra vs Gael Clichy
The interesting thing here is that both are French; much like the comparison of Smalling and Richards. In the French national team, Patrice Evra is often chosen to start over Gael Clichy. Even though this may be the case, Evra endured some horrible performances last season with us. On December the 18th, when we cruised to a victory against QPR at Loftus Road, under the current wave of satisfaction of gaining 3 important points on the road we witnessed Evra being repeatedly challenged by Jamie Mackie. Here was a player who had recently returned from a serious injury, causing Evra problems and this was a huge ignominy for Patrice to suffer. It is this form that Evra displayed fairly consistently last season (and the season before) which has left many United fans uncomfortable with Fabio’s temporary departure. Perhaps unfairly, this has left many hoping to see Leighton Baines to come in and put the fire back in his belly to garner the form he had 2 seasons ago – a bit of competition can often have a massive impact. Clichy suffered during his time at Arsenal, lacking the capability to stop leaking goals, but since his arrival with Nasri from Arsenal to Manchester City, Clichy has found his defending much easier and played well throughout the season. Interestingly, Evra was dropped from France’s squad for Clichy during the European Championships.
Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes vs Gareth Barry and Yaya Toure
This is where the similarities between our potential team for next season and the Manchester City team of last season seems to become a formality. When Hodgson chose his final squad for the Euros, many English fans commented on Carrick and Barry’s ability to keep the ball, focussing on Carrick as they thought he was better retaining possession. At both United and City, Barry and Carrick are the midfielders who sit deep keep the ball for the team; much like Busquets at Barcelona, Mikel at Chelsea and Lucas Leiva at Liverpool. Yaya Toure, alongside Barry, provided the muscle and energy in the City midfield. He would be the ‘stopper’ – using his stength to stop opponents runs from the middle of the park and pushing forward where needs be. This meant he would also give goals, assists and plays that an attacking midfielder would normally be capable of, all from a deeper position. With talks of Manchester United going after Kwadwo Asamoah and Cheik Tiote, along with attempts to keep Pogba, it looks like we want player in Yaya’s ilk. Last season we started well when Anderson and Cleverley provided the energy from midfield, but being rattled by a 6-1 mauling against our neighbours, Ferguson restored the settings to default and put a more repressive touch into the team. This slowed us down in midfield as well as making us predictable, despite being impressive at keeping possession. Next season, we might just see something different.
Shinji Kagawa and Wayne Rooney vs David Silva and Carlos Tevez
Kagawa, the Japanese sensation who we’ve recently signed from Dortmund, is looking like a player capable of providing some of the cut and thrust football we became used to when Ronaldo and Tevez were on the shores of Trafford. Judging by what the Germans say about his ability, his introduction into the team will be an exciting one. For me, he’s a player who seems to have the same sort of pedigree to that of the Manchester City attacking midfielder, David Silva. The fact he is easily compared to Silva, a player we passed on the oppurtunity to buy, gives a strong sensation of attempts to replicate the City thesis. Since Rooney’s performances have started to wane since Ronaldo’s departure, hopefully a re-acquaintance with his position in the hole will coax him back to the glorious form that showed Rooney to be the world class player he is. His focus would be off of scoring goals, thanks to the likes of Danny Welbeck and back onto doing what he does best and becoming the workhorse of the team.
Lucas Moura vs Samir Nasri
As mentioned at the beginning, Manchester United are reportedly gunning for the Sao Paulo young superstar Lucas Moura. After missing out on Eden Hazard to Champions League winners Chelsea, Moura has been heavily linked with United and we know for certain that we’ve made one bid. It is his addition that would make the City comparison seem like a formality and become obvious to even the most ignorant of United fans. Lucas would play on the right of the three attacking midfielder and would cut in, hopefully causing mayhem with his small physique yet immense strength, along with his beautiful technique and all round clever play. He would be similar to Nasri, except he would give amazing amounts of energy. A small negative of his game is his greediness, a quality that makes him very comparable to Nani – and if he was to sign for United then he’d have to be taught about team work. Even without the signing of Moura, the idea that Nani could slot in instead is perfectly feasible.
Danny Welbeck vs Sergio Aguero
Aguero was single player that helped take City to the next level. When City faced United in the Community Shield, wih Aguero sitting on the bench, they lacked that edge that would propel them above us. In their first game of the season against Swansea, it was a similar story, but Aguero’s introduction later on saw them run out comfortable 4-0 winners – the Argentine contributing to three goals, one of them being an assist. Scoring goals was an area we really lacked in last season – something possibly down to Welbeck not scoring enough and Hernandez suffering from second season syndrome. Therefore, it should be no surprise that Manchester United have been heavily linked with Robin van Persie. The Dutchman was the defining factor in Arsenal’s season and he was the main man who got them to the all-important fourth place finish last season. He would surely slot in well alongside Rooney, Kagawa and Lucas – the group of them creating chances for each other.
Is it what Ferguson wants?
From what we saw of Manchester United at the beginning of the season, it would not be astonishing to see that this is the style and formation we’re going for. The football we played against Tottenham, Arsenal, Bolton and Chelsea looked magnificent but unfotunately we were keeping ourselves too open. Injuries obviously didn’t help our cause – but we found the best solution out of a bad situation. Now, with a change in formation, philosophy and personnel, next season could be one of the most exciting seasons of recent times for United.
Published with permission from The Devils of Manchester | Manchester United Blog and News.