The Contenders: Manchester United
“After the disappointment of last year, we want to recover the title,” Sir Alex Ferguson said. “We either win the title or come second; it’s an important part of the history of our club over the last 20 years. We have to recover, as we’ve done many times. That’s our target this year. Priority No1 is to win the title back.”
It speaks volumes of their mentality when they stayed close in the title race for most of last season even when their squad was down to a bare minimum with numerous injuries; using 28 players over the entire season. Even when fans were craving for a replacement to be signed during the transfer window; it was United’s legend Paul Scholes who has come out of retirement as an answer to the midfield crisis in January. In an uncharacteristic fashion United lost the title, losing a five point lead and Sir Alex losing in war of words against Mancini. Dearth of quality in their squad was evident in the Champions League; an early exit from group stages – a result emulated only in their 2005-06 campaign. It would also be the first time in six years that United wouldn’t be participating in the FA community Shield.
Last season one could predict United’s formation to be 4-4-2, recreating a formula of their previous successful teams. But during the initial stages of the season, it seemed to be a highly fluid system. Pace, skill and directness of Valencia-Young-Nani in the wings, short passing of Cleverly-Anderson, and interchanging positions from Rooney-Welbeck were the highlights of this system. Either Rooney or Welbeck could efficiently play the role of withdrawn forward; comfortably drop into midfield to pick up the ball to link with players while Nani and Young would cut in from the touch line moving into the space created by their forwards. Cleverly and Anderson moved the ball quickly through the midfield with their slick one touch passing. But this setup also conceded the most number of shots during that phase (22 dropping to average 13 shots per game overall) which is unlike United, who are generally far more assured at the back.
Patrice Evra, the stand-in captain during Vidic’s absence, at times failed to live up to standards of his previous performances. He offered a threat up-front by always being available for receiving a pass, but more often got caught out of position during opposition counter-attacks. It would be harsh to blame Evra for the defensive frailties but with the first choice back four injured during large periods of the season and relatively inexperienced pair of Smalling and Jones, it was expected of Evra to perform at the highest level.
“It is an area we’re paying attention to,” said Ferguson. “In the last five years Patrice has played an average of 45-50 games, which is phenomenal. I don’t know if anybody else has achieved that. He’s still a fit lad. He is a fighter and has the same drive and ambition.”
Hence money invested in buying as a cover for the left back (Fabio loaned to QPR), would make more sense rather than for a forward when they already boast of attacking threats in the form of Rooney, Welbeck, Hernandez, Berbatov and Macheda. A solid defensive unit has featured in many of the United’s title winning teams; the current predicament that Sir Alex would like to sort out.
The latest addition of Japanese international Shinji Kagawa from Dortmund has created a buzz among Old Trafford supporters; a marquee signing who can provide an extra dimension to United’s midfield and signifying a likely shift to continental style. Sir Alex’s thoughts on his latest signing:
“Shinji is an exciting young midfielder with great skill, vision and a good eye for goal. I am delighted he has chosen to come to United. I believe he will make an impact upon the team very quickly as he is suited to United’s style of play. We are all looking forward to working with him. He’s going to be a really good player and he has impressed. His awareness of receiving the ball, his speed in turning and how he attacks defenders is an asset to us.”
Incorporating Kagawa in the formation creates two likely scenarios: firstly using him in the Number 10 (his preferred position when he played for Borussia Dortmund) in a 4-4-1-1 system, which would imply dropping either Welbeck or Hernandez to the bench. If Rooney could emulate the role of false 9, United could be playing with virtually no striker on the pitch. And secondly, using him as a wide forward in a 3- man attack with Rooney as the focal point and Welbeck occupying opposite flank. This would create a necessity for a free-role player in order to maintain width in attack, a role which could be played by either Cleverly or Fletcher. Thus a 4-3-3 would become 4-2-4 in attack phase of play.
United also have the flexibility of using Valencia, Carrick and Jones either in defensive role or in midfield. Michael Carrick could feature as a centre-back, bringing the ball out of defence and joining the midfield; an option likely to be exercised in European matches or in a worst case injury scenario. He looked assured at the back during a 45 minutes spell against Barcelona, well capable of coping against more mobile forwards. Previous season, United were also prone to buckle under pressure against teams who adopted to pressing higher up the pitch. Athletic Bilbao, Newcastle and Blackburn seem to cause them a great deal of trouble with this tactic probably because of failing to maintain a high tempo during the match.
One of the best defensive performances by the team came in their Champions League title winning campaign against Barcelona side. A master plan devised by the coach Carlos Queiroz and brilliantly executed over 180 minutes by the players. Gary Neville in his autobiography writes:
“In training Queiroz was so meticulous he used sit-up mats to mark the positions he wanted the players to occupy. Carlos was obsessive; we’d never seen such attention to detail. We rehearsed time and again, sometimes walking through the tactics slowly with the ball in our hands. But the instructions were simple. Ronaldo up front tying them up. Carlos Tevez dropping on to Yaya Toure every time he got the ball. Let their centre halves have it. They couldn’t hurt us. With Park and Rooney out wide the (United) full backs had two hard-working wingers to help shackle Messi and Iniesta. But the really complex part was for Scholes and Carrick. Carlos had worked out precise positions for each of them. Suffocation was a necessary tactic.”
Afterwards, more than Ronaldo, they would miss this master tactician.
“Fergie’s Fledglings 2“ may not have the same calibre as their predecessors, but “If you are good enough, then you are old enough” would always be associated with United’s philosophy.
“When I first started picking the young players, we played Port Vale in a League Cup game and an MP from Stoke protested to the government, saying we were cheating the public and they wanted their money back,” said Ferguson.”Little did she know she was watching perhaps the greatest group of young players to come through at a football club in England. The same applies here.”
Sir Alex Ferguson has hardly ever plundered the transfer market in order to force a major overhaul. Squad building is a slow process and unlike previous seasons, United fans have to be patient.