Date: 30th September 2011 at 12:10am
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There is no doubt that the end goal for Manchester United this season is to be at the Allianz Arena on the 19th of May, 12. In fact that is a goal set to every top European team worth their weight. Having reached the final two times in the last three years, Manchester United will be hoping to go one better but in their way stands a team who are unquestionably on the brink of making history. The same Barcelona team who have pipped Manchester United to lifting the elusive Silver plated UEFA Champions League trophy twice.

In recent years Barcelona have raised the bar, set it and dared the rest of Europe and the rest of the World to catch them if they can. It is a challenge that Sir Alex is certainly not taking lightly. It is one that Sir has attempted to address this summer through the aquisitions made as well the youthful exuberance and depth of the squad. How exactly has he addressed it and has he undertook this challenge in the correct way?

Although the season only began last month, Manchester United have put in some very impressive performances. The one thing that stands out when compared to previous seasons is the work put into developing or bringing in defenders that are comfortable on the ball. This season the defenders have very much been involved in the attacking phases of play.

To highlight the previous point I shall compare Manchester United’s home fixtures vs Chelsea in 2010/11 with 2011/12. I am comparing these two specific fixtures since 10 of the 11 players who played in the 2010/11 league fixture started against Barcelona in that Champions League final last season.  Note that the result in the 2010/11 fixture finished a 2-1 victory to Manchester United with goals from Javier Hernandez and Nemanja Vidic and the 2011/12 fixture finished a 3-1 victory to Manchester United with goals from Chris Smalling, Nani and Wayne Rooney. Both games saw a goal coming from defence and a goal from attack.

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Defensive Chalkboards v Chelsea on 08/05/11

Name (Position): (Passes Completed/Attempted/Completion rate)

O’Shea (LB): (/26/73%) – Vidic (LCB): (16/23/70%) – Ferdinand (RCB): (19/22/86%) – Fabio (RB): (15/20/75%)

Defensive Chalkboards v Chelsea on 18/09/11

Evra (LB): (43/48/90%) – Evans (LCB): (43/47/91%) – Jones (RCB): (45/51/88%) – Smalling (RB): (22/25/88%)

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What’s most striking about these two sets of chalkboards is that the back four that played v Chelsea in Manchester United’s 3-1 victory in September seemed to be a vast improvement on the ball when compared with that of the 2-1 victory in May. Both games finished with the same end result; 3 points, however the style and the way in which the result was achieved appears to contrast each other. The back 4 in the September fixture both attempted and completed many more passes; 91 attempted, 69 completed with 75.8% completion rate in May and 171 attempted, 153 completed with 89.5% completion rate in September. Like I said, noticeable.

This change in style of the way that the defensive back line plays has become key to the way that Manchester United have been playing so far this season. It is one of a number of contributing factors as to why we have played very impressive attacking football; a feat that has seen us score 20 goals in 6 league games. Having said this, I do believe that the new style is also contributing towards what has been seen as a weakness.

In the 6 league games so far this season, the opposition has averaged 19 shots against us. When so many shots are being conceded, it is natural that goals will also be conceded. It has so far been an underlying problem, however one that hasn’t particularly been highlighted. Comparing just the two fixtures v Chelsea, in May Chelsea had 20 shots, 6 from outside the box whereas in September Chelsea had 22 shots, and again 6 from outside the box. One statistic that should be noted when comparing the shots count is that in May, Chelsea had the lions share of the possession with 52.5% however in September they had a meagre 43.4% meaning that they did get their shots and chances in more often for the amount of possession they had. David De Gea is ‘thought’ to be suspect from long range but Chelsea have faced both Van Der Sar and David De Gea and have had the same amount of shots from long range. So can this statistic really be put solely down to David De Gea?

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Chalkboards

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The passing chalkboards themselves demonstrate how the style of play has evolved since last season. It is apparent to see how much more dominant Manchester United are this season, both in this fixture and in every other. Manchester United have enjoyed the lions share of possession in every single match they’ve played so far this season. The passing statistics have also all been around the 500 mark, which is a drastic increase on last season. The tendency to play long balls forward to the front line has also decreased. With the defenders more assured in possession of the ball, they are always making themselves available for the pass  more often and the team-mates around them also feel more comfortable giving them the ball.

Another facet that tactically impresses me about Manchester United this season is our summer acquisition Ashley Young, not only for how effective he has been, scoring 2 goals and assisting 5 in 6 league appearances, but the way that he himself has changed the way that that we’ve been playing. Because he is predominantly a right footed player playing on the left side of midfield, Ashley Young usually cuts inside and when an opportunity for a cross or a shot is not available, more often than not he chooses to pass the ball. In essence, his presence and role in the team is very much suited for ball retention. As can be seen on the chalkboard below, there is a large concentration of passes on the advanced left side of the pitch. In addition to this, his pass completion rate this season has been extremely impressive (86%, 88%, 87%, 74%, 91%, 81%).

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Ashley Young Chalkboard v Chelsea 18/09/11

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I felt that Ashley Young’s best game so far in a Manchester United shirt was in the match against Chelsea at Trafford. As seen above, he was very effective in possession. That game he created 3 chances and assisted a goal (Smalling) which came about due to a free kick cross. A large proportion of his passes have been short give and goes which have increased the tempo at which the team have been playing.  He also creates a lot of space for the overlapping full back to run into and often finds him, spawning another avenue in which Manchester United can get a goal. For a potential fixture against Barcelona, it is quite reasonable to regard Ashley Young to be key, possibly playing in a similar kind of role to that of his opposing counterpart, David .

And so we go back to the question of whether Sir Alex Ferguson has addressed the challenge set by Barcelona in the right kind of way. Personally I believe so. If Manchester United inevitably meet Barcelona in the Champions League this season, can we really say that we have closed the gap to Barcelona? I honestly don’t know. We are only 6 league games into the season, we are only just entering the month of October. It is too early to say however the signs are encouraging. Sir Alex Ferguson is trying to develop a team that can go toe to toe with this current, one off, Barcelona team. A question that does intrigue me is that if we do meet them this year, would playing Javier Hernandez be wise?

Javier Hernandez is the kind of player who likes to play off the last defender. It is a kind of system that Barcelona does not use, hence their ability to dominate games is aided further. The way he plays for Manchester United means that he is not involved much in the build up to the goals that we score, though he is extremely efficient at getting a goal when the chance. Manchester United can get away with playing Javier Hernandez against most teams however I do not think that Barcelona is one of them. Casting my mind back to the 2011 Champions League final, Javier Hernandez was more or less ineffectual. That night he was barely involved. He only had the 1 attempt on goal and his passing figures were the lowest of the starters hinting that his link-up play isn’t as good as can be. However hard it is to comprehend that he actually has a weakness,  his link-up play with the midfield would be just that. I believe that this is the one thing that he needs to improve upon the most. When Ruud Van Nistelrooy joined Manchester United, his only criticism was also one similar to that of Javier Hernandez however after working on it and improving that aspect of his game, he became probably the most fearsome striker in the world.

Do you think that Manchester United are any closer to Barcelona? Has our chances of beating Barcelona in a one off game increased? Do you prefer the way that Manchester United are playing this season? Feel free to comment below.

This article is as seen on the IconicNumber7 blog.

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