Date: 19th November 2012 at 11:56pm
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Sir Alex has plenty to ponder after Saturday

Sir Alex has plenty to ponder after Saturday

If you cast your mind back ten, fifteen or even twenty years, there is a good chance you can recall United’s first choice line-up. Our team was so firmly established back then Twitter would have been a mass of people struggling to know what to talk about. 140 characters would have seemed an ocean of whiteness. There was no debate, no discussion. United’s starting eleven was so set in stone that even Alan Shearer could have appeared prepared and knowledgeable on a Saturday night. Well, possibly.

The expansion of the game – with the widening of European competition and the vast increase of cash swilling into clubs’ coffers – has increasingly driven football to become a squad game. It matters now who the reserve left-back is. Two strikers are not enough. We need a bunch of them. Wingers? Keep them coming. United, in particular, need seventeen centre halves just to make sure we have two fit ones we can shove onto the field of play.

Squads have ballooned, yet for some teams it remains a straight-forward task to identify a starting eleven. But United? No chance. Opinions remain polarised and passionate, and Saturday’s insipid defeat to Norwich only strengthened those feelings.

Whilst we should avoid the knee-jerk reactions of the most ardent fans, the performance on Saturday evening should not be discounted as a one-off. With an increasing frequency over the last few seasons, we struggle to dominate in the middle of the pitch. Statistics will paint a different picture – we have had the lion’s share of possession in each of our three league defeats this season – but we lack solidity and strength, and often allow runners to break from midfield. The defence bears the brunt of the criticism for our goals against column but they rarely receive the protection they should.

Perhaps in January we will buy a dominant midfield force. But we have pinned our hopes on that before.

This is not necessarily a direct response to the display against Norwich but equally I hope Sir Alex doesn’t dismiss it as a blip. That kind of performance has a history extending back well beyond this season. I saw blame being apportioned everywhere on Saturday night. Sir Alex, Giggs, Valencia, Ferdinand. Someone probably blamed Nani for not playing. To varying degrees, each may hold some truth (apart from Nani), and Sir Alex’s insistence of viewing Ryan Giggs as a ninety-minute central midfielder is a continued concern.

However, considering the players at our disposal, I feel we need to switch our focus elsewhere. The key is to tweak our formation.  Sometimes it feels like sacrilege shunning a straight 4-4-2 or even 4-4-1-1 for United, as it has been the bedrock for so much of our recent success. The notion, though, that we can compete with Barcelona, Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund – to name just three – with this set-up no longer holds sway, and there is a pressing need to fine-tune if we want to climb back to the European summit, in addition to regaining ‘our trophy’.

The virtue of out-and-out wing-play cannot be denied – and I certainly think we should employ the tactic at certain times – but it does leave us exposed centrally. This can be negated by two powerful midfielders, which, whisper it, we don’t really have. Sir Alex is obviously aware of this, highlighted by his habit of pulling a 4-5-1 out of his party bag for certain games, but as United rarely play it and often lack the suitable players to execute it, we tend to look slow and stagnated. Think back to our performance at the Etihad last season. Poor old Ji Sung Park.

This season we have introduced a diamond and it has potential, but I am proposing a more fluid 4-2-3-1 formation, with a slight change of personnel. Perhaps oddly, the defence has mostly played well individually this season – highlighted by Rafeal’s excellent displays, Evans’s continued improvement and Evra’s pleasing return to form – but collectively they need to improve. With the return of Smalling, and with comebacks from Jones and Vidic not far away, there is reason for optimism.

Ah, United’s midfield. The crux of this article, and the subject of so much gnashing of teeth that dentists in Manchester drive Ferraris. We have accumulated a sizeable group of midfielders but without any startling quality, the sort that makes you sit back and relax about a game, knowing we will cruise to a comfortable win. Sadly, the days of Roy Keane patrolling the Old Trafford pitch are long gone. He now spends his time walking his dogs and scowling at Adrian Chiles.

Carrick is a very good midfielder. Though he should play with greater urgency at times, he is calm and controlled, can tackle, and plays with an intelligence he is rarely credited for. Scholes, for all his enduring quality, is now better suited to a substitute’s role, primed to exploit burgeoning spaces and tiring bodies later in the game. Fletcher is still inching towards his combative best, and, as Saturday demonstrated, expecting stellar performances from Giggs these days is fanciful at best. Nick Powell shows promise but is a long way off from being first choice.

Which leaves Cleverley and Anderson. The latter has everything needed of a modern midfielder – fast, strong, excellent in possession, and can tackle (let’s not mention shooting) – and could be the driving force we require. Unfortunately his Satnav is occasionally switched off, and while his football can leave fans breathless, that tends to include him. Cleverley, meanwhile, is tenacious and efficient, takes the ball smartly on the half-turn, and promises greater consistency. I could be convinced by Carrick’s inclusion, but prompted by the desire to see faster, more dynamic play through the middle, I’m leaning towards Anderson and Cleverley as the ‘2’ in this formation, with the hope they can re-create the vibrant partnership they struck up last season.

Let’s whip up the pitch. RVP up top. No argument.

The three behind him. It tends to feel like a formation Made In Chelsea these days, which a fair few European teams would rightly contest, but the way their trio of Hazard, Oscar and Mata interchange does provide a useful blueprint. Those three players rarely hug the wings or stay central but roam freely, going wide when necessary and adding numbers in the middle when they can. It requires work, communication and intelligence. This could easily be replicated (I want to say surpassed) with Kagawa, Rooney and Young. All three can operate both out wide and centrally with aplomb, and, vitally, all can finish. Plus all three demonstrate a good work-rate and will help the midfield when necessary. I feel it is vital we find a way to incorporate Kagawa and Rooney in areas of the pitch they can do the most damage and, with work, this has huge potential.

A quick word on Nani, who has moments of brilliance but his consistency from two years ago has drained away to the point where he frustrates more than he thrills. If he can tilt the balance back the other way, he should replace Young. Valencia (on form) is a fine winger but lacks the flexibility and movement to drift in the way this role demands. And he provides an excellent plan B against weary full-backs.

Hernandez and Welbeck are terrific players to spring from the bench, with Scholes and Carrick leading the midfielders itching to get onto the pitch.

We have played well at times this season but I believe this formation and line-up would tighten us up through the middle, while preventing the pedestrian and predictable play we occasionally produce. But you won’t agree. How could you? This is football. This is United. No-one ever agrees.

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11 responses to “Why Can’t Sir Alex See This?”

  1. tony says:

    i agree..

    spot on with everything, we are on the same page regarding carrick, good midfielder but far too casual at times when a quick pass forward could set up a counter attack.

    i do wish ando and cleverly would get a run in the team, they need the minutes together and then as you say scholes or carrick to come on second half.

    its not only carrick though, the thing that frustrates me the most these days watching united is they seem so slow, no one seems to have an urgency about them until we are a goal down or time is almost up, there needs to be movement and quick touch and go football and thats exactly what we would get from that 4-2-3-1 formation.

  2. Andy says:

    I agree with most of what you said although in my opinion young should be no where near the first team he is far to predictable and not good enough for united the same goes for nani in my opinion we need another ‘flair’ type player someone with great pace trickery and an eye for goal to compliment roo and kagawa. James Rodrigues has been touted but don’t know enough about him. As for Valencia I totally agree great winger but not flexible enough and a bit too one footed for me as you say though a great option to have on bench. I would like to see us by a new centre back in jan vidic too injury prone rio a bit past it jones smalling and Evans great potential but still need a lot of work hummels would be a great buy but can’t see it happening

    • Jon Wilmot says:

      I agree to some extent about Ashley Young – although he has certain qualities, I’m not his greatest fan but I was basing this on the players we currently have available. Unless Nani can turn things around (which seems unlikely), I also think a new offensive player in place of Young would improve this line-up. Like you, I haven’t seen enough of the names being touted around, though I have been impressed with Isco from the small amounts I have seen. It always feels like we are waiting for the next transfer window to get it right!

  3. tose says:

    i know only after the game with norwich,i am gonna watch juve chelsea tomorow night for sure

  4. nate says:

    I wish Sir Alex Ferguson could read this.

  5. chrisaus88 says:

    I think this is a good formation, maybe the best we have but don’t forget a few things. Sir alex has already used this formation with possibly the exact lineup you have mentioned ( can’t remember exactly) & then injuries to Rooney & Kagawa plus the form of Hernandez has forced changes. Hence the title of this article is maybe a bit harsh on the boss.

    Anderson as you’ve said is unfit & that is working against him. Fletcher needs to be thrown some playing time as he is easily the best in the whole squad at shielding the back 4.

    It’s too easy to critise after a defeat like this but Sir Alex is exactly the same as he has always been & he will get us out of this rut.

  6. bryan says:

    I wish they would instate you to make our starting 11.
    Spot on analysis. the average age of our midfield by full time at norwich was 36. how Sir Alex fails to see this is as a problem sickens me.
    i don’t think it’s impossible to continue the 4-4-2, but we need to get a natural left winger for it to be employed.
    Young’s ineffectiveness (in response to andy) is a result from his having to play exclusively from the left while being a right footed player as well as our tendency to play possession football. So we don’t see the marauding runs he used to make on both sides of the pitch as well as down the middle while he was at villa.

    I think the suggested formation would do us a world of good.

  7. LAMAR says:

    I stopped rrading after “carrick is a very good midfielder”. If he plays today, i’m not watching the game.

  8. cornelius says:

    Manchester is a good team though am not their fan. Kagawa and Rooney give good back to the goal machine in RVP if blended well.Fergie should get a copy of this

  9. alfredb says:

    What United lack is obvious: a solid box to box midfielder, with a beastly countenance. Presently the team looks too “friendly” and i am ashamed at the rate at which the opposition, no matter how “small” want to take us on. We also lack a lot of trickery and unpredictability upfront, and that makes us too easy to read and disposses. And apart from Valencia’s other lackings, he seems to have grown a little selfish too of late. Our defence, okay, but we need some fearsome, ugly men, as the boys there are too handsome now.

  10. Sam says:

    I get a bad attack of bruxiasm whenever i see us play like kids passing bean bags around. We need another coach! (With all respects to Fergie.)