Manchester United faces Chelsea, Liverpool, (potentially) Arsenal and then Marseille in the Premier League, FA Cup and then Champions League over the next fortnight. It’s a two-week spell that will go a long way towards shaping the club’s season. In a fortnight Sir Alex Ferguson’s men, clear at the head of the Premier League, could be genuine contenders for the treble or face heartbreak on three fronts.
In a season where United has often justifiably been criticised for performances that have lacked, as Didier Deschamps put it, “stardust,” it could yet become one of the most remarkable campaigns in the club’s history.
It’s a punishing schedule that is aided only by the relative poor form of Liverpool and Chelsea this season, together with Arsenal’s equally packed fixture list. Nonetheless these four games will decide whether United heads into April and May fighting on all fronts or potentially disappointed by failure. Indeed, lose at one or both of Stamford Bridge and Anfield and the title initiative could head Arsenal’s way, despite United’s current lead.
Of course, some of the gloss has already been taking off the Reds’ visit to Stamford Bridge on Tuesday night, with United 12 points ahead of Carlo Ancelotti’s outfit. John Terry, typical of the man, has talked up the Londoners’ chances – claiming United will crack under the pressure – more realistically a Champions League place is the best outcome for Chelsea this season before Ancelotti inevitably is dismissed this summer.
However, last season’s champions could significantly damage United’s chances should victory over the Reds follow last season’s Premier League double. Indeed, with Chelsea’s two winning goals in last season’s fixtures both mired in controversy Ferguson could do with catching a break at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday night – a ground on which the Reds have not won since April 2002.
Meanwhile, Liverpool’s mixed form under Kenny Dalglish has brought wins over Chelsea, Sparta Prague, Stoke City and Fulham but a sobering loss at West Ham United today. Indeed, new strike pair Andy Carroll – who is yet to feature – and £22 million former Ajax hitman Luis Suarez must hit the ground running if the Anfield outfit is to qualify for Europe next season.
Dalglish’s success or otherwise may already now rest on the Europa League – a Champions League spot still an outside bet with the Merseysiders lie six points behind Chelsea in fourth spot, having played twice more. Whatever the club’s form, Liverpool is surely unlikely to perform as limply as it did in the crucial fixture against Chelsea last May – a victory for the Londoners that effectively sealed the title.
Meanwhile, United’s probable FA Cup fifth round fixture with Arsenal – assuming the Londoners beat Leyton Orient in next week’s replay – will take place on the weekend of 12/13 March, just days before the club’s return leg with Marseille. In a season where United’s priorities remain a 19th Premier League title and Champions League progress Ferguson will surely rotate against the Gunners, in a match that now takes on added significance for Arsenal after today’s humiliating loss to Birmingham City in the Carling Cup final.
Yet, while each of these domestic ties could significantly change events in favour of United’s rivals – especially with Ferguson’s outfit rarely impressive away from home – the Reds can potentially fatally damage others’ hopes. Win twice in the coming week and United will go into domestic and European cup ties in huge confidence.
Conversely, even if United remains favourites to beat Marseille at Old Trafford on 15 March, the precarious state of the tie will seem more daunting still should results not go the Reds way in the next fortnight. More so given the French outfit’s improving results – Didier Deschamps side beat Nancy 2-1 at the weekend to close within a point of Rennes at the top of League 1.
Fortunately, United is likely to head into the fortnight with Wayne Rooney in tow despite calls for the 25-year-old striker to face FA sanctions. Referee Mark Clattenburg could yet report the striker and the FA deal with the player an ‘extraordinary case’ but precedent suggests otherwise, with the official having dealt with the incident on the field of play.
Indeed, it may have been the striker’s “worst ever season” but with a modicum form returning against Wigan Athletic on Saturday Rooney could well fire the Reds to glory in the next couple of weeks. The most important fortnight of United’s season to date.
Manchester United increased the lead over Arsenal at the head of the Premier League to four points with a routine win at the DW Stadium. Goals from Javier Hernández, Wayne Rooney and Fabio da Silva sealed the points at Wigan Athletic, although the heavy win fails to tell the story of a match in which United was matched for large periods. Indeed, with Wigan spurning two early chances and United scoring three very late goals, the result flatters the visitors.
But the match also ended in controversy, with Wigan manager Roberto Martinez insisting Rooney should have seen red for an early incident with midfielder James McCarthey. The United forward appeared to strike McCarthey in the eighth minute clash. While referee Mark Clattenburg awarded Wigan the free kick he chose not to issue any cards, with Sir Alex Ferguson preparing the way for a media witch hunt post-match.
Still, the win prepares United in the best possible way for the clash with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday night. United, now 11 points clear of Manchester City and 12 of Chelsea, could open up a seven point gap in the Premier League with a win in London.
Yet, Ferguson will be thankful that goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar pulled off two great saves in the opening 10 minutes to keep United in the match and set up the victory.
“Wigan were terrific in the first 20 minutes and Van der Sar had to make some great saves,” Ferguson told MUTV.
“Vida and Smalling had to keep sticking their heads in to clear things. It was an uncomfortable time for us. We played really well in the second half and had some fantastic opportunities. We opened them up time and time again and could have scored more. But I’m happy with 4-0.”
Ferguson dropped Dimitar Berbatov to the bench after the striker’s goalless contribution at Marseille last week and ahead of the key Chelsea fixture, affording Hernández a rare United start. It proved an outstanding decision, with the Mexican scoring two very well taken goals.
However, Wigan started the brightest, despite losing on 12 previous occasions to United and conceding 37 goals in the process. Indeed, Martinez’ men crafted two superb chances in the opening minutes. In the best opportunity former Crystal Palace striker Victor Moses pounced on Paul Scholes’ wayward pass only for van der Sar to block the 21-year-old’s effort with less than 10 on the clock.
Yet, United took the lead much against the run of play on the quarter-hour, with Rooney exchanging passes with Nani, before the Portuguese set up Hernández to superbly clip in the opening goal at the near post. The Mexican’s instinct for goals is unsurpassed at the club, although his all round game in some way short of the standards Ferguson will demand.
But Wigan almost equalised as van der Sar again saved superbly, this time from McCarthey who ran on to Hugo Rodallega’s flick. Indeed, the hosts matched United for much of the opening period.
True to historical form with these two sides United ran away with the match after the break. Ferguson’s outfit scored three more but it could have easily been six in an open game. First, Nani slammed a slot against the post after smart work from Rooney and Darren Fletcher, before Maynor Figueroa again tested van der Sar and Moses fired over the bar.
It characterised a game in which both sides sought to attack but wasted chances, with Nemanja Vidic and Chris Smalling both excellent in the heart of United’s defence. Up front Rooney’s frustration grew but at least the former Evertonian sought to influence the game – a sign perhaps of a return to form, while Nani was ubiquitous if frustratingly inconsistent in his delivery at times.
Indeed, United took until the 75th minute to double the advantage with Hernández exchanging passes with Rooney before the 21-year-old Mexican slotted home. Further goals from Rooney – a side footer from substitute Berbatov’s simple square ball – and Fabio da Silva ensured a comfortable if flattering win.
Ferguson praised Hernández’ efforts – the Mexican has now contributed 14 goals, four of them winners, another four opening strikes. Moreover, four United wins in the Premier League away from Old Trafford have all come with goals from the £10 million signing.
“The boy is doing fantastic,” added Ferguson.
“They were two good finishes. If you watch the first one again he bends his run and spins across the defender to the front post to knock it in. He made a great run for the second and Wayne played him in nicely.”
But Sunday’s headlines are dominated by Rooney, with Ferguson accusing the media of wanting the player “hung,” while assistant manager Mike Phelan warned of a press witch hunt against the 25-year-old striker.
“I have had a chance to see it,” added the United boss.
“There is nothing in it. But, what will happen, the question has been asked and because it is Wayne Rooney the press will raise a campaign to get him hung by Tuesday or electrocuted or something like that.
“It is unbelievable. Watch the press. It will be interesting to see it.”
In that Ferguson is undoubtedly right, although there is little ground on which to defend Rooney who – whether deliberate or accidental – caught McCarthey in the face while running past the Wigan midfielder.
The FA may indeed act before Tuesday match with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge – a three match ban is possible if the governing body charges the player with violent conducted. However, the FA also has clear rules on discipline, normally refusing to take retrospective action against a player where the official has both seen and punished the incident on the field of play.
Wigan – 451 – Al Habsi; Gohouri, Alcaraz, G Caldwell, Figueroa; McCarthy, Watson (Gomez 89), N’Zogbia (McArthur 89), Diame, Moses (Di Santo 64); Rodallega
United – 442 – Van der Sar; O’Shea, Smalling, Vidic, Evra; Fletcher, Scholes (Gibson 77), Carrick, Nani (Fabio da Silva 85); Rooney; Hernández (Berbatov 76).
Attendance – 18,100
Man of the Match – Nani
Possession: Wigan 40% – 60% United
Attempts: 10 – 14
On Target: 4 – 9
Corners: 8 – 4
Fouls: 12 – 11
Ryan Giggs returns to the Manchester United squad as Sir Alex Ferguson’s outfit seeks a four point Premier League lead. With Arsenal in Carling Cup action, Ferguson’s outfit could extend its advantage at Wigan Athletic on Saturday. Giggs returns along with Michael Owen for the fixture, which United won 5-0 last season. However, the good news is tempered by confirmation that defender Rio Ferdinand will miss games against both Wigan this weekend and Chelsea on Tuesday night.
Ferdinand’s absence, along with Jonny Evans, means Chris Smalling will continue in the heart of United’s defence. The 20-year-old former Fulham defender earned deserved praise for his performance against Marseille in the Champions League. Indeed, Smalling will experience an accelerated learning curve over the next week, with two key domestic fixtures.
However, Ferguson will be without Ji-sung Park, Anderson and Antonio Valencia for the short trip across Lancashire, although the latter could be back in March after the leg-break he suffered in September.
“Nothing much has changed on the injury front,” Ferguson said on Friday.
“We’re trying to get Ryan [Giggs] fit for the Wigan game, and Michael Owen is back training and could be available. Rio and Jonny Evans should both be back for Liverpool next weekend. Ji-sung Park is still two weeks away. Anderson will probably be back in three weeks, he’s back in Portugal now and we’ll have to see how he progresses.
“Antonio is doing well in training but it’s difficult to assess when he’ll be back. We have to make a decision on when to play him in terms of his own confidence after being out for so long. He could be back in two weeks hopefully.”
Ferguson is likely to keep both top scorer Dimitar Berbatov and Wayne Rooney in the side, although neither stood out at Marseille during the week. The Scot must decide whether to retain the 4-5-1 system that successfully stifled the French champions on Wednesday night or deploy Rooney in a more central role.
Certainly, the 69-year-old will insist his team create more chances that in Stade Velodrome, with United desperate for the points in the title race. Ferguson’s outfit leads Arsenal by a single point heading in the weekend programme. Indeed, the Scot things that Arsène Wenger’s side is the only realistic challengers this season, with Manchester City and Chelsea falling away in recent weeks.
This despite John Terry’s bizzare assertion that United is feeling the pressure heading into next Tuesday’s tie with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Should United win on Saturday, Ferguson’s side will pull 12 points clear of last season’s champions.
“Arsenal or ourselves will win it. You come towards the end and there are always two teams who break away. That’s the way it’s looking at the moment,” added Ferguson
“But it won’t be easy [for Chelsea] to come back from that kind of points deficit. Maybe 82 points will win the league. We think we can gather that total from the games we’ve got. You don’t care where you get them.”
Ferguson may recall Paul Scholes ahead of Darron Gibson, who did little to impress in France, although key fixtures coming up against Chelsea and Liverpool take precedence. However, the United manager conceded all of his players want to play, with the run-in now beginning in earnest.
United faces five key fixtures against Wigan, Chelsea, Liverpool, Marseille and a potential cup-tie with Arsenal over the next fortnight.
“My experience is that players want to play in all the games now, that is the problem,” Ferguson added.
“It is a nightmare picking teams at this stage of the season because you are leaving good players out of some very big games. “This season I am helped a little bit because I have two or three injuries at the moment, so my options are condensed. All the players who are going to be playing all the time are delighted at that.”
Meanwhile, Roberto Martinez’ relegation threatened team could face United without Emmerson Boyce, Callum McManaman and on-loan Tom Cleverley. Boyce has a hamstring problem, McManaman a gashed leg and Cleverley is ineligible to play against his parent club.
It’s a foreboding problem for Martinez, whose side has lost all 12 encounters with United. The Reds have averaged three goals a game in those fixtures and conceded just four times. And with Wigan set to face four of the Premier League’s top five in the coming weeks, the drop is a realistic outcome for the Lancashire club this season.
Still, Ferguson refused to concede that United will win the tie easily – and there is genuine concern in the Old Trafford camp at the state of the relaid DW pitch.
“It’s be a difficult game, Wigan are a team who play fantastic football, but this time of season they’re all difficult,” concluded Ferguson.
“It’s important that we keep our momentum going because the team who is most consistent will win the league.”
In that United has been a model of regularity, losing just once in the Premier League this season. Ferguson’s outfit has also performed with consistent mediocrity away from the safety of Old Trafford. If the Reds are to complete a 19th domestic title in May that will have to change.
Wigan – 451 – Al Habsi; Gohouri, Gary Caldwell, Alcaraz, Figueroa; N’Zogbia, Watson, McCarthy, Diame, Moses; Rodallega. Subs from: Pollitt, Di Santo, Steven Caldwell, Gomez, Stam, McArthur, Thomas, McManaman.
United – 442 – van der Sar; Rafael da Silva, Vidic, Smalling, Evra; Nani, Scholes, Fletcher, Giggs; Rooney, Berbatov. Subs from: Kuzszazk, Brown, Gibson, Bébé, Lindegaard, Fabio da Silva, O’Shea, Obertan, Hernández, Tunnicliffe, King, Carrick.
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Assistant referees: Mick McDonough & Andy Newbold
Fourth official: Anthony Taylor
Wigan – LDDWDL
United – WWLWWD
Amid the criticism of Sir Alex Ferguson’s side this season the wily 69-year-old Scot is too infrequently given due credit for his tactical accumen. Given the limited nature of his side – lacking the “stardust” of previous incarnations – Ferguson has very effectively built an obdurate team on the European stage. Just nine goals in the past nine Champions League outings away from home tell the story of Manchester United’s defensive approach in Europe. Eight wins in the past 10 games paint another picture altogether.
This is far from a vintage United outfit; Darron Gibson again proved that he is no Paul Scholes, and Michael Carrick is not a patch on Roy Keane, while Dimitar Berbatov once again disappeared into his shell on the ‘big’ occasion.
Yet, Ferguson’s side justifiably remains favourite to progress to a fifth Champions League quarter-final in a row after securing a goaless draw in Marseille last night. After all, United has won 17 of 20 matches at home this season.
The story of United’s stoic approach, which borders on the Mourinho-esque at times, was familiar in southern France. Deploying five in midfield behind lone-runner Berbatov, United limited Marseille to a handful of half chances in a match that rarely rose above the mundane.
The draw leaves Ferguson’s side in pole position to progress though, albeit with a warning: should Marseille secure an away goal at Old Trafford, United must score twice to progress. Real Madrid and Monaco have each knocked out Ferguson’s outfit in recent memory after goaless away draws.
“A goal away from home is important. We didn’t do that, that’s a disappointment for me,” said the United manager.
“At this stage of the competition, away goals count. But you have to say at home we have a good chance.”
“Our passing wasn’t as good as it normally is. Marseille made sure they weren’t going to lose a goal. They’re very strong defensively, a very powerful team. They didn’t pose many problems for us. Nothing really happened to be honest and I don’t think it was a good match to watch.”
Ferguson’s sole surprise selection came in Irishman Gibson, picked ahead of Scholes in an otherwise familiar away-day line-up. Wayne Rooney, again shunted to the left-wing, and Nani were deployed in support of Berbatov. Behind, Gibson was handed the sole attacking role from central midfield, with Darren Fletcher and Carrick forming a near impenetrable barrier in front of United’s back four.
The approach left little room for Marseille to work, with Didier Deschamps side hardly aided with recent injuries to key attacking players Mathieu Valbuena and André-Pierre Gignac. In truth though, Deschamps outfit was rarely more adventurous than the visitors, seemingly affraid of being caught on the break and frequently hitting aimless long balls.
Indeed, United started the brightest, with Fletcher forcing a save from Steve Mandana in the Marseille goal. It was perhaps the only serious effort on target during a cagey opening period. United’s passing, which was ragged at times, hardly helped, while the game’s pace rarely increased above a casual jog.
In a second half of few chances, former Red Gabriel Heinze nodded off the line on the hour as Nani threatened to score, while Edouard Cisse’s shot was deflected to André Ayew, who shot across goal. Rooney was then dragged down late in the match when breaking clear only for referee Felix Brych to wave away the protests.
But it would be churlish to point at officialdom even if a red card was the appropriate decision for the foul. In truth, neither side did enough to win a dull encounter.
Yet there are many positives, with Patrice Evra riding out the inevitable hostility from the local crowd. The former Monaco player has been wideley scapegoated by French officials and media for his role in France’s poor World Cup and the supposed ‘strike’.
Moreover, Chris Smalling, chosen with Rio Ferdinand still injured, against demonstrated his huge potential. The 20-year-old impressed with his defensive concentration and composure, earning praise from Ferguson for his “tremendous display”.
“You always worry, at this stage of the season, because it’s always good teams you face,” added the Scot.
“We should have one or two players back, as will they, but we can’t take anything for granted and we won’t be doing that. Monaco was 14 years ago, but with any 0-0 at this stage, you know that away goals count.
“But you have to say that Manchester United at home, we have a good chance. I don’t care if it’s 10-9.”
In truth there’s little to suggest Marseille will change its approach in Manchester. United must take the initiative though; whether Ferguson is bold – or perhaps reckless – enough to do so by deploying two strikers at Old Trafford is another question altogether.
Marseille – 433 – Mandana; Kabore, Diawara, Fanni, Heinze; Edouard Cisse (Cheyrou 70), M’bia, Gonzalez; Brandao, Remy (Valbuena 79), Ayew.
United – 451 – Van der Sar; O’Shea, Smalling, Vidic, Evra; Nani, Carrick, Gibson (Scholes 72), Fletcher, Rooney; Berbatov.
Attendance – 58,000
Man of the Match – Smalling
Possession: Marseille 39% – 61% United
Attempts: 9 – 7
On Target: 6 – 5
Corners: 5 – 2
Fouls: 6 – 12
Sir Alex Ferguson must do without injured quintet Rio Ferdinand, Ryan Giggs, Jonny Evans, Michael Owen and Anderson for Manchester United’s match with Marseille at Stade Vélodrome tonight. The 69-year-old Scot is also without long-term injured pair Owen Hargreaves and Antonio Valencia for the Round of 16 Champions League tie with the French League 1 winners.
The rash of injuries, together with Marseille’s improving recent form, make for a challenging away tie. That United has scored just nine times in the club’s last eight Champions League matches away from Old Trafford is instructive of Ferguson’s seemingly negative approach to these games, although it’s an outlook that works: the Reds have won nine of the last 10 European games on the road.
Indeed, Ferguson is almost certain to retain the 4-5-1 shape the Scot adopted against non-League Crawley Town at the weekend, with either Wayne Rooney or Dimitar Berbatov spearheading United’s attack.
The match marks the first of four away trips in a row that are likely to define United’s season. Next weekend United go to Wigan Athletic, followed by trips to Anfield and Stamford Bridge in March.
“We have an important few weeks coming, there is no question about that,” said Ferguson.
“We are just starting four away games on the run, which is a great challenge for us. They are all fantastic matches but it is a time we should enjoy. They are big games and in that situation, the players don’t let us down often.”
Still, with the Champions League of primary focus Ferguson is confident that United can progress, despite the passionate atmosphere that awaits United in France.
“The Champions League this season is very open. There are a number of teams that can win it. The opportunity is there for anyone in the last 16,” added the Scot.
“But tomorrow [Wednesday] is when the competition really starts for us. They’re a very powerful team, very athletic, strong defenders.
“Marseille isn’t the easiest place to get a result. There is an atmosphere, an emotion at the Stade Vélodrome that is unique. I’ve often been to matches here and the fans have a genuine power over their players.”
With Ferdinand remaining on the sidelines and Evans suffering with an ankle problem, Chris Smalling is likely to partner Nemanja Vidic at the heart of United’s back-four. Rafael and Fabio da Silva will also be available despite coming off against Crawley last weekend.
Aside from United’s defensive combination, Ferguson must also choose between top-goalscorer Berbatov and Rooney to lead the forward line. History suggests the Scot will deploy Rooney in a loose left-side role, with Nani on United’s right and Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher and Paul Scholes anchoring the midfield.
The match will also reunite the Reds with Argentinian defender Gabriel Heinze who left Old Trafford in 2007 following a much-publicised fallout with Ferguson. Heinze joined Marseille two years ago following a spell at Real Madrid.
“It wasn’t easy at first with him being a former Paris Saint-Germain player. There is a big rivalry with Marseille,” said United’s French full-back Patrice Evra, who replaced Heinze at Old Trafford.
“I am happy to see him doing well and he will get a big ovation when he comes back to Old Trafford because he played so well for United.”
Meanwhile, Marseille could be without a trio of forwards, with Andre-Pierre Gignac out for a fortnight, and Loic Remy and Brandao facing late fitness tests. César Azpilicueta will miss the rest of the season with a ruptured knee ligament.
But Didier Deschamps side is in improving form, having begun the season in an inconsistent vein. Now three points adrift of surprise leaders Lille, L’OM has won five of its last six fixtures.
“I’ve watched some of their games this season and you can see they are a good team and they have a great manager in Didier Deschamps, who was my coach at Monaco,” said Evra.
“He is not afraid of any team and I know he will get his players motivated before the game so they play with no fear. It’s a dangerous game for us because we are favourites so in a way Marseille have nothing to lose.”
It was also the case in 1999 when the sides last met. United, then European Champions, lost 1-0 in France.
Marseille – 433 – Mandanda; Kaboré, Diawara, Heinze, Taiwo; González, Cissé, Valbuena; Rémy, Brandão, André Ayew. Subs from: Jordan Ayew, Cheyrou, Andrade, Mango, N’Diaye, Fanni, Sabo, Lowinsky, Kaboré, Abriel, Moulet Abbes.
United – 451 – van der Sar; Rafael da Silva, Vidic, Smalling, Evra; Nani, Scholes, Fletcher, Carrick, Rooney; Berbatov. Subs from: Kuzszazk, Brown, Gibson, Bébé, Lindegaard, Fabio da Silva, O’Shea, Obertan, Hernández, Tunnicliffe, King.
Referee: Felix Brych (GER)
Assistant referees: Thorsten Schiffner (GER), Mark Borsch (GER)
Additional assistant referees: Peter Sippel (GER), Babak Rafati (GER)
Fourth official: Knut Kircher (GER)
Marseille – WWDWWW
United – WWWLWW
When Rant mused last October that Sir Alex Ferguson had been negligent in his efforts to improve Manchester United’s midfield, the article drew a varied and passionate response. Four months on and little has changed, with United investing nothing during the winter transfer window and injuries starting to bite on Ferguson’s midfield options.
Indeed, United will arguably go into tonight’s tie with Marseille at Stade Vélodrome with the weakest midfield at the club for a more than a decade. Ferguson will begin the tie without Ryan Giggs, Owen Hargreaves, Anderson, Ji-Sung Park and Antonio Valencia, each of whom is injured. Long-term victim Hargreaves will possibly never play for the club again, while Anderson is set for a period on the sidelines after suffering another knee injury at the weekend.
Fortunately for the Scot, Giggs should be fit for the match at Wigan Athletic next weekend and Valencia is back in light-training ahead of a March return to the first team. Meanwhile, Park, whose form this season has noticeably dipped, is out for a month with a hamstring strain.
Assuming that Paul Scholes, Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick and Nani all start in a 4-5-1 formation, maybe one and possibly two of Darron Gibson, Bébé and Gabriel Obertan will start against the French champions. It’s a frightening thought.
Alternatively, Ferguson will move Wayne Rooney into a wide left position – a role that he hates – and deploy Dimitar Berbatov as a lone-runner up front, a role that he is ill-suited for. After all, the Bulgarian plays in less than a third of United’s ‘big’ ties, where Ferguson usually opts to pack the midfield.
It instructive that on the last occasion United played Marseille, as European Champions in October 1999, the Reds started with a midfield that included Giggs, Scholes, Roy Keane and David Beckham. An unfair comparison perhaps – that quartet was unmatched in European terms until the recent all-conquering Barcelona model – but an enlightening nonetheless.
More than a decade on, whatever label is attached to Ferguson’s currently midfield policy – call it lack of value, call it Glazernomics – it is one that is likely to fail. Now beholden to the fortunes of age and injury, Ferguson’s midfield lacks any depth in quality.
Indeed, supporters are now reduced to hoping that United’s fringe players come good based not on any evidence but blind faith that Ferguson will get it right eventually. Yet, Gibson, Obertan and Bébé have each performed poorly this season. So much so that only the most optimistic of supporters can hold any long-term faith in the trio. So poor were they against Crawley Town in the FA Cup last weekend – particularly the latter pair – that it is not unfair to suggest none would make it at the Blue Square Premier club – based on the evidence of that match at least.
Even if Ferguson can cobble together a midfield for tonight’s match he will have no options from the bench. Injuries aside, Bébé and Obertan’s recruitment has in turn blocked the path for Tom Cleverley at the club, with the England Under-21 midfielder shunted out to Wigan for the season. Youngster Ryan Tunicliffe is the only other midfielder available to Ferguson for the trip to Southern France.
Yet, the future is just as uncertain as Ferguson’s team selection tonight. The 69-year-old Scot has asked Paul Scholes to remain at the club for another season. Ferguson has previously talked-up Anderson’s role as the Englishman’s successor – a boast for which there is scant tangible evidence to date.
“I am more than hopeful about Paul signing another contract,” said Ferguson yesterday.
“I think he should. His fitness isn’t in question. I think Paul feels he has to play all the games. It is not a bad thing to be that way but at his age, that is impossible. But he can still play a big part for Manchester United, this season and next.”
Meanwhile, Carrick may well join Patrice Evra, Ryan Giggs and Nemanja Vidic in signing a contract extension. That the club tried to offload the Geordie last summer demonstrates the turnaround in either the former West Ham United player’s fortunes, or more likely Ferguson’s thinking.
These events suggest that any fans hoping for a marquee central midfield signing will be disappointed come the summer. Indeed, all talk of United’s supposed £100 million transfer budget in the wake of Rooney’s contract saga last autumn has died down. Quelle surprise, as the French might say.
Should Scholes sign for a final year at the club along with Giggs then conspiracy theorists will have yet more evidence Ferguson will go come summer 2012, handing off the challenge of rebuilding United’s midfield to another man.
Still, it is the nature of football that little surprises. United lost 1-0 in France 12 years ago, even with the aforementioned world-beating quartet in midfield. If United pulls off a win with Gibson, Bebe and Obertan steering the ship tonight it’ll be an even bigger shock.
In American football, the “offense” and the “defense” form a line of scrimmage. The offensive line protects the passer, usually the quarterback, and clears the way for runners. Runners, usually receivers positioned wide, carry the ball forward. Despite the prevalent perception, Sir Alex Ferguson is quite a tactician. He has – perhaps anticipating upcoming European games – revamped the 4-5-1 that Manchester United has used in tough games. Indeed, Ferguson’s 4-5-1 is very reminiscent of Gridiron.
In Ferguson’s system two central midfielders, usually Anderson and Darren Fletcher, charge forward and engage opposition midfielders. Paul Scholes or Michael Carrick plays the deep-lying playmaking role – aided by the extra space afforded by the two midfield runners. The ‘quarterback’ often passes to one of the wingers. Wingers carry the biggest creative load in the system – they have to either make the defense splitting balls to the lone forward, usually Wayne Rooney, or run with the ball and score.
However, wingers are aptly aided by Rooney, with the former Evertonian playing the ‘false nine’ role. A false nine is a striker who drops deep from the nominal number nine position. Such movements can be very deadly as an opposition centre-back or two can be dragged out of position. Should a centre-back follow Rooney deep, United’s wingers then have room for maneuver. Even if opposition centre-backs are disciplined in their positioning, Rooney then links with the Reds’ midfielders and helps maintain possession – allowing United’s defence to creep up and help out.
This variant on Ferguson’s 4-5-1 has worked well in home games against Arsenal and Manchester City this season and is likely to be used in a tough away game against Olympique de Marseille in the coming week.
It’s not the first time Ferguson has experimented this season – a prototype to the new system was also used in away games against Birmingham City and Blackpool, although the attempt failed miserably, despite a win and a draw. The two failed attempts can perhaps be written off as an unfortunate, but natural, consequence of any experiment.
The new system does have few glaring weaknesses though. One obvious fault is predictability. The plan: Fletcher and Anderson make forward runs and keep opposition midfielders occupied; Scholes or Carrick pass to Nani, Ryan Giggs, Ji-Sung Park or AntonioValencia; Rooney drops deep to create space; the winger tries to score. However, unless Rooney comes into the goal-scoring form of last season, the new 4-5-1 will remain far too predictable. The opposition can simply sit deep and deny space.
Another weakness is the burden placed on the deep-lying playmaker. With Carrick in poor form and Scholes no longer able to cope with a fast-pressing game, the ‘quarterback’ in the new tactic can easily be nipped in the bud. In the recent Manchester derby, Sir Alex protected Scholes by playing John O’Shea instead of Rafael. Indeed, the formation stifles United’s full-backs.
With Fletcher and Anderson making frequent forward runs, Evra and Rafael must help protect the Reds’ deep-lying playmaker. In addition to the defensive role, they also have to motor forward and provide auxiliary width as wingers cut inside.
Theoretically, two full-backs can help out the quarterback and then motor forward as the quarterback drops deep to form a temporary back three as necessary. It remains to be seen whether the abstract thinking can work on the pitch of course. United’s full-backs will be more conservative away from home but this instruction ensures an already predictable system is even more readable.
Moreover, Sir Alex appears very concerned with his new 4-5-1. For example, in the recent FA Cup tie against Crawley Town he deployed the new system – probably to fine tune the formation. Events changed the match though – the 69-year-old Scot introduced Rooney and played 4-2-3-1 in the second half. But Gabriel Obertan and Bébé’s poor form, in addition to the Da Silva twins’ injuries, rendered United narrow and allowed Crawley to take the initiative.
Disastrous, and frankly painful to watch as the match might have been, the interesting thing was the Scot changing United’s formation during the interval. In using 4-2-3-1, Ferguson added another midfielder alongside the quarterback, providing extra protection and allowing the full-backs to bomb forward more easily.
It is quite clear that Sir Alex counts his full-backs as a major source of creativity. It is also palpable that the United manager is still unconvinced by the new 4-5-1.