The matches against Crawley Town and Marseille were unbearable for most Manchester United fans. Old Trafford, famous for fans loudly urging the team to attack, has become a boring place of late – a sad thought for anyone who has witnessed classic matches at the stadium. Despite United scoring more goals than any other side in the Premier League, the Reds performances have also been sub-par this season.
The problem lies in the squad. United does not lack numbers but the quality is noticeably missing. Pundits, such as Didier Deschamps last week, have long pointed out the lack of “stardust” in midfield, with Michael Carrick and Anderson performing poorly and Paul Scholes no longer able to cope with pressure. The engine room is remarkably pedestrian.
Fans point to Mesut Özil and Rafael Van der Vaart as missed opportunities but neither of the two would have fitted in well at Old Trafford. Panic buys are not the answer either but, at the same time, it is hard not to blame Sir Alex Ferguson and his scouts when another outstanding midfielder, Shinji Kagawa, was purchased for almost nothing in the summer.
Just as the season before, Ferguson probably intended to funnel attacks through wide men this campaign. Ferguson’s tactical experiments this season – the new 4-4-2 and the gridiron style 4-5-1 – rely heavily on wingers. The plan has worked to a degree – after all, only Barcelona has scored more domestically than United in major European leagues.
It remains a doubt whether the anticipated return of Antonio Valencia will help United though – after all, there is no guarantee that the Ecuadorian will regain his pre-injury form. Even should the winger miraculously recover, the 25-year-old’s return to the first eleven will see Nani moved to the left. On the left, the Portuguese is predictable and easy to defend against. It is true that Nani has become much better decision maker this season but there is no guarantee that he will perform on the left as well as he has on the right.
Indeed, the most realistic scenario is playing Park Ji-Sung on the left, once he comes back from his knee injury. United will most probably persist with the 4-5-1 and rely on Nani and Rooney to come up with moments of magic. But as previously noted, the 4-5-1 system stifles United’s full-backs and John O’Shea will normally be preferred to Rafael da Silva in the formation. It remains to be seen whether Rio Ferdinand’s return will prompt Sir Alex to reinstate the Brazilian full-back – after all, the need to protect the “quarterback” trumps having an attacking right full-back.
United is in perilous position after the defeat at Stamford Bridge last night. Given the hamstrung morale of Arsenal after the Carling Cup final loss, the Red Devils still remain the favorite for the league. Most realistic challengers to the FA Cup have already been knocked out and United will be the main contender for the Cup should the Reds triumph against Leyton Orient or Arsenal.
It is harder to judge United’s prospect in Europe though – it isn’t bright but the semi-final remains a viable goal assuming a kind quarter-final draw.
There is a more interesting question is about the future though. How can United turn its fortunes around and fashion both an exciting and winning team? Fluidity is hard – the club cannot simply buy it’s way to becoming Barcelona overnight. Indeed, United has an effective set-up and Ferguson will probably invest in only a player or two to fit into the current system, rather than attempt a complete overhaul.
Moreover, the current 4-5-1 can be entertaining; theoretically, the emphasis is on width and tempo. The key is the deep-lying playmaker. He must be able to withstand pressure, in order to free both full-backs. A physically robust “quarterback” will allow Rafael to play, instead of O’Shea.
In this system, the “quarterback” starts all the attacks, mainly through balls out to flanks, so he can’t just be a defensive midfielder either. Candidates include Nuri Sahin of Dortmund, Ever Banega of Valencia, Luka Modric of Tottenham, Sergio Busquets of Barcelona and Bastian Schweinsteiger of Bayern Munchen.
Another feasible idea is to acquire a playmaker and deploy a 4-2-3-1 formation. With two defensive midfielders, the full-backs are freed. It has another benefit – with lots of players in the middle, possession maintenance is easy. Counter-attacking football, against sides that perhaps take the initiative, is also easier with two wingers placed high up the pitch. The system is also tailor-made for high-tempo, attacking game – the system was conceived in Spain to press.
Finding a playmaker to fit in such system is slightly more nuanced than it appears though – classic trequartisti are much harder to build a side around than their modern cousins who are more direct and busy. Candidates include Luka Modric of Tottenham, Kagawa of Dortmund and Javier Pastore of Palermo.
A left-winger also remains an issue. This column has extensively written on Park and specifically why playing a defensive winger is actually a bad idea. Ryan Giggs can’t play forever and Nani’s ability to play on the left is questionable. Juan Mata of Valencia, Ashley Young of Aston Villa and Stevan Jovetic of Fiorentina are possible targets.
Other options exist too. Mario Gotze of Dortmund, Kagawa and Modric are playmakers by trade but they have all played on the left. In fact, buying a playmaker who can play on the left will allow United to rotate players on the fringe – Dimitar Berbatov, Javier Hernández and Valencia – with ease.
United is still on course for a pretty good season – just a player or two away from becoming more entertaining. The dull games over the past two seasons have been painful but United fans must not forget that they been more blessed than most football fans in experiencing glory and good football. The very ability to soldier through bad times separates the real fans from the fair-weather ones – after all, the option to “fuck off and support Chelsea” or any other fashionable team always exists.