Sunday’s 6-1 defeat to Manchester City at Old Trafford was the second biggest loss in Manchester United’s history. Sir Alex Ferguson described the match as “the worst result in [his] history.” Still, the arrow of time points firmly towards the future and United must move on, starting with a visit to Aldershot Town on Tuesday night. But what lessons should the Reds take from Sunday’s defeat?
First, United must quickly sort out the midfield, which was again exposed. Many pundits and fans consider United’s engine room the weakest part of the squad. Rightfully so, as the cupboard remains rather bare, with only four senior central midfielderss available to Ferguson. Darron Gibson sits firmly in the reserves, while Ryan Giggs and Ji-sung Park can put in a shift but, mired in mediocrity, the options still look limited.
One option, certainly in the short-term, is to revert to the gridiron style 4-5-1 of last season, which would enable two central midfielders – two from Anderson, Tom Cleverely and Darren Fletcher – to bomb forward while allowing the deep-lying playmaker, Michael Carrick, to create. With Carrick also providing an anchor, the two more advanced midfielders are freed.
The current ad hoc, and rather brittle system as epitomised by the City game, of one staying behind while the other attacks can be abandoned. An ancillary benefit lies in the fact that their attacking takes off opposition pressure from Carrick, who is at his best with a bit of space and time.
Perhaps Fletcher summed it up when he called United’s tactics on Sunday “naïve”. With more than shots conceded to the opposition than any other team in the Premier League, they may have been all season.
“We kept trying to win the game when it was conceivably not possible,” said the Scotland captain.
“Maybe we were a bit naïve and should have sat behind the ball and tried not to concede. At the time you’re thinking we’re at Old Trafford and we always want to get the ball down and play. The players haven’t been brought up to sit behind the ball, defend and see games out. But to lose those goals late on was very disappointing.”
Ferguson’s other option is simply to make do with what is available for now and bring in some reinforcements in the winter transfer window. Luka Modric and Daniele De Rossi, for example, remain available – crucially neither is cup-tied in the Champions League. Yet, both are improbable acquisitions given the nature of Fergie’s previous winter deals.
Ferguson must also examine his full-backs. Patrice Evra has been in decline since the start of last season. On Sunday, the Frenchman’s poor positioning was responsible for the majority of goals conceded. It is worrying that a seasoned professional has been making such glaring defensive errors of late. Surely the day has arrived for Fabio Da Silva to be given a stint on the left, if only to shake Evra out of his funk.
The situation on the right must also be scrutinised. Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, for all their bravado and composure on the ball, remain centre-backs out of position, and too often out of depth on the right. While there are legitimate arguments to be made for their deployment, with 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 looking increasingly untenable, the time has surely come to deploy a proper full-back in the mould of the Da Silva twins.
Then what of Ferguson’s strikers? The club has more strikers than it can deal with and implementing a more solid system means one less spot for a forward. Wayne Rooney stands out from the bunch and will be first-choice in such a regime. It is very hard on Javier Hernández, Danny Welbeck and Dimitar Berbatov but surely their feelings are secondary to the general well-being of the club.
Fluidity is hard. Barcelona pulls it off only because the majority of the club’s players are schooled in the same philosophy at La Masia. There is no shame in failing to emulate the Catalan club. Besides, whomever knocks Barça off its perch will likely do so with a unique brand of football, not a tiki-taka replica.
With United’s failings so brutally exposed by City the priority now lies in fixing the most obvious flaws, moving past the historic defeat, and not in attempting to uphold an unsustainable philosophy.
Ferguson commented that “there’s a lot of embarrassment in that dressing room and quite rightly so.” But the players have no time to wallow in their self-pity – there is a lot of work to be done.