Although this was our first match of the season, it was an interesting match to analyze. There were some themes which exemplified some United fans’ concerns which were also present last season. From a tactical standpoint, there wasn’t anything too outstanding except when United didn’t have the ball. A majority of post-match reactions hinted at our need for a defensive midfielder. What many fail to realize is how little impact a defensive midfielder would have made in countering Everton’s long ball tactics. Before we focus on midfield, let’s look at some of the themes which blighted United’s performance.
Coming from behind:
This is a view that seemingly a good portion of Manchester United supporters share. Last season, any time United went behind in a game, the comeback, if there was one, never resulted in a win. If you talk to some of the supporters this doesn’t seem to be the main issue. One supporter pointed out it’s the style of play which is rather disappointing and a possible reason why we don’t see many comebacks result in wins anymore. He characterized it as “zombie passing” and cited our lack of movement/fluidity as an issue which led to less potent attacks. A view like this also includes the notion of our predictability. It was rather interesting when we went behind against Everton, instead of using Kagawa and going through the middle more, we defaulted to using the wings. As I mentioned in my match summary, once we started using the wings, we became predictable and less potent. It coincides with Fergie’s post-match comments about not going through the middle enough.
The main issue with using the wings is it hinges on Rooney’s play-making ability, Scholes’ passing, and our wingers penetrating the opposition either through crosses or getting behind their defensive line. Rooney didn’t necessarily have a particularly good game and our wingers were making spastic decisions. Invariably, we looked very disjointed despite having more possession.
Contrary to the majority of post-match reactions I’ve seen, our defensive issues didn’t stem from the midfield. Everton mostly exploited the open space we left on the wings and Carrick’s lack of physicality. It’s unfair to be too critical of Carrick as he was playing out of position and part of a makeshift back four. However, Everton spotted it as a weakness to exploit and for those who saw the Avengers film, Carrick’s matchup with Fellaini was akin to Hulk’s encounter with Loki. He simply stood no chance.
In our 4-3-3 formation, Nani and Welbeck acted as our wing forwards and when we didn’t have the ball, they didn’t track back enough nor take up good defensive positions consistently enough to cut off the passing lanes. It gave Baines and Hibbert further impetus to get forward and pump diagonal balls to Fellaini. I observed some comments regarding United being overrun in midfield. It’s important to realize Everton more often than not chose to bypass their own midfield to advance upfield. They did enjoy some nice exchanges centrally, but those were very sporadic. By using diagonal balls, Everton also bypassed our own midfield and we were physically outmatched against Fellaini. He was even a handful for Vidic. One issue regarding our midfield was Cleverley and Scholes both got attracted to the ball. They didn’t take up good defensive positions and inevitably, it did leave holes. However, these holes weren’t necessarily exploited and they weren’t as frequent as Everton’s balls to Fellaini.
So do we need a DM?:
Honestly, I don’t think so. A DM would help but we’re better off having a player who is similar to Carrick. By definition, Carrick is not a DM. He’s basically a hybrid of a holding midfielder and a deep-lying playmaker. We’ve seen the impact he has. He intercepts passes, takes up good defensive positions, helps maintain our shape, slows down opposition attacks while starting our own. Some fans underestimate his attacking potential but it’s essential to understand for a player in Carrick’s role, it is paramount to maintain possession in that area of the pitch. Otherwise, we are quite vulnerable to a quick counterattack. Hence, a major factor in why Carrick chooses to recycle possession through the wide areas rather than centrally (sideways passing). If he was a more mobile player, I’d venture to say he would play more passes through the middle and even join the attack more than he already does. However, Carrick has had to change his game so he thinks “defense first” and stays a bit deeper when we attack. This doesn’t mean he’s not involved, but if used correctly, he’s a pivot and in other words, a reference point for our attackers to use in moving the ball.
Sir Alex is a manager who values versatility. He would rather be able to field players who can take up multiple positions rather than be confined to a specific role. A DM role is such a confined role and a significant reason why I think we won’t buy a DM. We’ve never had one either. The closest we’ve ever had is an energetic, all-action ball winner like Fletcher. Acquiring a DM only fixes part of the issue, not all of it. Having a player who simply protects the back four but little else, is basically a waste of space in our system.
The bigger issue:
So what is this bigger issue exactly? If you re-watch the match against Everton, you’ll notice something quite intriguing. It was evident in the second half and it’s quite alarming. We were looking to integrate 2 styles of play with the personnel we had on the field. We already know players such as Kagawa, Cleverley, Rooney, Nani and Welbeck enjoy interchanging positions, short passes and quick movements. While Scholes is a passing maestro, his legs no longer enable him to join in the quick movements and interchanging of positions. Scholes’ movement has become more lateral as a result and it doesn’t dovetail with Cleverley’s tendencies to move rapidly upfield. It results in our midfield and forward line being too spread out. This is why we move the ball upfield gradually more so than with incisiveness or quick interplay. Despite the good exchanges we had between Cleverley, Kagawa and Scholes, we weren’t really going anywhere with it as Scholes and Cleverley’s movement actually resulted in our attacks going in a circular motion whenever we recycled possession from one wing to another. Furthermore, Valencia doesn’t interchange positions as well either and his tendency to play the safer option leads to playing the ball slower. Our tempo never really picked up against Everton and without the presence of well-spaced passing triangles, we resorted to our default tactics of using the wings.
What’s the Plan Fergie?
Sir Alex needs to decide what kind of style we’re going to play with. One makes use of the wings and the other offers more dynamism and penetration through the middle. We definitely have the personnel for both styles. Trying to mix the 2 styles of play seems to have caused more harm and confusion rather than cohesion. Although, it is still early days, I think the sooner we move towards our style of quick passing, interchanging positions and pushing up higher, the more accustomed our players will become with such a style. In addition, using this style should see us being able to break down more stubborn defences as we’ll be less predictable. For now, we’ll just have the 4-4-2 in our back-pocket to use when necessary. Anderson and Cleverley are key to implementing our new style of play and if they stay relatively injury-free, we should reap the benefits from their abilities.
I think we’ve seen enough of the “zombie passing” and slow tempo which makes us look lethargic when our urgency should be at a much higher level. Here’s hoping Sir Alex can strike the right balance whilst implementing a new system for the overall squad.