Loyalty, Revisionism and the Long Decline

Last night the Manchester derby decided the title. Or perhaps not. It wouldn’t surprise me, in the season which above all else has been defined by the mediocrity of the top few teams (excluding the perennial overachievements of Everton and this year’s lightning in a bottle, Newcastle), for City to slip up. Intriguingly both Howard Kendall and Tommy Docherty are on the radio as I write this confidently suggesting United will win. But this year, I don’t really care. Not only because the continuing global and domestic political upheavals have put sport in an unusually (for me) irrelevant light, but also because none of United, City, Spurs, Arsenal, Chelsea or Liverpool (8th! King Kenny! Ha!) have looked like they want to win the league.

Had United won last night, though, I would at least have felt like taking the title would have been fair. City have been just as flawed, moreso considering their massed ranks of expensive, talented stars in their footballing primes. They should have walked it. Since Silva went off the boil, though, they have lacked width, a hunch I’d had confirmed by the graphics shown on TV beforehand – their average positions have been extraordinarily narrow and central. United, with three good wide players (and one half-finished former wizard) should have been able to get at them. And while City were great in the centre of midfield, they were dependent on Touré; a high attacking line could get through, I thought, and minimise defensive duties for Carrick and Scholes.

City, as predicted, were narrow and short in the first half. United had a lot of good possession, but Rooney found himself up front alone every time (and was pretty uninspired). The greater part of the blame must lie with the man who picks the team. For years I have been roundly mocked for my criticism of Alex Ferguson, but last night provided yet another example of two of his glaring flaws: poor assessment of both the talent and form of his players, and a preference for conservative formations at the oddest of times. His third great flaw – dreadful man management – was not in evidence last night, but had he not failed so fundamentally to integrate the immense talent of Berbatov into this squad, another attacking option would have been available.

Kompany probably deserved the win on his own. City were nothing special going forward, a couple of half-chances for Agüero aside; Touré had a strangely lateral game, not ploughing his usual box-to-box furrow. Lescott was decent, Zabaleta strong in the attack, Hart made a couple of saves, but Kompany was mighty. Initially I blamed Ferdinand for the goal, and my first view of the replay left me in the same mind. Only later did I see exactly what happened; Kompany and Lescott play a good trick on the United centre backs, Kompany pushing Smalling into a dead end where he had to go around Lescott to get back on his man, Ferdinand not moving at all. I can’t really see how Smalling could have stayed goalside, mind. And it was a tremendous leap and finish.

Again though, it was one goal. United actually defended better in this game than they had for much of the past two seasons. Their cardinal sin, in the late Ferguson period, has been defending deep and losing markers. They did a bit of the latter, true – in fact it was poor discipline from Giggs and the increasingly positionally-suspect Evra which led to the corner from which City scored. But as City continued to attack in the second half, United stuck to fundamentals – defending with equal numbers, tracking runners, calling properly. It wasn’t the defence that was to blame really; it was further up the pitch, and here Ferguson’s baffling tactical timidity continued to infuriate.

Not a single shot on goal. Now, the team sheet said 4-3-3, but this isn’t a Bielsa team where the front three becomes a 1960s style front five; nor even a Barca formation where the front three are all employed in attack at all times. Instead, over the years since 1999, Ferguson has increasingly moved towards a 4-5-1, and with the deployment of inside forwards as wingers (Nani and Young this season) who cut in to shoot and aren’t that good at crossing, the advantage of true width is always diminished. City would have struggled against a 4-2-4 with Valencia on one side and Nani on the other, Welbeck, Berba or Chicharito up top and Rooney behind. Instead we had the frequent appearance of Rooney alone in the centre of the pitch, waiting for Nani or Evra to support him. Giggs and Park were genuinely useless, the former brushed off the ball easily (as he always has been), the latter neither match-fit nor game-sharp.

And in the middle of it all, the lumbering two-headed toothless not-quite-cerberus, Carrick-Scholes. I’m certainly not one of the (many) fans who think Carrick has been a complete waste of space. He’s a very talented and somewhat rounded midfielder and can play a good role in the right formation. Yet I’m totally at odds with this season’s revisionism. Having Scholes next to him hasn’t made him a better player at all; it just makes him seem more mobile, as Scholes has spent the vast majority of his bizarre swan-song standing still in the centre circle. To get much out of Carrick, you need a busy, leggy partner for him – Cleverly, Anderson, Fletcher even (though I’ve never seen the merits of the latter). When he is assigned the role of the mobile midfielder, his immobility becomes crippling, far more so than Berbatov’s (and after all, wasn’t this why Uncle Bulgaria was excluded?). Carrick’s constant horizontal passing is likened to that of Xavi, but Xavi is dictating lateral play forty yards further up the pitch, not on the halfway line. If Nasri had chosen United over City and partnered Carrick in midfield it just might have been a different season (though Nasri’s comical one-footedness remains a problem). Instead we had the overhyped return of Scholes. All-time great though he was, once the fog clears I don’t think people will remember his five-month comeback with much wonder and awe.

I don’t see this long-term decline in the quality of United’s game being turned around until we get a new manager. People point to the trophies Alex Ferguson has ‘won’ (as if he were Roy Keane, Ruud van Nistelrooy or Cristiano Ronaldo), yet it’s the grotesque underachievement of until recently the world’s richest club that is staggering. It’s hard to know how tightly the Glazers have their hands on the transfer kitty too; that may be another long-term problem, in fact I’m sure it is. However, even with the squad as it stands, the players available haven’t been used in their best positions or combinations for as long as I can remember (well, most of the last decade). For me, Evra and Rafael/Fabio should be wing-backs, pushed out wide by the deployment of Jones as an anchor right in front of the back two. Carrick or Cleverly could then play as a true midfielder, with Rooney as a genuine 10 behind a striker, flanked by out-and-out wingers. Instead we have 4-5-1, no shots on target, dumped out of Europe by reasonably-disciplined sides with some attacking brio, poor marking, no marking, and everything pinned on a last-minute winner. For too long we have lived off the fumes of the 1999 European Cup Final. Time for a new era, I say, but then I’ve been saying that for quite a while.

Ratings from last night*: De Gea 7, Jones 7, Ferdinand 6, Smalling 6, Evra 6, Park 6, Carrick 6, Scholes 6, Giggs 5, Nani 6, Rooney 6


*Originally I had Smalling at 7 and Ferdinand at 5 until I realised quite how Kompany had played Smalling

Published in: on May 1, 2012 at 8:23 am  Comments (3)  

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  1. Interesting read as a United fan myself. Not sure I agree with too much of what has been said but definitely some of it. Fergie should stay but I think we need a new assistant manager. Obviously we don’t know what happens behind closed doors but I think the AMs have a lot of say and Phelan is no Carlos Quieroz. Undoubtedly, the divide between the young and old is another issue. Instead of it being speed vs experience it’s rookie mistakes vs slow with vision. The squad selections have been strange and I’m furious about Berb not starting BUT with the talent we have we should be doing much much much better. I don’t think United have wanted it enough this season, but I still do.

    • I think you’re certainly right about the role of assistant. I wonder what Fergie actually *does* though, aside from pick the team (and I don’t think he’s too good at that). His transfers have been pretty hit and miss, and where he’s gone out on a limb and claimed one for himself such as Bebé, it’s been hopeless (as opposed to it being the work of good scouts e.g. Ronaldo, De Gea etc or of the reserves/youth system, where Solskjaer’s work was so important).

      I’d love Bielsa to come to United, but Guardiola might be a possibility. However, closer to home if Fergie is determined to stay another year, I would be interested to see if Martinez would come as Asst. Manager for one year with a possible view to taking over.

    • That said, there’s lots to be excited about – Evans and De Gea have come on hugely this year and with Jones and Smalling (who’s been unlucky with both injuries and selection) and the twins there is a lot to like defensively in the years to come. Midfield, well, lets see if Pogba can make some sort of impression next year. Cleverly and Carrick will be the starting pair I imagine.

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