Yolkie and I have been discussing the 1-0 defeat to Aston Villa last night in depth and we’ve both got conflicting views on the events at Old Trafford. I generally feel that we just had a bad day at the office, even though United didn’t play that badly. Yolkie feels that, Giggs aside, we’re missing a creative spark from midfield, whilst many first team players are simply going through the motions. We are going to try and have at least one ‘Stretty debate’ every month, which looks at a conflict of opinion. We encourage you to get involved, pick a side and join in the discussion!
Stretford End reckons it was an off day
It was a disappointing defeat to Aston Villa yesterday, considering we could have taken full advantage of a 3-3 draw between Chelsea and Everton at Stamford Bridge – but by no means was this Manchester United losing ground in the title race nor a performance that suggested United’s firm grip on the Premier League trophy would be surrendered any time soon. For me, it was a bad day at the office where we most probably should have got something out of the game when looking at the amount chances we had. This entry will not be looking at Aston Villa as I thought they defended exceptionally and have an extremely pacey forward line that will trouble any top side. Their constant harrowing and closing down – wanting United to clear the ball rather than pass out from the back – worked a treat, with United looking very hurried in the first half. So for any Villa fans fuming at the lack of praise for their efforts – it was a fantastic goal from a great cross, but I still believe United could and should have got something out of the game.
Firstly, lets not forget that United have massive injury concerns defensively and for a second game running – Fergie was without our first choice defense. Nemanja Vidic didn’t play against Wolfsburg because of a virus – something that can take a while to clear. Wes Brown also pulled up against West Ham and was rushed back for the game yesterday. Fletcher deputised at right back again and whilst he does a decent job there – he is much more effective in the centre of the park. So our injuries haven’t helped and we all know how important it is to have a consistent back line and goalkeeper. On the goalkeeper front – out of the 16 games we’ve played so far this season – Foster has played in eight of these, Kuzczak three and Edwin Van Der Sar five. Looking at Kuzczak’s opposite number – Brad Friedel – the American has started in every game for Villa this season.
Looking at the game yesterday we had nineteen shots on goal (four on target, seven off target and eight blocked shots) whilst Villa had eight (two on target, three off target and two blocked) – hardly the statistics that suggests a team has trouble creating chances. Wayne Rooney’s sublime first touch and shot that rattled off the bar was stroke of genius – one inch lower and we would have been back in the game right before half time. I can’t stress the brilliance of that first touch to create space for himself and get in a shot. With Rooney’s technique and ability – I would have put money on him blazing that into the roof of the net, sadly it just wasn’t to be. Second half, Berbatov missed an absolute sitter, whilst Ji-Sung Park was on his heels when Owen drove in a low cross, which was missed by everyone. It was a cross that our number seven would have thrived on – but the chances to get back into the game were there for all to see. For me, these chances weren’t in desperation, shots from miles out or long direct balls into the box hoping for the ball to fall to a Red shirt. These were chances that on another day United would have converted.
The there was the opposition. Martin O’Neill has put together a fearsome forward line that mixes up brute strength, pace and movement. Gabriel Agbonlahor is lightening quick and proved to be a handful last season in the 3-2 victory – giving Gary Neville a torrid time. Fletcher was also exposed at times yesterday, but then again Fletcher isn’t a fullback. Ashley Young has come on a bunch since signing from Watford a couple of seasons ago. I was a bit skeptical when they forked out twelve million for him at the time – however that looks like an absolute bargain now. He is versatile, operating on either flanks – whilst can deliver, as he showed yesterday, excellent balls from wide areas. At the back Ricard Dunne was superb in marshaling the backline and looks to be a good signing from Manchester City. So we weren’t playing against any mugs – we were playing against a team with Champions League aspirations. They’ve beaten Liverpool at Anfield and Chelsea at Villa Park – we’ve lost to both teams so far this season.
Lastly, we are three points behind Chelsea, the league leaders – who we totally outplayed on their own turf, only to lose the game 1-0. We have to play both Liverpool and Chelsea at home and remember its still on December – there is plenty more football to be played and yes, we are going to lose again – but so are Villa, so are Chelsea and so are Arsenal. Do you remember 1995/96 around the same time? We played Liverpool just before Christmas and lost 2-0. Two goals from Robbie Fowler gave the Scousers a victory, although we were playing in our grey kit. Then the week after, on Christmas Eve, we lost 3-1 away to Leeds. Two of our biggest rivals getting the better of us in less than a week. We went into the next game against League leaders Newcastle knowing that nothing else other than a win would do. We won 2-0 (goals from Andy Cole and Roy Keane) and we all know how that season ended.
Now I want to make this clear – I don’t expect United to win the league every season. Look at our results over the last four years. We’ve won three Premier League titles – do you know that has only happened on four previous occasions (Huddersfield, Arsenal, Liverpool and us in 1999-2001). No team has ever won a fourth Championship in a row and to be honest, in this current footballing world, it is near on impossible to think a team could ever be that dominant over such a long period of time domestically. We should get our expectations too high. Yes, we suffered a disappointing defeat but does that make Michael Carrick, JI-Sung Park, Dimitar Berbatov, Anderson and Valencia bad players over night? With the exception of the Ecuadorian, most of those players mentioned have come under the firing line for a lackluster display. I still believe that Park is a good player to have in our squad. Yes we all know about his lung busting runs and the nullification of attack minded full backs – but he does have an impressive dribbling style, which I admit wasn’t on display last night, but he still is an important player in our squad. I don’t know what is going on with Berbatov to be honest. I’ve never been critical of the Bulgarian because I think he is a fine, if overpriced, footballer – but I do wonder why he has not featured more recently. I know he has been injured but I think it spoke volumes last night when Owen was brought on ahead of him.
So, to conclude, I totally agree that it is a disappointing result, but this isn’t a case of ‘United getting found out’ or ‘United on borrowed time’ – its basically a bad day a the office. There is no papering over the cracks on any kind of the nonsense the press or Chris Waddle will have you believe. It is a bit of a stuttering start and we rarely look like we’ve got out of second gear other than the odd performance away at Spurs, West Ham or at home to Everton. However, looking at last year – it was the same. We based our formation on a solid defense but could attack when we wanted to – like at the Emirates in the 3-1 victory in the Semi Final of the Champions League. But when the spine of that defensive setup is taken out – there can be consequences. We’ll bounce back and in my mind – can become the first team ever to win four Championships on the bounce. Over to you Yolkie…..
Yolkie reckons its a bad omen for the rest of the season
It’s clear that we do have problems that need addressing and I can’t believe that last night’s performance was acceptable. Yes, Villa were good and I won’t take anything away from that but obviously as a United fan I’ll concentrate on our shortcomings.
Indeed, Villa being so good should not have come as a surprise and our line up worried me to the extent I knew if we conceded we would struggle to score two; if we conceded first we wouldn’t get back into it and that’s exactly what happened.
Let me elaborate on the problems with the selection : essentially, picking Park and effectively lining up a 4-3-3 played into Villa’s hands. I’m not slagging off Park for the sake of it because he remains a crucial player but only in certain games, as a reducer or a counter to an opponents tactic. With all due respect to Villa there should be nothing there we needed Park for and especially not at Old Trafford. And, in any event, Park was so shocking that he contributed nothing at either end, Villa brilliantly exploited their wide areas and Park offered nothing in support of either full back nor did he look a threat going forward.
Bringing off Giggs at half time put the writing on the wall because elsewhere in midfield we admittedly have Anderson’s energy but that needs something to complement it. Step forward Michael Carrick; another chance to show what he is made of. Another chance lost. Again, not a criticism of Carrick per se but United fans have afforded the lad a lot of patience to come good in big games but he hasn’t, bar the odd performance, and did nothing at all yesterday. As a squad player or to be brought on when a game is being controlled he looks very comfortable; as a changer of a game or a dominator he is found wanting at the level needed at United. Villa could have probably scored more but decided to sit on it with half an hour to go and that was when Carrick was needed. Did he step up? The answer’s in the scoreline.
Up front. Well, having brought off Giggs for Owen, we ended up with Anderson and Park off for Berbatov and Gibson. Owen signed for predatory instinct and spent much of his time chasing deep for the ball. What would he do once he had it? Berbatov, well, he should have started if he was fit – Fergie seems to be going off him as he has sat most of the recent run out. Rooney was lively as ever – yeah, there was the dive which was despicable (strange how this is getting attention though Gerrard’s at Blackburn was glossed over though?) but generally he looked our best shot. However when he gets shifted wide for the meaningless Berbatov and Owen, we looked worse still, especially when the best thing about us going forward was the link up between Rooney and Valencia.
If it was a one-off performance then fair enough but it’s been time and time again this season, when we go behind, we rarely look like we have any chance of getting back into it. The Arsenal game was a one-off but look at all the league losses – Burnley, Liverpool, Chelsea, and Villa, we didn’t ever look like scoring one let alone two, perhaps we were unfortunate at Chelsea and Liverpool with penalties we should have had, but not in all four. In fact in the Burnley game Carrick even missed one and with Friedel in goal yesterday there’s no guarantee we would have scored. In Europe it’s been a similar story with the home embarassments against CSKA and Besiktas.
We’ve lost four of our league games, a quarter! Losing at the same rate for the rest of the season will mean 9 or 10 losses and despite the tough league there’s no way such a figure will see us win the league. On the face of it; all the defeats we’ve suffered could have been avoided if the selection had been different, with the exception of Chelsea. Burnley have done great at home this season but if we had matched them for energy? Liverpool were there for the taking if a 4-3-3 had been applied but Berbatov again went missing. I smelled trouble with the selection again yesterday and unfortunately correctly called that we would not get back into the game or even score once Agbonlahor scored.
So what needs to be done? Certainly last night I would have started with Obertan or Berbatov instead of Park and moved Giggs about. Elsewhere there’s really not much else but I would have had Welbeck or Macheda on the bench. They at least offer unpredictability if only by virtue of their youth whereas it seems to be the case that Berbatov merely needs to be man marked. He’s a good player with a wonderful first touch but more often than not he needs space rather than just creating it and that is a woeful trait for a £30m. If you don’t know what I mean look at Cantona and even Sheringham, two players whose intelligence often saw them get 4 or 5 yards of space; Berbatov doesn’t have that in his locker. Ferguson concurs at some level because if we had signed Benzema there is no way it would have been Rooney who sat out.
Is the answer within? Well to some extent. I know Scholes and Giggs have been brilliant and are still more than capable of doing a job but that’s for 1 or 2 out of 3 and that third one where they’re not capable either through lack of form or being rested seems to be the one where we fall apart because no-one else is capable of stepping upto the plate. Carrick hasn’t took to the responsibility; Park isn’t good enough on the ball, Anderson as said has huge talent but really needs to find a complement, and Rooney and Valencia can’t do it on their own – and after all is said and done, even the good players will have off days too, it’s the off days that really show where we’re lacking in the othes.
Looking at the current side and how difficult we find it to break sides down just makes me realise how woefully underrated players like Nicky Butt, Phil Neville and even Quinton Fortune were. I’m not saying that individually Butt is better than Carrick but there is clearly something missing in our midfield. Butt and Phil Neville could quite easily have played against Arsenal and could quite easily have played blinders. I’m not sure Carrick can make that step up; he’s 28 now so he’s hardly likely to make that leap. I would hardly call him a flop; however we’ve been figured out with him in the side.
My conclusion is that yes, we need a creative midfielder and we need one in the January window – who – I don’t know. Gibson looks like he has all the tools but my god does that kid need to learn to pass the ball and be aware of team mates. He’s certainly capable of doing so but he isn’t at the moment. Long term I think we need a winger. Valencia is improving and Obertan looks good, Tosic doesn’t seem favoured and we need another option. If Ribery is available for £30m we should snatch Bayern’s hands off. We need a pacy front man. This could come from within with Macheda or Welbeck and if Fergie doesn’t trust Berbatov then it’s time to bit the bullet and give one of the kids a run.
The pressing concern for me is a creative or dominant midfielder and if we don’t get one in January I think we may as well kiss the title goodbye.