A bad start to Manchester United's season
Something about Manchester United this season has been bothersome but it is still more popular than the more successful sides of recent vintage.
The premier league season is still green, each of the 20 teams have played about 5 games or so. Nonetheless, there has been something bothersome about one of the leading teams of English first tier football. Manchester United, of eighteen league titles and three European cups have shown a remarkable susceptibility to the last ten to fifteen minutes of the normal ninety minute period.
What went wrong
Twice, in games against Fulham and recently against Everton, United have thrown away the lead, particularly in the game against Everton where United were comfortable leaders with twenty minutes left in the game and a number of chances to close out the game which went to waste.
The surprising inability to ‘kill’ these matches is in direct contradiction to the traditional Manchester United strength, which has been to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. They have provided ample examples of this spirit – in the European Cup final of 1999, the 4-3 Manchester derby from last season amongst many others. This time around it seems the tables have turned.
Against Fulham, United conceded a lead on a set-piece when Brede Hangeland scored for Fulham. Similarly, against Everton, both of the stoppage time goals were conceded from moves that resembled set-pieces. On both occasions, crosses from the flanks were not dealt with by the Manchester United back-line which led to Tim Cahill heading one in and the likes of Marouane Fellaini to ‘knock-down’, which Mikel Arteta lashed in, off a deflection.
Finding the problems
This early season trend does not bode well for Manchester United and in spite of Sir Alex Ferguson’s assurances to the contrary, the central defensive pairing of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, are yet to be replaced adequately. Vidic is still there, but Jonny Evans is not in the Rio Ferdinand mould. Usually, most central defensive pairings are based around a ‘thou shalt not pass’ kind such as John Terry, complemented by a ‘cultured’ interceptor, for instance Ricardo Carvalho, or Ledley King.
In Jonny Evans and Nemanja Vidic, both are defenders of the ‘last-ditch tackle’ variety. Such a pairing significantly increases the risks of an error since you have a greater number of challenges flying around. This was even more evident in the game against Liverpool at Old Trafford where a bumbling tackle by Evans resulted in a way back into the game for the Anfield side. As far as the centre of defence is concerned, Rio Ferdinand cannot get fit enough quickly enough. Central defence is not the only area of concern; Patrice Evra has had an indifferent start to the season marked by some crucial defensive errors, for instance, his attempted overhead kick to clear a long ball in the game against Everton which he missed and the move subsequently resulted in an Everton goal.
On the other flank, Gary Neville is quite close to being periodically wheeled out in a barrow and plopped into that right back position. It is out of character for Ferguson to not put faith in young talent, especially the kind that Rafael da Silva possesses. John O’Shea has been a dedicated servant to Manchester United but I feel it is time to let the da Silva twins show us what they are really made of – and the little that I have seen of them has been very encouraging.
There is still hope
In spite of all the defensive frailties, the new-look Manchester United is quite attractive, particularly with Dimitar Berbatov at his sublime best, Nani doing a more than passable imitation of the original Portuguese cry-baby – both in terms of footballing skills and decision-making and the inevitable play-acting.
All the shortcomings, both defensively and offensively, still make this United side more likeable than the more successful sides of recent vintage – much like Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle ‘entertainers’ made up of Asprilla, Les Ferdinand and Ginola.
Let us hope they win something to go along with the entertainment.