At the end of last season, following a dramatic end to the game at the Etihad where City clinched the title, Sir Alex said he relished the challenge provided by City and that him and his squad will learn from the disappointment of losing out on the title, especially the manner in which they lost the title. He declared in the press conference following the win over Sunderland that losing on goal difference will never happen again. SAF declared he was angry at losing, he proceeded to speak personally to all the young members of United squad following the loss of the title, telling them never to forget the disappointment they were feeling at that time. SAF’s activity in the summer so far shows he really was angry and that he is going all out to get his trophy back.
Like most United fans, I also have been very buoyed by the transfer activity conducted by SAF so far this summer. It started with securing Shinji Kagawa, then Nick Powell, from left-field the signing Robin Van Persie from Arsenal and now a new left back in Alexander Buttner from Vitesse Arnhem.
The potential combination of Rooney and v.Persie with Shinji Kagawa behind them got me really excited and looking forward to the new season. Rooney and v.Persie scored 57 league goals between them last season. Having such fire power upfront surely was going to make United firm favourites for the title, Aguero and Tevez at City notwithstanding.
In addition, the return of club captain Nemanja Vidic was also additive to my confidence that surely we’ll win our trophy if he hopefully stays fit for all of the season as his presence and leadership was sorely missed last season. The quality of players brought in coupled with the fact that United won no silverware last season gave me confidence that the team will be really motivated to correct their deficiencies from last season and that the coaching staff would also have learnt from their mistakes. In my mind, we were shoe in to blaze the league.
Cue the first match against Everton and like most United fans I was shocked at how pedestrian our play was. It was like last season all over again. No purpose or penetration to our play. None of the steely determination associated with a United team was on display both from the players and coaching staff. Rooney was sluggish, Nani was headless, Scholes was uninspiring and Valencia was wasted in defence. It was the 4 – 4 at Old Trafford drama all over again. Everton played exactly the same way they played against us at Old Trafford. They preyed on our soft under-belly in midfield again. Marouane Fellaini single-handedly destroyed United once again. He was so dominant it felt like one was watching a play act from a chapter of 50 shades of grey. Didn’t SAF and his coaches learn anything from last season? After the first 20mins, it was clear Everton were repeating the same game plan. Just as United failed to match their intensity last season, they also failed to do so this time. SAF sat down throughout the match, so did his two assistants. No one got up to urge the players to step up their intensity and speed of passing. We were maintaining possession well, meaning Everton were chasing the ball mostly. Passing the ball more swiftly would have made them chase even harder thereby tiring them. Tired players make mistakes, tired players lose concentration, tired players fail to make goal-line clearances. But no, United kept playing and passing in a pedestrian manner – right how Everton wanted them to. By the time Fellaini was substituted, United had lost their game composure and were just playing with desperation.
Last season, SAF flirted with defeat by playing two midfielders in defence (due to injuries) to disastrous consequences. He did same again against Everton even though he had two natural defenders on the bench in Rafael Silva and Scott Wootton. Whilst I can understand why Wootton could not be in the first team owing to his lack of league experience, I fail to understand why Rafael did not start at right back. If he was fit enough to be on the bench, he should have been fit enough to start as his case was unlike v.Persie who had not played many games in pre-season. As bone-headed as Rafael can be sometimes, he is still a better right back than Tony Valencia and would have brought a natural balance to the defence line. That would have freed Valencia to play in his preferred right midfield position and would have spared the team and fans the horror show displayed by Nani. In addition, I dare say that Wootton would have benefited from being paired with Vidic, Evra, Rafael at the back and that Carrick would have provided protection to Wootton had it been needed if Carrick had played in his natural centre midfield position and paired with Cleverley.
It was painful to watch how sluggish United were and how much we wasted Kagawa’s talent and positional sense. He kept making himself available to receive passes throughout the match. Both Kagawa and v.Persie kept making themselves available to receive passes that our old players were neither seeing or just didn’t believe Kagawa and v.Persie could retain possession in such tight spaces.
Following from a disastrous season where we won nothing, United needed to learn how to retain possession better. Games from pre-season and the match against Everton suggests a lot of work has gone into team retention of the ball. What is equally and probably more important is individual player retention of the ball. This is where I believe Barcelona excel above all others. It isn’t every time Barca players (cue Xavi and Iniesta) look for a team-mate when they are being pressed for the ball. Sometimes it is better a player is able to retain possession long enough on himself so as to give his team-mate a moment to run into space to receive the ball and launch an attack. This is where I believe United are failing. Our players don’t yet have the adequate technical ability to retain the ball when placed under pressure. Our players must learn to be fouled rather than lose the ball. This is why Barca players get fouled a lot. We cannot fail where Arsenal has, where they win the possession stats but lose three points. Against Everton we had the larger share of possession yet failed to work their keeper Tim Howard. Even with our possession, our keeper was by far the busier one in the match. Scholes legs just couldn’t match the intensity required to dominate the midfield.
Despite this disappointing start to the new season, I still retain my excitement that United can and should regain their title. Unlike some United fans that already have pronounced the death sentence over the team, one bad and first game of the season wont define our season especially if one considers the fact that we have several new players that need gelling – gelling can take some time. Frankly, it is better we get our early season blues out of the way and find winning momentum very quickly. We have too many good attack minded players not to be excited. The key will be finding a way to accommodate all of Rooney, v.Persie and Kagawa in the starting line-up and that our key defenders don’t get injured all at the same time – leaving us short in numbers at the back as it occurred against Everton.
SAF will also need to show bigger faith in our younger players. We don’t need to play too many of them at the same time like we did to disastrous consequences last season, but we should be comfortable putting the odd one in the starting line-up especially when injury necessitate it. They are in fact Manchester United players after all. Playing midfielders in defence cannot be the best option. It wasn’t last season when we tried it, it hasn’t this season against Everton.
Rumours abound that SAF is still in the market for a combative midfielder. Considering the characteristics and attributes of Marouane Fellaini and how well he’s played against United in the last couple of matches, I am really surprised SAF has not expressed interest in him. In fact, just like United players recommended Cristiano Ronaldo to SAF after playing against him in a pre-season when he was still at Sporting Lisbon, I expected Scholes, especially, to recommend Fellaini to SAF considering how much and how well he dominated Scholes and United’s midfield in the last few matches. In Fellaini, we may well have our solution to the problem posed by Yaya Toure. Fellaini will fit well in a 4-2-3-1 formation for United consisting Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Carrick, Fellaini, Kagawa, Rooney, Valencia, v.Persie (subs: Lindegaard, Welbeck, Chicharito, Cleverley, Jones, Young, Nani). The defensive discipline of Carrick and Fellaini should give confidence to our attacking players to push forward and do the necessary damage in opposition’s half. Rooney, Kagawa and Valencia are also disciplined enough to track back where necessary and when required. I believe completely that Fellaini may be the final jigsaw missing in the puzzle. At United, Fellaini will develop even better when he plays and trains regularly with other high quality players.
In an earlier post, I mentioned about a gap in our coaching set-up. I still believe firmly that that gap exists. I think SAF still needs an assistant that is better than him. I don’t believe Rene Meulensteen and Mike Phelan are better coaches/managers than SAF. SAF unfortunately is now at an age where he needs to delegate as much as he can to his subordinates – those subordinates in my view need to be either as good as him or better. In Carlos Queiroz, United and SAF had a really good meticulous technical coach. He was absolutely anal with details, so much so that it riled then club captain Roy Keane. He was good enough to attract Real Madrid’s attention and did well there but suffered from the political minefield that the Bernabau is. Are Rene and Phelan good enough to attract Real’s attention? Exactly.
To conclude, I retain my optimism for this season, I think United will do well and should win a few competitions and regain the Premiership. I hope we bid for Fellaini, I think he may well be what we’re missing.
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