Manchester United’s first, last and only line of defence
“We’re your first, last and only line of defence,” rapped Men in Black’s Agent J, assuming full responsibility in protecting the world from extraterrestrials. When the bigger tests arise, Manchester United’s back four will have to realise that they’re mostly alone in their battles, too; for the midfield, even in containing two largely defensive-minded players in Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes, can only do so much.
It is very easy to point to the return of those on the sidelines as the solution to United’s current defensive woes; Saturday’s 4-2 win over Stoke City would suggest that they do need Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Nemanja Vidic back fit – and they do – but, in considering the quality of the (yes, depleted) back four they have to choose from, the reasons for conceding are not as clear-cut as they appear.
Jonny Evans and Rio Ferdinand were among United’s best performing players in 2011/12 but it is difficult to tell whether this season will be the same; for every bad performance like the one against Tottenham, there were wins over Liverpool and Newcastle United before and after. Against Stoke, a single error for Michael Kightly’s goal at 3-2 was enough to act against the two, but in reality it was a single blemish in an ultimately satisfactory performance. Rafael da Silva and Patrice Evra, too, looked assured once United saw off Stoke’s early pressure.
United’s failure to prevent Charlie Adam’s £10million crosses from coming into the box were neither Evans’ or Ferdinand’s problem; in fact, as dangerous as Stoke were from the cross, United’s defenders and David de Gea made sure to limit the end result of them after Wayne Rooney’s early own goal. It is far too simplistic a view to lump everything with those easiest to blame; but when Stoke attacked, and attacked well, it was because they took advantage of the way the home side set up in attack where even the midfield had wandered forward: and the back four would then find that they are indeed the first, last and only line of defence. Sometimes, you can get away with it. They did at Old Trafford.
“There is no doubt our attacking play is the best part of the team at the moment. Our forwards got us out of trouble again because our defending has been slack,” Ferguson conceded, and though it would have been remarkable had he said any different, it is matter that must be explored further. When you have Danny Welbeck, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie up top it shifts responsibility on the midfield — and Carrick and Scholes would have to pull the strings to make them of any use, which they did well, in knowledge that the visitors can hit them on the counter and expose any temporary imbalances, any gaps. Whilst potentially game-defining, it is the only real downside to United’s bold, bad-ass emphasis on attack.
United have now scored six goals in their last two home games, conceding five, losing one, winning the other. It is as if Sir Alex Ferguson recognises the risks that comes with it but is willing to keep going, especially when, sandwiched between the two games (Spurs, Stoke), was an impressive 3-0 away defeat of Newcastle. It is why, with leaders Chelsea coming up, we may see United retain the front three that have, nearly on their own, maintained the side’s credentials when pitted against Manchester City and also Chelsea.
“We should accept that he’ll try to build a team for the next three or four years,” said Dimitar Berbatov’s agent Emil Danchev in March 2012. According to Danchev, in selling Berbatov, Ferguson wants to “change the style of play of United, to put more speed in the game“, which should translate into being less pragmatic, a style the team would adopt post-Ronaldo. Could it be that United want to have another go in being the team they were in 2007/08? Certainly, they have the players for it.
What makes the front three of Van Persie, Welbeck and Rooney so impressive is that they look comfortable no matter what the game demands of them; they respond well to the actions of the opposition, whether they are enjoying a lead or just a prolonged spell in possession, and use their initiative when required. The trio would pop up on the left and, crucially, appear not be fazed by it. Indeed, it was the impressive Van Persie whose stunning cross found Rooney in the box to make it 1-1 (and goals 2,3 and 4 would have the three scoring, assisting or both). Even Antonio Valencia was willing to let them in his home on the right and, fed up of being a recluse, found himself in the middle, and, in keeping with the theme, playing well. It’s just a little too similar (but it is important to stop short in danger of speaking prematurely) to the way the double-winning team of ’08 set up where Carlos Tevez, Cristiano Ronaldo, Rooney and Nani rotated positions and seemed so at ease with the whole thing. Of course, though, if it were so easy, every team would do it.
What United have to do now is now is find something resembling a balance that doesn’t hinder any of its stars. Failing that, they could always score one more than the opposition.