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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.

Robin van Persie: Pirlo doesn’t do left-footed finishes

The Match of the Day commentator Jonathan Pearce, perhaps guilty of not getting close enough to Sir Killalot during his Robot Wars days, watched Robin van Persie’s failed penalty kick in Sunday’s 3-2 win over Southampton and exclaimed: “he went for the Pirlo!”. (Ignoring his buffoonery for a moment …) Udinese midfielder Maicosuel did something similar — and failed — in a Champions League qualifier last week and that, like Van Persie’s, was perhaps a direct consequence of Andrea Pirlo’s successful attempt at the European Championships in June. The man responsible for the chipped penalty, Antonin Panenka, says that “several times I’ve seen a player take a penalty like that on television, and every commentator in every country never fails to describe it as a Panenka penalty, which is naturally very gratifying.” With the two recent attempts of it, you get the feeling that he might be changing his mind. To miss a penalty is excusable, but to try something audacious — and not succeed at it — whilst your team is losing is not.

Then again, there is perhaps never a right time for such a thing; Andrea Pirlo could have well fluffed his Panenka attempt and Italy could have then been knocked out of the quarters, even to England. What made Van Persie’s attempt so disappointing was that the penalty was a route back into a game that had Southampton’s name scribbled all over it. And he didn’t convert.

Still, nice hat-trick.

Southampton were unlucky and arguably deserved the three points more than their visitors; Adam Lallana was always busy and lead the team well, Jason Puncheon was a constant threat down the flanks before being subbed off, and Morgan Schneiderlin bulldozed his way through an, at times, vacant midfield that would probably alarm the people at CERN. In contrast, United’s key men had an off-day. Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick under-performed while the latter was atypically sloppy in possession, and Shinji Kagawa found that his Hover Boots were replaced by the Iron Boots.

But it would be lazy to say that Southampton had defended well; United would suddenly find a worrying amount of space in the opposition box when Paul Scholes had come on and eventually, the two late goals would come from free headers. Still, United were no better. They would be matched or even outnumbered by the Saints as they attacked. Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand both looked rusty (Evans is a good option off the bench) and didn’t get the assistance they required from either full-back nor the midfield; that was, until substitutions were made.

United can’t seem to shake off their reliance on 37-year-old Scholes. United looked organised in midfield and, as a result, they attacked much better. “When Paul Scholes came on, everything started ticking,” Van Persie would say after the game. Sir Alex was also impressed: “Paul Scholes came on and brought composure, a consistency of passing and made the difference. Hernandez came on and made a difference also. He started stretching them and running in between them.”

Above all, it was the presence of Van Persie that did well in masking any deficiencies the team has. United need the Dutchman more than they had initially thought, especially in the absence of Wayne Rooney, and it appears he thrives in this sort of environment. Last season he helped propel (an overachieving?) Arsenal to a respectable third place and he could well be the difference in deciding first and second this year. There are issues that need addressing but good strikers, across a wide-range of teams have, for a long time, been able to make up for others, their goals as an adequate smokescreen; Rooney did exactly that last season. United fans only have to look at his set of goals on Sunday to believe this; the first, an angled strike with his left-foot, the second a poacher’s goal, and the third a header that had been executed perfectly (it looked immensely difficult to pull off; not only did he get his head on a Nani corner — an achievement in itself — but ran into a good position and used the pace of the ball to guide it in). Bet Pirlo can’t do that (“he probably can” – smart-arses).

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Amusingly, Van Persie was successful with the Panenka before. “There are moments that transcend a match,” wrote The Sun’s Antony Kastrinakis in the aftermath of Arsenal’s 3-0 win over Wolves last season. “A result. A season. That was one of them.” Er, guess so.

United find reassurance in Kagawa’s soft feet and De Gea’s hard hands

The script, it would turn out, as many of the best, recent television series have done, the creation of men with nothing but a cynical outlook of the world, would have an anticlimactic ending as its sole purpose was not necessarily to entertain and satisfy us, rather give us a dose of realism. As it turned out, Robin van Persie would not emerge from the bench with the two goals that would see Manchester United to victory at Everton. Instead, it would be the rather unsung Marouane Fellaini that would go on to upstage all potential heroes.

At half time, the scores were level at nothing but there were clear examples of foreshadowing. Fellaini would constantly bounce up and down like an intoxicated Martin Keown-impersonator on a pogo stick, frightening Michael Carrick into near-resignation during the first 45. He would go on to head Everton into the lead in the second and would be such a presence that there would be no need for Nikica Jelavic; indeed, as Fellaini leaped like a salmon on a trampoline, the Croat indulged in an impromptu toilet break that nobody inside Goodison Park had noticed.

One other unnoticeable aspect was Kagawa’s contact with the Goodison turf; it was almost as if he had donned the Hover Boots from The Legend of Zelda, leaving next to no traces of movement. His light-footedness is not a necessary footballing trait but it is aesthetically-pleasing, and it was one of the few enjoyable things thrown up from the game from a Manchester United perspective. He was United’s best outfield player by far; he covered great distances and linked up well with his team-mates, playing a variety of passes and splitting an otherwise resolute defence with perfectly-weighted through balls not limited to just one occasion. There were even signs of a partnership with Wayne Rooney. If both stay fit and it ends up not working, it would surely be the latter to blame.

Rooney has a problem. One of those problems is not scoring goals, however. And while that is arguably more useful than anything, there is a real problem that many are not willing to accept because the smokescreen is more than adequate. He is profligate, like Nani*, but it is even more frustrating in his case because he possesses talent largely unmatched; so talented in fact, that seeing him play badly consistently is a greater shame than any others that may dare to mirror some of his performances. Goals do not measure form, especially when you’re a player like Rooney, expected to assume playmaker duties, too. Still, United must be patient with him in the hope his loveable aggression is restored, but it is reassuring to know that if he holds the side back like he did at times last season, there is last season’s top scorer and others to call on. (This is not a knee-jerk; this was written about in more detail last season.)

Still while Rooney struggled up the pitch, David de Gea was his usual self in goal (as of January 2012) and spared the visitors further embarrassment. While there are clearly areas to work on, he remains one of the League’s best shot-stoppers. His best moment of Monday night coming from a Leighton Baines free-kick, where as Baines’ strike took an awkward deflection off his wall, the Spaniard re-adjusted himself almost spontaneously and moved his right arm across his body to pull off a remarkable save. He could do nothing, however, to stop Fellaini’s winning header, beating a helpless Michael Carrick — the makeshift-defender wearing the look of someone who would rather be elsewhere. That is, in midfield.

Just as United would have wished Nemanja Vidic be able to mark every single threat from the set-piece, thus a more difficult challenge for Fellaini, they were also in need of a Carrick that could play in midfield. As Mark Ogden argues, a Carrick-less midfield means United “lack the dynamo that enables those ahead of him to play their natural game.” Vidic looked good in parts but he looked badly in need of a competent partner. Carrick has had a few good cameos in the position but it is obvious, from this game alone, that he struggles in the air and Fulham may well exploit that on Saturday.

As for leaving Scott Wootton on the bench in the midst of a crisis, understandable as it may seem, he should be considered for the next game. United gave débuts to Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling with similar experience to 20-year-old Wootton, and, with Phil Jones added to the list, at a similar age. It might sound cruel to throw in a player against such a physical side like Everton but there’s nothing to suggest that he isn’t capable. Two Championship spells at Peterborough and Nottingham Forest at least hint that he can play. Imagine, quickly, that he had played for, say, Reading or Southampton in the previous campaign. Both teams have centre-halves that played second-tier football last season and it could be suggested they’d do better than Carrick against men with big afros, making a transition into the Premier League that so many others have been able to do.

But United should remain optimistic. This isn’t to take away from what was a superb performance from the hosts but the game didn’t say so much about Manchester United as a team, rather its individuals, good or bad. Michael Carrick cannot play as a central defender if he’s up against a side so dominant in the air, Wayne Rooney and Nani need to give more, Kagawa looks good and De Gea, too. Even the most pessimistic fan recognises that titles are not lost on the first day of the season, unless, of course, this particular fan argues that, had United defeated West Brom 11-1 in last season’s opener, the Reds would have won the League on goal difference.

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*On Nani, poet Musa Okwonga tries to work out what is going through his mind today: “There is no weight more severe/Than your duvet on a Tuesday morning.” You can read it all here

Paul Scholes’ tackling an unappreciated asset + Rooney’s influence + more

Some observations on Manchester United’s 4-0 win over Aston Villa, along with a bit of gushing over Paul Scholes …

Paul Scholes

> Tackling an unappreciated asset of Paul Scholes

Paul Scholes, the scruffy, half-blind, asthmatic messiah brought down to Old Trafford in January to aid an ailing Manchester United side — or already ailed according to some back then — has shown that, despite its negative connotations, it’s never so bad to act desperately. Indeed, many have retracted their initial cynicism for the U-turn; it’s only a desperate masterstroke, now.

An important point: not long ago, a commentator remarked that since his re-arrival, he’s even managed to improve on his tackling. Contrary to what some think, Scholes’ tackling have never been as bad as made out. It was just that the midfielder never helped himself with the odd rash one that always stuck out; unfortunately, something that’ll always stay with him. At Old Trafford, he made two vital challenges in the first half and, in truth, has been doing that sort of thing for nearly 20 years now.

> United badly missed Scholes at Wigan

Ryan Giggs still has a lot to contribute in his final years, but the feeling is that, realistically, he can only come from the bench to make an impact in most games. With Scholes, and Carrick beside him, United look far more in control — and it’s certainly no coincidence. A similar sort of player in their mould might be what is required in the summer, as opposed to the bulldozing midfielder (understandably) so many want. In fact, get both kinds (so that’s neither, then).

The joys of Danny Welbeck

Danny Welbeck has very few enemies. Yes, there are those who have doubted him, and still do, but it is a very unfortunate minority. Welbeck should be pleased with his efforts so far in this campaign; 11 goals is not bad for a player who does so much more for the side, tracking back and linking up play like an old Bulgarian used to (probably the latter more). His instinct to get on the end of the cross for the team’s second wrapped up the three points as Villa still held faint hope before it; where others might opt out because it looked like Aston Villa’s Nathan Baker would clear, Welbeck foresaw a possible opportunity to score. The only concern with him now is that he’s incredibly wasteful — but, at least, he gets himself into good positions and perhaps with experience, that problem will be addressed.

Ferdinand and Evans as a defensive partnership

Both Rio Ferdinand and Jonny have ensured Nemanja Vidic’s absence doesn’t become a deciding factor in where the title ends up. Should United not win the Premier League this year, neither can be culpable for what has been a very good season for two players who, initially, were under-fire and, in different ways, thought not to have a future at Old Trafford. Now things have changed; and, amusingly, Ferdinand, as good as he has been, looks to be playing second fiddle to the renascent Northern Irishman.

One way of measuring Evans’ confidence is the way he strides out his own half and well into the opposition’s. Indeed, Evans was there on the edge of the box to play a through pass for Nani to score and United’s fourth.

Young’s theatrics

Bad, but not that bad. Next.

The good and bad of Wayne Rooney

> Rooney’s influence

Wayne Rooney needs help. It’s not entirely clear what exactly that is and should look like, but perhaps, and this is only a suggestion, he should play higher. As good as he did look in a deeper position last season and those before, he appears a little out of his depth — if that means anything and not another meaningless cliché — and someone behind (Wesley Sneijder, eh? Eh?). While indeed the main job of a forward is to score (and he’s scoring plenty), Rooney’s role in the team requires and demands so much more and you feel he’s coming short; countless attacks have fizzled out due to his negligence and wayward passes have become frequent, whether by illusion or not. Still, with the help of Ashley Young’s theatrics, he’ll almost certainly always influence a game, but you feel he can do even more.

> Rooney’s penalties

Rooney’s penalty technique is marvellous. Goalkeepers can guess the direction right, but preventing it going in is another matter (he missed a few at the start of the season, yes, but he’s managed to confidently dispatch the recent batch dead in the corner with ease). Penalty takers don’t get much praise for it — as they’re often expected to score anyway — but a successful penalty isn’t necessarily a good one. With Rooney it almost always is.

Sir Alex Ferguson will have to sculpt a second Manchester United for Europe

When Manchester United lost to Barcelona 3-1 in the Champions League Final last year, Sir Alex Ferguson talked of their dominance as being cyclical. On the other hand, Manchester United are going through a rebuilding period in Europe and he is hoping that defeat to Athletic Bilboa last night, 2-1, can be put down to a transitional year. Asked whether United’s travails in Europe this season should just be put down to “a bad year”, Ferguson replied: “I hope it is [that].” He went on to explain further his side’s shortcomings this season: “I think that there is a root [cause] in terms of some of the goals we have lost in these tournaments, they have been pretty poor, so it’s something we need to analyse. It has been a disappointing year.”

Indeed, Sir Alex Ferguson indicates at the wiser causes for English sides’ struggles in European competition this season. Firstly, the form of Premier League sides has been faltering since 2009, incidentally the year which many of the top teams went on a transitional phase. In Manchester United’s case, they lost both Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tévez in that year while Chelsea sacked Felipe Scolari and hired Carlo Ancelotti leading what was widely felt as a declining squad. Liverpool had a tumultuous year after losing Xabi Alonso in the summer and later on sacking Rafael Benitez and Arsenal have eternally had to rebuild. Certain financial changes made it even harder for some of England’s top clubs to compete for talent while Manchester City, the one exception, only embarked in their début year in the Champions League this season. On the other hand, Real Madrid restarted their Galactico project, Bayern Munich were starting to bear the fruit of the organisational superiority of their league and Barcelona were at the start of something special after winning the European Cup.

But to examine a cause far closer to the present, the top Premier League sides are losing their discipline and ability to compete in Europe, as demonstrated by this season’s high-scoring matches. Sir Alex Ferguson points at this when he blames the type of goals Manchester United have conceded. Indeed, while they corrected their initially susceptibility in the league to concede chances, they haven’t done so in Europe and were punished on more than one occasion. Most damningly perhaps, was the home game against Basel in which their deep back-line always gave the Swiss side a chance to come back. And they did, eventually drawing 3-3.

Over the two legs over against Athletic Bilbao, United have conceded 37 shots (letting in 5 goals) and have only replied with 12 of their own. What this mostly indicates at is a lack of control, something which they failed to achieve for any sustained period either at San Mames or at Old Trafford. The return of Paul Scholes only serves to highlight their weakness in that area. Incidentally, he didn’t feature in any of those games as Sir Alex sought to fight Athletic’s energy with their own. That led to a battle of man-marking in the midfield and an end-to-end games at times, with Park Ji-Sung drafted in alongside Michael Carrick in the second-leg with, curiously, Tom Cleverly, wide right. But Athletic Bilboa once again prevailed, outclassing United with their tempo, the accuracy of their passes and their desire to make sure each area of the pitch, they outnumbered Manchester United – it’s Marcelo Bielsa’s philosophy.

After being defeated by a unique style at Old Trafford, it was expected Sir Alex Ferguson had prepared some plans; indeed, it would be naive if he didn’t. That meant United tried to mark at goal-kicks, trying to stop Athletic finding any rhythm and to supply their front men. For periods it worked but then, Fernando Amorebieta found some space, played a fantastic long-ball to Fernando Llorente (Torres – oh the irony) to finish off superbly. Ferguson called it a “soft goal” due to the nature of it familiar to the English game, but that would be doing disservice to Athletic who have practised diagonals similar to this in training. Nevertheless, Lllorente had a lot to do and his volley was expertly struck – almost guided in, such was the technique and made even harder for David de Gea in goal as he was given no time to settle his feet. When Wayne Rooney did pull one back after Oscar de Marcos put the game beyond doubt, Ferguson had given up the chase and replaced his key players. Regardless, Paul Pogba put in a promising shift while Danny Welbeck showed drive that was previously missing. For Manchester United, though, they have the familiarity of the league now left to concentrate on. With an easy run-in, it might not be typical “squeaky-bum time” for Sir Alex Ferguson but the real one may start in the summer where he will have to sculpt a better Manchester United for Europe.

Danny Welbeck needs goals but he gives so much more

There’s a general temptation for football observers to pin down players supposedly not in-form. Forwards, for instance, are regularly maligned if they score less than they should (see Fernando Torres) and then others are said to be playing well if they have been scoring at a healthy rate. Even if they’ve been bobbins, it doesn’t really matter, because they have plenty. Logic, you see, doesn’t apply. This is life.

And so, naturally, it is Wayne Rooney, with 9 goals in 5, who will be the one deemed ‘in-form’. Danny Welbeck, useless old Danny, hasn’t managed one in eight games. Thankfully, they haven’t decided that Welbeck is rubbish yet, presumably because they’re football fans and consequently not very bright and prone to oversights. Anyone that saw Manchester United defeat West Brom 2-0 on Sunday will have noted just how bad Rooney was on the ball; off it, with all his movement and natural intelligence (you read correctly), it is worth pondering if there are any better, yet that can only take you so far. Welbeck was more involved and — whodathunkit — performed much better than Rooney, something that the top scorers chart won’t tell you.

The only downside of the afternoon was Welbeck’s failure to put away a chance with an empty goal gaping — as good as he has been this season, he will not lose critics unless he converts regularly, such is the way football and its fans work. Although we’ve established that goalscoring isn’t everything, it is still important — of course it is, and being able to is part of what determines a good forward. Still, for a player in his first full season at the club he’s grown up with, near double figures in mid-March is rather good, you know.

Ashley Young might object, but Welbeck was the best player on the pitch against the Baggies; out of position– on paper, anyway — he admirably led the charge from the right as United’s almost-kamikaze setup (without the suicide bit) downed the away side with beautifully-flowing football. At times, he drifted away into the centre and soon inadvertently set up the first goal; so little happened down the right that when Javier Hernandez found the ball on that side, he was presented with plenty of space which to cross it to Rooney in the box. United essentially overloaded the opposition’s box with their three forwards and moved their defenders more central; tactics surely more familiar with the FIFA video games series.

Welbeck did more than draw full-backs out of position, though. It all seems a lot of nothing to mention things like his ‘boundless energy’ and ‘enthusiasm’ but it’s a trait of his that stands out above any other; and it helps him shape his game and develop other attributes. As strange as it may sound, there are shades of Park and also Berbatov, with his clever link-up play, in his game which might so some way in explaining why he’s also rather competent in a deeper position or on the flanks. It might be why he gets the nod over Hernandez and the Bulgarian; because, not only is Welbeck dangerous in the box, but out of it, too. And his dribbling technique is as bizarre as it is good — ‘Pritt-Stick feet’ seems a fair description for a man who rarely who disappoints, even if he doesn’t make the scoresheet; best thing of all, he can only get better.

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