Manchester United kept their place at the top of the league last night after a scrappy 1-0 win over West Ham at Old Trafford, but they’ve struggled to get out of second gear for the most part this campaign and two of the main reasons responsible are the heavy rotation policy currently being used by Sir Alex Ferguson, along with the constant switches in formation, which are stopping the side from gaining any momentum.
Rotation is an essential tool in the modern game and when you can rest players to make sure they are at their optimum for future, more difficult challenges, you most certainly should, but there’s also an argument to be made that a settled side is more conducive to success.
The state of inertia which seems to have gripped the squad so far can be dated back to just after the 3-1 away win over Braga in the Champions League, and while certainly not at their best again, United qualified for the next round with four wins from four games as they established an unassailable lead at the top of the group.
In the very next game against Norwich, courtesy of an outstanding performance from John Ruddy in the home goal, United slumped to an embarrassing and somewhat avoidable 1-0 defeat, their third in the league already so far this campaign. The midfield pairing of Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs kept the ball but moved it far too slowly to cause the organised Canaries any undue problems, while Javier Hernandez lacked both service and support up top to have any sort of impact.
The very next game, Hernandez was brought off the bench and involved in all three goals against Aston Villa as the side came back to win 3-2, a result which always had a certain air of inevitability about it, and bringing on the Mexican striker was hailed as some sort of masterstroke and the topic of ‘super subs’ once dominated the week’s news along with Manchester City’s Edin Dzeko, completely ignoring that Ferguson has mismanaged him two games on the bounce. Meanwhile, the constant chopping and changing between Anders Lindegaard and David De Gea in goal is truly baffling and isn’t helping either player’s form or confidence.
The main problem that the side have had this season is going behind early in games, something they have suffered in 13 of their 21 matches across all competitions so far to date. They’ve also kept just three clean sheets in their 14 league outings, the third of which came courtesy of a fine defensive performance against West Ham, with both Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans superb.
Nevertheless, that is the exception rather than the rule this term and both of their title rivals – Manchester City and Chelsea – have kept six clean sheets in the league. The amount of times that they can continue to be bailed out be a fantastic and diverse forward line is not infinite and they must learn from their mistakes and where they keep going wrong.
The lack of form of several players in key areas right through the side appears to have been a motivating factor in the constant switches from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 formation, while the midfield diamond system keeps making an appearance every so often, which all just helps to cover up the fact that United have an unbalanced, top-heavy squad, with very few central midfielders of genuine quality, so much so that it’s taking them three or four to control a game these days.
That Brazilian midfielder Anderson has been hailed in many quarters as enjoying something of a revival, off the back of a 15-minute cameo against QPR and a admittedly good display against Chelsea in the Capital One Cup defeat at Stamford Bridge says it all. He, along with Carrick and Tom Cleverley (does he have an actual position yet?) started against West Ham and by and large controlled the midfield, but they offered little in attack and while they shielded the back four well at times, Ferguson is still finding it tricky to compensate and get the right balance.
Of course, the switch to a 4-3-3 can be seen as little more than an admittance of the fact that the side have only one genuinely consistent winger in Antonio Valencia. Both Ashley Young and Nani are capable of producing moments of magic, the latter has made a career out of said ‘moments’, but from one game to the next, Ferguson has literally no idea what sort of performance he’s going to get from them and the answer has been to play three in the middle apparently, which has seen Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney come deep in search of the ball and occupying very similar areas, meaning the side carries less threat when playing three up top should mean more.
Against QPR, Ferguson simply got it wrong again and starting Danny Welbeck in an auxiliary left wing berth with Fletcher and Scholes in the middle and Young on he right left them short of inspiration and unable to make their possession count. The eight-minute spell aside, where they plundered three goals, neatly displaying what the side are capable with the right formula in the process, they were far from their best. A better and more confident team than the side currently found propping up the table would have made them pay, and they’ve struggled to produce a performance across the entire 90 minutes all season domestically.
We all know that United are traditionally slow-starters, and their success has allowed a degree of leniency towards this accepted fact, but why has nobody really asked ‘why does it keep happening, though?’ Their rivals, City haven’t been at their fluent best either yet, which is what makes it them so frustrating that they’re not cashing in when the teams that can challenge them are struggling.
Ferguson seems incapable of addressing the problems in the side at the moment and in search of the answers, the needless tweaks to the side are doing more harm than good. There’s a hint of complacency about United this term, they don’t look nor feel like a team that can be champions, yet they sit at the top of the table, only serving to highlight that in terms of quality, the league is not at its strongest at the moment and that above all else, it’s really there for the taking if they can start to string some good displays together in sequence.
The 70-year-old Scot needs to find his best side, because at the moment I’m not entirely sure he knows what it is nor which formation they fit, and he needs to do it quickly, otherwise their stop-start nature around the busy festive period could come back to haunt them in May.