Given his declaration that Manchester United can cope without a specialist defensive midfielder this season, there’s a sense that Sir Alex Ferguson is now eating his own words.
As the world awaited their first glimpse of Robin Van Persie in a United shirt on the first Monday Night Football of the season, the need for a new defensive shield became all the more evident on an eye opening night at Goodison Park.
Van Persie’s £24 million switch to Old Trafford has unquestionably captured the imagination of United fans desperate for their team to regain the supremacy relinquished to rivals Manchester City last season. But there are question marks over whether the money used to acquire the Holland striker should have been reinvested in impoverished areas of the squad considering the abundance of attacking talent already present at the club.
On the face of it, Ferguson’s decision to sign van Persie appears rash and a reaction to City’s last ditch Premier League title triumph in May. There’s a feeling that the 70-year-old has overlooked a paucity in midfield and impulsively splurged a chunk of his budget on a player he believes will re-establish them as the dominant force in English football
That notion is strengthened given the unexpected revamp of United’s shape. With football still in the midst of a tactical evolution, prompted by Barcelona’s tiki-taka philosophy, Ferguson acted in accordance adopting a fashionable 4-2-3-1 as opposed to the trusted 4-4-2 that has brought him unprecedented success during 25 years at the Old Trafford reins.
The result of that deviation left an imbalance in the United midfield that the Red Devils’ chief has struggled to correct given his limited options and eagerness to accommodate new signing Shinji Kagawa into the starting eleven. His desire to mimic Barca’s methodology came at a cost though as his midfield were ruthlessly crushed by a vibrant Everton performance led by the imperious Marouane Fellaini.
If the alarm bells weren’t already ringing in Ferguson’s ears by the time the Belgian had headed the Toffees into a second half lead, they should have been blaring at the final whistle. Having found himself forced to partner Michael Carrick alongside Nemanja Vidic (who was returning from a nine-month injury lay-off) in central defence on account of a crippling injury crisis, you’d imagine the inclusion of an anchor man would be an obvious pre-requisite.
But without the means of installing a layer of protection in front of the back four, Carrick and Vidic were terrorised by David Moyes’ men, in particular Fellaini, as they exploited the space afforded to them in and around the penalty area to great effect. It was an oversight on Ferguson’s part not to recognise that danger and take the necessary measures in sheltering Carrick and Vidic from a Merseyside pummelling with subsequent games against Southampton and Fulham only serving to emphasise the need for a specialist defensive midfielder.
Much was said about Ferguson’s decision to bring Paul Scholes out of retirement in January to fill a creative void in the midfield following his failed pursuit of Wesley Sneijder last summer. It appears as if history has repeated itself this year only although it’s highly unlikely the United boss will be sending an urgent SOS to Roy Keane like he did Scholes. But in prioritising the signing of van Persie he has overlooked a fatal flaw in his team that could have grave long-term ramifications.
In a 4-4-2 he could get away without deploying a defensive midfielder but the change to a Barca style 4-2-3-1 necessitates the implementation of an anchor. Yet Ferguson continues to turn a blind eye opting for his central trio to be geared towards a possessional based game working from the mantra of ‘why win the ball back when we can keep it?’ In a similar strategy to the one applied by the Catalan giants, that sees Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and Xavi collectively share the ball-winning duties, Carrick, Scholes and Cleverley function as deep lying playmakers with the focus on utilising their keen reading of the game and intelligent positional play.
Although it could be argued that La Liga is an entirely different environment to the robust setting of the Premier League, several of the Red Devils’ rival clubs, including City, Arsenal, Chelsea, Newcastle and Tottenham, operate with a comparable framework accommodating both a tough tackling anchor man and a player competent in retaining possession. Needless to say you can’t hold it against Ferguson for attempting to instil a flexibility to his side through the use of modern tactical concepts as the game continues to evolve. However, against stronger opponents he will endure a greater punishment for deliberately ignoring the kink in his side that could prove to be the deciding factor in the pursuit of their top-flight crown.