Manchester United slumped to a 3-2 defeat to Tottenham last weekend for their second loss in their opening six league games; even for the perennial slow-starters they traditionally are, this is a glacial-paced beginning to their campaign. That’s not the only slow thing around Old Trafford these days, though and Sir Alex Ferguson’s side have shown an alarming propensity to fold against teams that manage to combine pace, power and precision.
A few stats to bring you about the result in question – it was the first time that Tottenham had managed to record a victory over Manchester United away from home since 1989 and it was their first win over them in any competition since a 3-1 triumph at White Hart Lane back in 2001. Before kick-off, Ferguson’s side had not lost in their last 22 encounters against them and during that staggering run they’d won 17 of those games. You could see at full-time, with Andre Villas-Boas pumping the air and amusingly punching himself in the face how much the result meant to the club and the ballistic nature of the supporters celebrations in the away end told the story of what a big upset it was, given their recent record against them.
Nevertheless, while it was a day to remember for Tottenham, it was equally just as big an afternoon at the office to forget for the hosts as some old problems reared their ugly heads again. It’s almost as if Ferguson is fully aware of his team’s deficiencies, but that he’s willing to forsake them in the pursuit of one more historic league title before he bows out. This stubborn refusal to tinker with his side can be best highlighted by his reluctance to sign a recognised holding man again this summer and Owen Hargreaves, a full five years on from his regular involvement which led to their last Champions League win over Chelsea back in 2007-8, still needs replacing.
The summer signing of Robin van Persie may have arrived to much fanfare, simultaneously getting one over close rivals Manchester City in the process, but creating and finishing chances were not where this side lost the title last season, rather a susceptibility against teams which play at a high tempo best highlighted in losses to Newcastle at home and Athletic Bilbao abroad last term.
In that respect, Ferguson gave in to a needless indulgence by signing the Dutchman, almost as if he realises that his time at the club is finally nearing its inevitable end and that he wants to g out with a bang. Forking out £24m for a 29-year-old striker with a rotten record of past injury troubles can be seen as nothing more than a short-term acquisition and it bucks the trend that Ferguson has by and large had during his tenure at the club of focusing on younger, emerging talent.
Against Tottenham in the first half, Gareth Bale and Jan Vertonghen had the freedom of the city down United’s right flank and mercilessly attacked a weak and back-peddling defence, while Aaron Lennon’s and Jermain Defoe’s movement also caused problems. Bale’s goal, whereby he outstripped Rio Ferdinand for pace to an almost embarrassing degree not only highlighted the back four’s frailties, but their midfield’s. There wasn’t a single player tracking back from their midfield to try and stop Bale and while Ferdinand missed the opportunity to perform a cynical foul on Bale earlier on in his run, he was left with little other option but to try and track the Welshman at pace which left only one winner.
While Paul Scholes was in imperious form in the second half and Michael Carrick still obviously has his merits, as a partnership, while they may be great at ‘recycling’ the ball and keeping hold of it, there is a sense that you can get at them and disrupt their flow. This led to a very flat first half performance from them with Moussa Dembele and Sandro superb at breaking up play and getting at them.
Ryan Giggs has seriously struggled against both Tottenham and Liverpool in the team’s games so far this season and it’s difficult to see what he offers the side at present as a starter, Jonny Evans looks like he’s struggling to move at the moment and Patrice Evra’s slide into becoming a liability has been well documented. They’ve kept just two clean sheets in nine games so far this season, so something is clearly amiss.
A combative midfielder in the form of Cheick Tiote or Kevin Striitman has been required for some time and while Darren Fletcher has undoubtedly been missed during his absence with chronic bowel condition, he’s not quite that sort of player, even if he does provide more steel and protection than both Carrick and Scholes combined.
The frustrating thing is, with Tom Cleverley still a bit rough around the edges and Anderson simply getting so fat that he doesn’t have edges anymore, that Scholes and Carrick are probably the best central midfield pairing that the club has at the moment; it’s certainly not the worst about and against certain sides they’ll be excellent, but Ferguson simply doesn’t have that option within his squad to even change it up if he wants to.
Ferguson clearly doesn’t see retaining possession and ownership of the ball as important as many of his managerial peers do, which can be the only explanation for avoiding to plug a gap which has quickly become such an obvious blind spot within the side, bordering on a systemic issue. While playing two touchline-hugging wingers in a four-man midfield may have gone out of fashion around most of the continent over the past five years or so, the 70-year-old Scot has stuck to his guns with it, much to the detriment of their ability to control the tempo of a game against top-class opposition.
The one thing you could say about United is that they’re an ever-evolving beast and Ferguson has proven himself to be a supremely adaptable manager over the years capable of shaping and molding side after title-winning side, so in that respect, perhaps he deserves a degree of leniency for if anyone has earned it, it’s him.
There’s more than one way to skin a cat as it were, but it seems as if the club are leaving themselves open to teams willing to go toe-to-toe and take the game to them, which will only continue to cause the side further problems in the future and with such obvious gaps there to be exposed and preyed upon, you have to question the wisdom in ignoring such a glaring weakness even if they continue to remain competitive right at the top.
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