Tuesday, 4 October 2011
English Football's Laughing Cavaliers, But For How Long
By Shane Thomas
Manchester United: Premier League champions, more league titles than any other English side, kings of all their survey, arguably the greatest manager of all time in Sir Alex Ferguson at the helm, unbeaten so far this season. They are the division's top scorers, playing some of the most exhilarating stuff in the land. The sheer joy of their play has turned them into the game's laughing cavaliers.
However, United's grip on the title is not as secure as the opening paragraph suggests. Before last weekend's games, they had conceded more shots on their goal than any other Premier League team. While their attacking play has often been dazzling, they have looked vulnerable in defence, and many objective judges acknowledge that there was a degree of good fortune in their victories over West Brom, Chelsea and Norwich - not to mention their 3-3 Champions League draw against Basel last Wednesday night.
There are mitigating reasons for United's defensive problems this season. New goalkeeper David De Gea has had a thorny introduction to the English game, with his stat of regularly conceding goals from long range shots whilst playing for Atletico Madrid last season encouraging many opposition players to chance their arm. Also, what often goes unmentioned is the maelstrom of injuries in the squad. The Da Silva twins have barely featured, Rio Ferdinand is an a perpetual state of fragility, and most importantly, captain Nemanja Vidic has been on the treatment table since the season's opening day. The Serb was one of United's best players last season, and is the lynchpin of the back four. And when Jonny Evans has had to deputise, he's often been the man at fault when United do let goals in.
A lot of the strain has been placed on the young shoulders of the England pair, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones. Both are nominally centre-halves, but have been needed to slot in at right-back on occasion. They have generally impressed, but Jones is relatively inexperienced at this level, and can be prone to losses of concentration. And while Smalling's adaptability has been impressive to play at right-back for club and country, he has also fallen prey to the team's injury problems.
But good defending isn't only down to the back four, and those who espouse Wayne Rooney's selfless industry must be stuck in a time warp. Rooney's position is often as the second-striker these days, which gives him plenty of latitude to roam with little defensive responsibility. This is not to criticise Rooney, as Ferguson knows that he is his most destructive force. It'd be folly to have him wasting energy defending when it would be put to better use in the opposition's final third. Cristiano Ronaldo is no longer at Old Trafford, so Rooney no longer has to play the role of carthorse. If anything, he's like on old-fashioned trequartista.
The freedom afforded to Rooney puts extra responsibilty on the midfield to keep a solid team shape. For the past year, tabloid headlines were rife with rumours that Inter Milan playmaker, Wesley Sniejder would be on his way to the champions. More astute observers stated that while Sniejder has bags of talent, he is the last thing United needed as they had more than enough firepower in the squad as it was. Where they did need to strengthen however, was in central midfield.
United have lacked a dominating presence in the engine room for a while now. Darren Fletcher is a willing workhorse, but has struggled with illness, and there's no telling if he will regain his best form. Even if he does, he's hardly the second coming of Roy Keane. He's not even Owen Hargreaves - many forget how crucial Hargreaves was in the closing stages 2007/08 season. The two sound beatings Barcelona gave to United in the Champions League finals of 2009 and 2011 showed how pressing the need was for the Red Devils to add a spoiler to their bristling attacking talents.
And it is the mighty Catalans that we should look to for the primary reason for an explanation as to United's new free-flowing strategy.
As Barcelona caroused in celebration on the Wembley turf in May, Ferguson cut a haunted figure as his team were cut to ribbons by the Spaniards yet again. To lose one Champions League final in this manner was painful, but to lose two smacked of stupidity. Something had to be done, and it's the playbook of Pep Guardiola where Ferguson has turned to for the remedy.
It makes common sense to state that the best way to defend against a good attacking team is to cut off their attacks at the source. Well Barcelona's source isn't Lionel Messi. Nor is it Xavi or Andres Iniesta. It's not even Gerard Pique. Next time you watch Barca in action, watch what happens when their keeper, Victor Valdes has the ball; his two centre-halves immediately spilt into the left-back and right-back positions. They can do this because their full-backs push high up the pitch, playing as if they were wingers. This results in Barcelona having seven players in the opposition half, and because they pass and move with such rapier incisiveness, defending against them is like holding back a tidal wave.
Now watch United this season. For Valdes, read De Gea (which may explain why Ferguson plumped for the Spaniard over the likes of Manuel Neuer or Maarten Stekelenburg). For the marauding Dani Alves, read Smalling and Jones. If you can't beat them, join them. And in fairness, United haven't been doing a bad job of imitating the world's premier club side.
But it's still a work in progress, and their offensive leanings have left them caught short at the other end of the pitch. It's a problem that Ferguson has recognised, and must correct before we reach the business end of the season. As fun as it is watching a team play with the handbreak off, do that for too long and it'll result in a very nasty crash.
ELSEWHERE IN THE PREMIER LEAGUE...
After a 5-1 defeat to Chelsea, Bolton are rooted to the bottom of the Premier League. They have already conceded 21 goals in their 7 matches, and gave arguably the worst defensive performance of the season on Sunday - and yes, I include Arsenal's wretched display when they lost 8-2 to Manchester United.
However, Bolton fans should not begin to despair just yet. The bulk of these heavy defeats have come against the league's stronger sides. The fixture list was beyond cruel to Bolton as their first seven matches have led them to encounter both Manchester clubs, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal.
But, before the month is out, they will have played Wigan, Sunderland and Swansea, and with their current poor form, it gives these games an increased importance. You'd think Bolton would need a bare minimum of 5 points from these three matches to ease the pressure on manager Owen Coyle.
Coyle is one of the most respected managers in the division, but nothing kills a reputation quicker than bad results. While his teams have a laudable propensity to play expansively, the defending from his side in recent weeks has been amateurish. I think it's no coincidence that Gary Cahill has allowed the speculation around him leaving the club to badly affect his level of performance - you can only hope that he's not subconsciously lost his focus to lower his transfer value in the likely event of him moving on in January.
Bolton and Coyle have plenty of time to correct their woeful start to the season. But the recovery must begin now, as the Trotters are not a club that can financially survive dropping down to the Championship. If they were to be relegated, we probably wouldn't see them back in the top flight for a generation.
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