Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Where United Are Going Wrong

Tuesday night will not live long in the memory of Manchester United fans who watched the game, either in San Sebastian or at home on the TV. United faced Real Sociedad in the Champions League, a winnable tie, albeit against a good team, but one in poor European form and expected to finish bottom of the group. The game was awful, full of wasteful football from both sides but we'll focus on the issues at United.

Before beginning, it's probably worth pointing out that had Chicharito not blazed over embarrassingly from three yards or had van Persie's penalty not struck the post, United would now have ten points and require only one more from the final two games to ensure qualification. As it is, they should still qualify. But the manner of the performance on Tuesday raised more than a few questions.

1. Long Balls

United attempted over 40 long passes throughout the game with less than half of them coming off, the one's aimed at the flanks in particular had an alarmingly poor success rate. There seems to be a tendency to play lazy impatient football among some of these players. Hoof a long ball over the top for the winger to chase in vain rather than be patient work the ball on the ground through the midfield.

Long Ball Attempts - United

Sure it looks good when it comes off and your team creates a chance out of nothing but it isn't working. It rarely does. It makes much more sense to keep the ball, play short passes in midfield and wait for an opening rather than trying to force one just because you lack the patience. Long balls work best with counter attack football. And United aren't a counter attack side at the moment.

Comparing United's stats to City for the same night, City attempted ten fewer long balls with the same amount of successes. The majority of there long passes took place amongst their defenders and defensive midfielder, and were not 'through balls'. City only had two long passes into the final third which failed to meet their intended target. United, it seems, had at least ten.

2. The Crossing. Stop it. Or Get Better.

Manchester United have always been a crossing team. This dates back to the days of when Beckham and Giggs were running the flanks. Today's crop of wingers are a poor substitute by comparison by Moyes seems reluctant to change from the methodology used by his predecessor. United attempted 32 crosses during Tuesday's game. This is an extraordinary amount. To put this into perspective, Manchester City, who on the same night scored 5 goals against CSKA Moscow, attempted only 16 crosses throughout their game. Both had the same number of successes with 5.

It should come as no surprise that United are averaging the highest amount of crosses per game in the Premier League.

Of course, the fault is not entirely with the under-performing wingers delivering the crosses but also with those in the middle aiming to get on the end of them. Javier Hernandez and Wayne Rooney are both decent in the air but not exactly target men. Marouane Fellaini seems afraid to make runs into the box where he would no doubt be a huge threat.

Play to your strengths team's, don't just do something because its always been done when it clearly isn't working.

3. Kagawa in the middle

When Ashley Young came on after 63 minutes, it meant we'd finally be given the chance to see what United fans have been craving for months. Shinji Kagawa playing in his preferred no.10 role, behind the main striker. Unfortunately, Kagawa didn't have the obvious game changing effect that would be the only thing that could persuade Moyes to pick him there regularly but there were some interesting observations to make.

Kagawa had a fine game on Tuesday, one of the few United players to do so along with his partner in crime on the left side, Patrice Evra. The two of them linked up superbly while Kagawa was on the left side. Shinji tucked inside and allowed the French full-back to overlap and get a cross in which was nearly always blocked.

When Kagawa was moved into the centre he played a different role, namely looking to bring the wide players into the game by means of through balls. Compare Shinji on the left to Shinji in the hole.

Kagawa on the left. 0 - 63 mins.

Kagawa in the hole. 64 - 90 mins

His activity as a left winger consists mostly of link ups with Evra and drifting into the middle to get more involved in the play, something that is natural to him. When moved into the hole, he tended to look for through balls often, picking out the wingers and stretching the game. Of course as it was ultimately fruitless, it will go largely unnoticed but it was worth pointing out. Only two of his completed passes here are backwards. Had he been given a whole game at his favoured number ten slot, I think his potential would be a lot more obvious.

Kagawa had a pass accuracy of 87% against Sociedad. Rooney laboured with 62% on what was a frustrating night for him.

4: Central Midfield

Yep. It's still an issue.

David Moyes paired Marouane Fellaini and his coach Ryan Giggs in the centre of midfield tonight. Fellaini looks different at United to the player he was at Everton, a bit like a turtle retreating into its shell a bit because its uncomfortable with its surroundings. Not once during the game did Fellaini recieve the ball in the attacking third. He's 6'5 and a fantastic header of the ball, he's playing in a team that on this night put 32 crosses into the box. Where was he?

Fellaini hasn't had the desired effect during his first few months at United. Fans thought they were finally getting a rampant box-to-box midfielder, exactly what they've been crying out for for years. Instead he seems to be playing a cautious defensive role, focusing on trying to make no mistakes rather than stepping up and dominating games like he did at Everton. It says a lot this this was probably his best performance in a United shirt. Oh, and he was sent off too.

Ryan Giggs turns 40 in 3 weeks and he had a good game on Tuesday but the stark reality is United should have stopped depending on him so much at least five years ago. It really goes to show the low regard Anderson is held in now. The truth of the matter is if Paul Scholes decided to suit up next week he'd probably make the bench ahead of the Brazilian.

5: David Moyes

Tuesday night was the 16th time David Moyes had taken charge of a Manchester United game. I think he's settled in as well as can be expected, it was never going to be a garden of roses, but there are a few gripes I have with him.

His ruthless dismissal of the backroom staff was my first cause for concern. People like Rene Meulensteen, Eric Steele and Mike Phelan, all of whom learned under the Fergie tree and all of whom had advice and knowledge to offer, were dismissed in favour of his Everton backroom staff. Seemed a strange decision at the time not to keep at least one of the people who knew how the club was run. A link to the past to ease the transition. But Moyes wanted to be his own man and I suppose that's admirable in itself.

His tactical naivety is probably my biggest concern. Going into this weekend's tie with Arsenal, I don't think Moyes has any  specific plan whatsoever to deal with Ozil, Ramsey and co and will just send out eleven players to play their own game. He went into the Manchester derby that way and look what happened. City tore United apart down the flanks time and time again, running out 4-0 winners. Moyes had no answer. I can see a similar outcome on Sunday. In the Champions League last 16 at Old Trafford last year, within seconds of Nani being sent off, Mourinho had changed his formation to take advantage of the extra space in midfield. Madrid inevitably scored two quick goals and knocked United out. All the great managers can think on their feet like this.

As with most managers in the modern era, his success in the transfer market will define him. He showed a criminal lack of imagination in the summer when he made Baines and Fellaini his two main targets. Hopefully, by January, he has had the time to assess all available options and not just those at his former club.

6: Ashley Young

I'm pretty OK with Ashley Young never playing for Manchester United again. Aside from the continuous shameful and embarrassing diving which drags the club's good name through the mud, he's no more than an average footballer and doesn't belong at a top club.

Young came on for Rooney in the 63rd minute and started brightly creating a chance for van Persie who struck the post. Following his appalling and disgraceful dive to win a penalty his game deteriorated. He was 0/3 for crosses and 0/3 for attempted dribbles. For a winger that's not good reading. Players like Bale and Suarez get somewhat forgiven for there occasional theatrics because they are wonderful players. Ashley Young does not have this luxury. Plus he's not even a good diver. So unconvincing. Same technique, arms always out in front to protect himself from any actual injury. Personally I hope he's sent off next time. Skip the yellow card.


Summing it all up:

  • United need to play a more short passing game. Long balls when you're controlling possession are just a cheap gift of the ball back to your opponents.
  • United need to stop crossing the ball so much or at least use better crossers or target men. Step forward Fellaini. 
  • Playing Kagawa in the hole behind the striker offers considerable creative options. Particularly when it comes to stretching defences and bringing the wingers into play. He's doing a fine job on the left as it is however.
  • United need two or three new central midfield players. Preferably someone who doesn't mind venturing into the opponents territory sometimes.
  • Moyes has started OK. He seems very tactically narrow minded however and this could prove his undoing in some of the bigger games.
  • Everybody hates Ashley Young. Everybody.

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