Manchester United are off-key and Ferguson has questions to answer

What started off as a promising season (sorry, pre-season) with Rooney banging in the goals, Tevez coming on board and Manchester United winning the Community Shield has in the space of 4 days (Sunday to Wednesday) become a worrying sight.

The title is still Manchester United’s to lose. With Rooney crocked and Ronaldo now suspended for 3 games, you may be a bit more than just worried.

But what really got to me today was how United played – and I strongly believe that our match tactics and team selection in the last two games have led to Rooney’s injury (ok, that’s a stretch) and Ronaldo’s card (certain of it).

Ferguson started with Evra at left-back (who either did well today or performed at his usual levels and the whole team underperformed) and Nani in front of him, with Tevez replacing Rooney in a 4-5-1 formation that had no holding midfielder.

Poor Midifield Organisation

Last season Carrick stayed back and held the midfield together. This season, with Giggs moving to the center and Scholesy dropping back (and Carrick thus asked to move up a bit), the central midfield is severely imbalanced. Carrick is defensively strong but too often was caught in the wrong place on the pitch in places and misplayed the situation, allowing Portsmouth to start attacks down the middle.

Either Carrick should be sitting back, letting the opposition run at him and thus take the ball off them or shepherd them to the flanks (and the full-back) and narrow their angles, or Hargreaves should play in his position and Carrick should have space to roam up front in a clean 4-4-2 formation. Our starting 11 couldn’t play 4-5-1, not least because the man picked to play in the hole, Ryan Giggs, wasn’t fast enough to pull defenders away and once United’s Midas touch deserted them, Giggs kept mis-hitting passes and Scholes and Carrick often got in each other’s way because of their unclear roles on the pitch.

If Ferguson is trying to mould Manchester United into playing a new brand of total football where players freely switch their positions, he’s got a long way to go, and he needs to play the right players to make it work. Playing Giggs, Carrick and Scholes in the middle will not work, unless Carrick is specifically asked to sit back and Scholes does more than run up and take shots on goal.

It’s harsh on Paul Scholes because of his service to Manchester United and because of his cracking goal, and it’s harsh on Ryan Giggs too after his 9 titles with Manchester United, but Sir Alex Ferguson would have seen that Manchester United were troubled in midfield against Portsmouth – better teams would have pushed us back to the wall.

The fact that Fergie took Giggs off and put on O’Shea said a lot about the midfield, but not much about United’s options on the bench. Fergie could be a visionary with his plans for O’Shea but after watching the Irish utility-man (he’s played everywhere on the park by now) for the last few seasons I doubt that he’s going to turn a new leaf and become a regular match-winner.

The central midfield wasn’t the worst culprit, it was Nani.

Nani and Ronaldo

Nani’s showing today was disappointing – too many balls given away, too many passes that never reached their targets. He wasn’t fast enough down the flank, preferring a slower, more elaborate buildup.

The only thing that we can hope for is that we might expect too much from him at this point, and that he will improve from today’s showing (and he’ll need to improve a lot). I’d like to see him start again against City on the weekend, although if that means that Giggsy will be in central midfield I’d rather have Giggs play left-wing even he is slower than before.

Ronaldo – oh my god, what is Fergie doing? Were Giggs, Carrick and Scholes under orders to give Nani most of the ball? Denying your most potent match-winner (Ronaldo) the ball, whether he’s marked or not, is a travesty and bound to cost you the game. As things stand, not only did United drew the game but the frustration caused by not seeing too much of the ball now means that Ronaldo will be suspended for 3 games. Good luck with that. Fletch and Eagles are the most obvious replacements, but at this point we might just see O’Shea starting there, or Evra starting on the left and Nani on the right.

Tevez, the lone striker

Tevez did well for the United goal, but as United’s midfield fell over each other and Pompey closed down United’s left flank there was little that Tevez could do. He had a few half-chances, and maybe if he was in the form of his life he would have taken them, but he needed better service and didn’t see much of the ball. He’s not a Rooney (or maybe he’s just not that familiar with the club) and he didn’t drop back to fight and win the ball, which we’ve become used to seeing. Tevez needed a striking partner up front more than anything else to take the heat off him but Distin and Traore smothered him and with Giggs dropping back Tevez was quite effectively neutralized.

Despite the assist, a waste of 10m today. Not sure if the player can be blamed too much – the match tactics just weren’t suitable for Tevez. As Red Ranter said in the preview (or somewhere else), surely we could have played Dong or Anderson, or even Solskjaer?

Speaking of that, where is everyone? Why have we only seen Silvestre, O’Shea and Eagles? Where’s Fletch? Where’s Ole? Fletch was on the bench today but wasn’t called on and O’Shea was preferred. Pique and Kuszczak were the other players on the bench, so that begs the question – why are we starting games with only one striker in the 16-man squad? Is this why we’ve sold 12m worth of strikers?

Ronaldo’s Sending Off

I’ve been seeing the video replays of the incident and while I didn’t catch what Ronaldo did (and therefore I can’t say anything about the ref or Ronny), but from what I see in this video clip, David James barges and shoves Vidic. Vidic ends up getting a yellow card because he was in the center of the circle but there is a point at the start where no one’s pushing or shoving and suddenly Jamo runs and starts the scuffle.

Vidic is yellow carded, Davis is yellow carded, but why isn’t James given a card? I don’t think Ronaldo did worse than shove someone or headbutt them – running into a crowd of people in an already heated situation and shoving around players doesn’t even merit a yellow? The ref was right there, I’m going to guess that he didn’t see it and that his assistants missed it as well, and all they saw was Vidic in the mix and carded him.

It’s a difficult situation for the referees and the players, but the very least you can do is punish the right man. Vidic, in the game against Reading, sent a Reading player flying during the traditional jostling that surrounds a set-piece and got away with just a warning – a point where he should have been carded.

Two wrong decisions don’t make it right, and the FA needs to a) make sure that the refs are consistent in such situations and b) give the refs more help so that they make the right decision. James could have been red-carded there, and when the red card was shown I had originally thought that it was James, seeing the way he had charged in and was in the thick of it.

The straight red will hurt United and this means we’ve lost two of our best players from last season in the first two games of this season.

As for Ronaldo’s actions that caused the melee…all I can say is that he was very frustrated throughout the game because one, he got little service (Giggs and Nani saw much more of the ball, and attacks kept breaking down in the center and on the left) and Ronaldo was quite well marked by the Portsmouth defence. Ronaldo can deal with being tackled but not with being ignored, and part of our failure today was to not give Ronaldo more of the ball.

Ferguson’s Tactics

It’s harsh to question United’s tactics – fans bitch when things go wrong and they rejoice when they go right, and I don’t want to bitch here. Certain decisions though, don’t make much sense so far, and hopefully over the course of the season these will be cleared out.

  • United are changing their 4-4-2 to accomodate Giggs and Scholes together – it’s not working.
  • Ronaldo should have been given a lot more of the ball in the first half AND in the second – don’t understand why that didn’t happen.
  • Where are our strikers? Dong and Ole are alive, uninjured and capable of at least 20-min cameos, from what I know currently.
  • Hargreaves and Anderson are supposedly not match-fit, but surely they are also capable of a 20-min cameo.

Hopefully United can sort out the problems in time to take on Eriksson’s City and turn in a winning performance. The only saving grace at this point is that Pool and Arsenal are not looking too hot either (what with the Prem becoming more competitive) and Chelsea with their injuries could easily drop points this season, especially when Essien and Drogba won’t be around to bail them out in January.

But Manchester United don’t win titles by hoping that other teams slip up. They win their own matches, like the Blackburn come-back and the Everton come-back from last season. It’s that spirit and discipline that the side need.

But more than the players, the questions need to be asked of Ferguson, his team selection and tactics. It’s not the result but the manner of it that raises these questions, and while United are not in a crisis their season is close to being in deep shit.

Or am I holding my team to standards too high?

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