Tom Pattison reflects on why even in victory this United side is not yet ready to compete with the very best.
Controversy reigned at StamfordBridge. A shame for the neutral as before the chaos viewers had been treated to some exhilarating football from two teams unforgiving in attack yet bafflingly accommodating in defence. Miguel Delaney’s report hits the nail emphatically on the head.
In a rerun of St James’ Park, United opened on the front foot and were richly rewarded. Runners flooded to support Robin van Persie. The Sleepy Nik predicted plundering of the Chelsea left providing a rich supply of openings. David Luiz was left exposed by an overworked Cole and Mikel’s failure to cover in front of him. Both goals came from the same point of attack and with a two goal lead United looked home and dry.
Except that they didn’t. In the same way that once we halved the deficit against Braga it felt inevitable we would win, so it seemed expected that the home side would claw their way back into the game.
The Gandalf mantra (‘you shall not pass’) is alive and well in our back five but so long as our midfield continues to operate as a turnstile we are going to face long spells of pressure against sides of real quality. Worryingly our ability to care for the ball and relieve the tension was below par granting little respite to an overworked backline. A combination of De Gea’s reflexes and the type of rearguard action Ferdinand specialises in made it tough at times, but in spite of this Chelsea not only came back from a two goal deficit but looked primed to complete the job before officialdom intervened.
It is unhelpful but comfortable to muse on players gone by as wave after wave of Chelsea attacks sliced through our central midfield. Oh for a Keane, Butt, Ince, or Whiteside. Carrick, Cleverley and Rooney tried manfully to stem the tide but the lack of specialist was apparent for all to see; yet perhaps a specialist isn’t the answer. It is hard to believe when reflecting on theFergusonera the sheer variety of teams he has created. When watching a display like this it is difficult to believe that less than five years ago a Ferguson team nullified Barcelona to the extent that they failed to score over 180 minutes in a European semi-final. That feat was achieved with a team containing such grizzled, rugged midfield destroyers as Carlos Tevez and Paul Scholes. Interestingly the absence of Vidic and deployment of Rooney in midfield is pretty much the only thing to link these radically different sides. The victory overBarcelonawas all about the tactical plan of Carlos Queiroz; he might have won few fans but the current vintage might benefit from the wisdom of the Portuguese. Comparisons may have been drawn between our attacking options with the European conquerors of 1999 and 2008 but though possessing the adventure to merit the association; the absent ability to shut up shop when necessary poses a major barrier to emulating their achievements.
This United side is great fun. The thrill of the swashbuckling opening twenty bookended by the schadenfreude of the final twenty made for a hugely satisfying triumph over a genuine rival. The suspicion remains though that like the last roaring twenties, unless we take action a major crash could be waiting for us around the corner.
Looking at the two games against Valerenga and Barcelona I wanted to write about the differences in the defensive play of Manchester United in both the defensive and the offensive press-zone. As pictured below, I chose to divide the pitch into three areas and mainly focus on United’s defensive play.
A) Defensive Press Zone.
Pressuring the player on the ball in defensive press zone is based more on covering the spaces, rather than on aggressive play, an ability to mark tightly at the right moment rather than making risky moves. I chose to make a study of the first half of each game and made a few conclusions.
United’s midfield in each game consisted of two defensively focused central midfielders, with one of the two strikers dropping back in a more defensive role when without the ball. Paul Scholes was the one player who started both of the games, being paired with Carrick and later Anderson against Barcelona. Significantly, the Carrick – Scholes pairing was the one combination that marginally seemed to play better together, with them cooperating and keeping suitable distances between each other in defence. The Anderson – Scholes combination is a bit different to the previous one when considering the fact that Anderson really is an offensive midfielder. The main difference could perhaps be attributed to there occasionally being too much space between the players. Because the defensive team usually is looking to keep the football in front of them, the central midfield pairings positioning becomes important when closing space in front of the defensive line.
Valerenga:In the first game United were up against an offensive team who focused on using the ball and creating space by movement off the ball. In this term the two teams were quite similar, although United’s defensive play differed somewhat. Valerenga started the game with three offensive attackers and a central midfield consisting of three mobile players. The wingers were using the width of the pitch and tried to create one-on-one situations against United’s wingbacks.
A big proportion of United’s defensive play in their own defensive press-zone was a combination of keeping defensive lines and controlling the movement of the opposition players, which has been quite distinguishable about them. One of Valerenga’s ambitions was to find the space between United’s defense and midfield. As you can see from the picture below on the left side, United had one of the strikers dropping back (mostly Rooney when given the time). When needed, one of the central midfielders of United dropped back into the space were the oppositions offensive midfielder operated, leaving one of the strikers to fill in at midfield. Valerenga had a combination of one to two players operating behind United’s midfield and a lot of teamwork focus was in fact between our defenders and midfielders in controlling that particular area.
Barcelona. The opponent in the other game I wanted to take a look at was playing a similar type of football than the previous team. The difference was really how United answered defensively in the both the defensive and the offensive press zones. Even though Barcelona were also playing with a lot of width and movement, United defended in dropping lines, compared to straight lines against Valerenga.
When playing against a team like Barcelona that are moving the ball, and their players, in such a quick tempo then United’s main focus was to take away passing angles and the possibility of turning with the ball. As shown in the picture above to the right one could argue that Sir Alex’s idea was perhaps to play aggressively on the strong side of the pitch, while dropping back on the weak side and thereby creating a two lines that alternated between pressing and dropping back. A noticeable aspect of the Anderson and Scholes defensive play was that they seemed to had been assigned somewhat of a man-marking task on the inner midfielders of Barcelona.
Another thing I found interesting was the fact that teams tend to push up their entire defensive line, so as to not create chances for opposition midfielders to run deep and thus avoiding the offside trap. Some teams prefer to have the central defender closest to the ball to the determining player in judging the height and depth of the line, while some prefer the one on the weak side.
B) Offensive press zone.
Pressuring the player on the ball in offensive zone is based covering space and taking away the oppositions players time on the ball, that is if the team wants to attack the football, as in the Valerenga game. Another option is to defend like you United did against Barcelona, dropping back, compressing the teams different parts and really making the opposition pass the ball in front of the team.
This area of defending could be about winning the ball back with aggressive play. The further up the pitch a team wins the football back, the less distance would they have to cover to get to a scoring chance.
Valerenga. Against Valerenga, United were working with a high press and were really aggressive when trying to win the ball back. A combination of high-pressure and many players moving towards the ball made it easier for United to win the ball back in the offensive part of the pitch. Against a better opponent this could however be quite dangerous, as such a team could move the ball through the lines of press, thereby creating matchup problems.
Barcelona. Against Barcelona we saw a more defensive minded United after they had lost the football. They dropped back quite quickly and withdrew into the more central parts of the pitch. As they had gotten as many players possible behind the football-line, they started pressing and moving the football to whatever position the found useful.
When defending, United tend to play a 4-5-1 system, were one of the strikers is dropping back to prevent the defensive midfielder from getting the football or creating passing angles. Of course, one advantage in playing more defensively, is that there most definitely will be more space behind the opposition defence after winning the football.
What type of defending do you think we will see against Everton on Monday? Are we going to be looking to win the football high up the pitch or dropping and waiting for the opponent to make mistakes? To get where we want this season, which ultimately is to be successful and develop young players, we need to be solid at the back. That really needs to be the teams emphasis going in to the 2012-2013 season.
As the transfer window heads towards its peak, so does the outcry for new recruits and the inevitable calls for a new midfield maestro.
The general consensus amongst United fans seems to be that the central pairing of Carrick and Scholes is too old, too slow and too feeble to overcome teams such as Manchester City and Chelsea. Therefore, it has surprised many that the mighty Scot, whose job it is to oversee how this operation works, does not share the fans’ viewpoint.
So here we are then; sandwiched neatly between the Jubilee and the Olympics comes the real point of interest for the summer – the European Championships.
It feels like the end of an era as group stage competitiveness is sacrificed for a bloated 24 team format to indulge the whims of Platini. Despite this I shall leave my cynics hat aside for once. I have spent the last few days eagerly hoovering up tournament previews and the result is a mood of quite giddy excitement.
Regrettably what with teaching, playing football, podcasting and attempting to be a half decent husband I lack the deep knowledge of the European scene that messrs Cox and Marcotti gain from watching so many games. I have therefore picked out some players in a loose eleven that I am excited to see with a brief explanation of why. I may even chuck in the odd stat in as this is a set of Pattison Player Profiles after all. I made a rule that only one player per nation so please consider that before slating my choices.
Rui Patricio (Sporting Lisbon and Portugal)
Depending on which preview you read, Patricio might not even start for Portugal which would be a shame given the praise that has been showered on him from those who have followed him this season. I confess to not being a keen viewer of his domestic league but have been impressed by his displays in Europe. If Portugal are to have a hope of getting through to the knock-out stages they will need not only the goals of Cristiano Ronaldo but a solid rearguard. At the age of 24 this could be Patricio’s chance to shine.
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