Manchester United’s Tactical Malleability
Manchester United’s ‘easy’ start to the season is over and after three months of competitive games the shape of the team has taken form. The diamond has, thankfully, replaced the faltering 3-5-2 and United now play fluid, attacking football with a reasonable degree of certainty at the back. However from watching the team in recent games, it is clear that their tactics facilitate an orthodox diamond with quite a few possibilities. Di Maria and Herrera are chalk and cheese in terms of styles but their positions reflect each other and the knock on effect this has on the full backs is stark. Also, depending on how high the opposition presses, United’s player sitting, for me, should rotate subject to the midfield they are up against. Some may call this unbalanced but I call it flexible and I believe these tactical nuances in the line-up will become more apparent in the next five games and beyond.
MUFC Class of 2013 End of Term Report: Goalkeepers and defenders.
In England it is the time of year when teachers begin to reflect on the performance of individual students since last summer; have they met their targets? What went well? What could they do better? In a blatant act of procrastination I’ve put my own reports on hold and instead turned my attention to reflecting on the last nine months of Manchester United’s first team squad; starting with the back five.
I have evaluated every player who made a minimum of ten appearances over the season. For each I have followed a standard school report format: identified what I considered a realistic objective for the start of the season (OBJ), identified what went well (WWW) and even better if (EBI). Each player has also been graded. The judgments are based on performance against expectations and in no way should be considered a hierarchy of ability.
The Scouting Report – A numbers based observation report
In the latest edition of the Scouting Report, I will be taking a look at some player statistics from the first part of the season and in this piece, I will be looking at appearances, goals, assists and passing statistics. So far this season, Manchester United have played 20 games, winning 15 of those and losing the remaining five and, as the season moves towards the Christmas period, it is an appropriate time to focus on some of the United players contributions during the current campaign.
2-5-6-3. Back line Brilliance from United.
Last week, our back four was seriously at fault as Spurs cut through our defence like a hot knife through butter. This week, they turned it around and delivered a clean sheet which brought with it our first victory at St James Park since March 2009.
Amazingly, they did not just reply with a clean sheet but they also produced goals from Jonny Evans and Patrice Evra as the Red Devils took advantage of the Toon’s disorganisation at set pieces. Overall, it was an exciting display from the team as a whole who pleased Sir Alex with their play.
Rafael da Silva – right back where he belongs
Rafael da Silva is fast approaching his fourth season at Manchester United and it is clearly his most important.
Since joining the club in 2008, in a deal that included his twin Fabio, he has struggled to hold down a regular spot on the right side of the defence. There are many reasons for this which I will come to but the 2012-13 season can be seen as pivotal in the life of the charismatic youngster.
Rafael and Fabio were spotted by Les Kershaw at the 2005 Nike Premier Cup in Hong Kong. After reporting to Sir Alex Ferguson that the twins reminded him of “two little whippets”, he implored the Scot to make his move. With Arsenal hovering in the background, Old Trafford was decided as the most suitable venue to develop the careers of the young Brazilians who had yet to make a senior appearance for Fluminense. It was a major upheaval for them as they had been nurtured by the club since the age of eleven after being spotted playing football in the street.
Rafael made his league debut against Newcastle United at the start of the 2008-09 season but it was in the seemingly annual pre-season friendly against Ferguson junior at London Road, Peterborough that first brought the diminutive youngster to the attention of the United faithful. What I remember most vividly about that game was the sight of a player who played without fear. Bombing up and down the right flank in a typically Brazilian style drew inevitable but wildly premature comparisons to the likes of Cafu and Roberto Carlos.
Here was someone playing against opponents who were well versed in the rough and tumble of English lower league football but Rafael simply played in the only way he knew how as if he was back in his home town of Petropólis, just outside Rio de Janeiro. It whetted the appetite for the future but rational onlookers knew that patience would be important if such a talent was to rise to the surface.
It is a fact of life that young defenders will make mistakes and it was no different with Rafael. However, his youthful exuberance and sheer tenacity quickly made him a firm favourite among the United faithful who recognised a deep determination within him to learn and develop under the tutelage of a certain right back called Gary Neville. Here was a player who had made the best of limited ability to forge a career at the highest level spanning a couple of decades. Who better to learn the dark arts of being a defender in the Premier League from than the man who symbolised everything that it means to play for Manchester United? Something he shared with Red Nev was having to cope with being allegedly the lesser talented sibling. This was certainly true when the twins were growing up but recent seasons have seen Rafael edge ahead of his more injury prone brother.
Following the retirement of Neville, United are yet to have a settled, first choice right back with the likes of Brown, O’Shea, Jones, Smalling, Valencia and even brother Fabio amongst others have all auditioned for the role with none of them truly convincing the boss that they should have a long term future in that position. Looking through those names, none is a specialist right back with their versatility appealing to Ferguson who can shoe horn them into the side to give them experience or simply game time. With Rafael it is different. He is a right back and it is his specialist position.
Whilst 22 is still relatively young for a defender, you would hope to see some level of maturity developing by this time before the peak years arrive by the mid to late twenties. It has been a sharp learning curve for Rafael in the last four years. By nature he can be impetuous and hot headed which has often seen him fall foul of the officials and at its worst had a detrimental effect on the team. This was perhaps best demonstrated by his two yellow cards against Bayern Munich in April 2010 which ultimately saw United exit the Champions League at the Quarter Final stage. Already on a booking, the young Brazilian was harrying the wily Frenchman Ribery in the centre of the park before a lunge saw a theatrical tumble followed by acting that Gerard Depardieu would have proud of which led to the brandishing of a second yellow for the unfortunate da Silva. Despite the red card, Ferguson clearly saw this as another step in the development of the Brazilian as he praised his performance in shackling the dangerous Ribery for the most part during the home leg.
Another sending off that could have cost United was in January 2011 when Rafael was unluckily given his marching orders by the over officious Mike Dean at White Hart Lane that saw the youngster vent his anger towards the referee with some choice expletives that earned him a small fine and a trip to the FA to explain his conduct. Thankfully, such incidents have become rare ever since although the odd show of impetuosity can still rear its head from time to time such is his determination to win the ball and sheer will to win.
The return to fitness of Nemanja Vidic could be a massive help to Rafael’s chances of nailing down his specialist spot in the side. We all know that a consistent selection of the back four can only be a good thing and it was sadly lacking last year following the knee injury to our captain and to the various other defensive members of the squad.
A back five of De Gea, Rafael, Vidic, Ferdinand and Evra looks solid on paper and the leadership and experience that will return with Vidic’s recovery will be key in helping the understanding grow between these five as a unit. Ferguson loves to rotate as we all know but if those mentioned can stay fit then you would expect them to line up in many of the important games leaving the lesser league and cup games for the likes of Jones, Smalling and Evans etc.
If most observers would agree that Rafael’s impetuousness has abated over the last year or so, there are still some questions hanging over him in terms of his in-game concentration levels. The stand out moment from last season that emphasises this point emphatically is in the home Europa league tie against Athletic Bilbao when the day-dreaming Brazilian inexplicably allowed the silky young Spaniard Iker Muniain to drift in at the far post to seal United’s fate. To be fair to Rafael, such lapses have been rare but it is a lesson for him that he must keep alert for the full ninety minutes as defensive mistakes are often punished at the top level.
Rafael and Fabio or Fabio and Rafael?
It is also a big season for him as for the first time in his life, he will be living away from his twin Fabio who has joined QPR on a season long loan. While some would argue it should do him the world of good to have to cope on his own, twins have a unique bond that, when separated can lead to anxiety and other issues. I would view this temporary farewell as a chance for Rafael to grow as a man, something which marriage and the responsibility of fatherhood would already have done to him. His sense of stability should be further enhanced by the signing of a new four year deal at the club earlier this summer.
On the pitch, improvement also needs to come in the form of his attacking forays into opposition territory. He has proved a capable assistant to Valencia down the right flank on the overlap but he needs to add a Neville-like crossing ability to his repertoire as well as an ice cool composure when he finds himself in the box. Too often a well-timed, incisive run has been let down by a rushed or over ambitious cross when well-placed much to the irritation of his team mates.
From the evidence of his role for Brazil at the London Olympics, it appears this area of his game has improved. His crosses have certainly looked more measured and his composure was on display as he rifled home a left footed shot in one of the early group games to set the side on its way. However, the Olympic final showed that his concentration could still be an issue when he was caught out in the early stages as Mexico took the lead.
There is something about Rafael as a person that means you cannot help but love the guy. Whether it’s his determination on the field of play, his general all round joie de vivre or the fact that he appears to understand what it is to be a United player, it gives the impression that a lot of people are willing him to succeed.
Under the guidance of Sir Alex Ferguson he has an ally that will tolerate the odd rash rush of blood as long as with a mistake comes a deeper understanding of the role required. I, for one can only see a bright future for the talented Brazilian as long as he keeps his feet on the ground and realises there is no better finishing school in world football than what he has in front of him at Old Trafford.
Rafael and Fabio da Silva Turn 22, a Career Timeline
July 23rd 2005- Fabio’s Fluminise Side Storm The Nike Cup in Hong Kong
After seeing the Brazilian twins guide their side to victory over Paris Saint Germain in the Final, Manchester United scout, Les Kershaw, rings Sir Alex with a glowing report:
“They remind me of two little whippets, these two stood out straight away. What impressed me most was the way that, when they got knocked down, they just got straight back up again and got on with it. They were like bouncing balls . . . very, very quick. You didn’t have to be a special scout to notice them. I rang the manager and said, ‘There are twins here who are just unbelievable.”
August 1st 2005- Time To Shine
Manchester United invite the twins to train in Manchester, at the same time as Arsenal offer them a trial but their mother convinces them to stay at the club and show loyalty to Fluminese.
Where Does Chris Smalling Stand Next Season?
Despite having his season severely interrupted by a succession of injuries last season, Chris Smalling still managed to make 31 appearances for Manchester United and establish himself as a firm favourite of Sir Alex Ferguson, Fabio Capello and Roy Hodgson- who admitted he’d have been in the squad were it not for the unexpectedly severe injury he picked up against Swansea.
A tall, athletic defender, Chris Smalling is a 22 year old centre back with a bright future ahead of him. Originally catching the eye with his superb (but unlucky) debut against Chelsea for Fulham, Smalling secured a £10 million move to United, ahead of Arsenal, and has often been described by the lazy journalist as the next ‘Rio Ferdinand’ due to aesthetic similarities.
Keep Calm and Carry On
The manner in which Manchester City pried back a title already won by their rivals, clawing themselves to a win against Q.P.R. with two of the most last gasp goals since that night in Barcelona (come to think of it, poor Bayern), inevitably creates a sense of worry and fear over what the next few seasons hold in store for the red half of Manchester.
With what appears to be an endless supply of oil money, Manchester City look poised to further strengthen their grip on the Premier League and, simultaneously, take Europe by storm. If City’s transfer target rumors are any indication- and I can’t find one reason they shouldn’t be- things are beginning to look pretty bleak for the Red Devils.
Robin Van Persie, Gareth Bale, and, perhaps most spectacularly, Zlatan Ibrahimovich, have all been linked with the Etihad outfit. Aggravating all of this is the ever-growing sense amongst United supporters, and indeed one W. Rooney, that the club no longer has the clout- be it financial or otherwise- to lure the sport’s major stars to Old Trafford.
We’ve heard this all before. We heard this at the start of the transfer window two years ago, right after Cristiano Ronaldo went onto the continent play for Galacticos MkII and Carlos Tevez betrayed all of our collective love and swapped red for blue. We heard it when United failed to sign Wesley Snejder, Luka Modric, Gareth Bale; and we especially heard it when “all” Ferguson was able to scrounge up recently were an over-the-hill Michael Owen, a winger from Wigan, and recently, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, and Ashley Young. Let’s not forget, somewhere in the middle of all that there was Bebe.
These signings, taken in part with the money spent by the noisy neighbors, signaled a Brave New World, one where City won everything, and United did not. Yet that new world did not happen. It took City four-odd years to finally, by the hairs on Owen Hargreaves’ chinny-chin-chin, finally, win something to justify their 250 million-plus-pound squad. Here is why next season (and the seasons after), hold much promise for United.
The Return of Nemanja
When Marco Streller rolled onto Nemanja Vidic’s right knee in a Champions League match in early December 2011, a string of events was set in motion that would eventually lead to lost games, lost points, and a lost title. The resulting reshuffle saw Michael Carrick at CB and Antonio Valencia deployed at RB in consecutive losses, to Blackburn and Newcastle, respectively.
Surely other injuries caused problems, but few, if any, had as much impact on the fortunes of the team as number 15’s. Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling, and Phil Jones covered for the big Serb respectably throughout the season, but, as the stands suggest “He comes from Serbia… He’ll ****** murder yer…” There is no discounting the experience and solidity he brings at the back.
Ready to Return from Day One?
Spoilt For Choice But United Still Need to Sign a Specialist
Manchester United’s current right-back dilemma is a typical case of how you can have too much of a good thing. Blessed with at least five players who are all more than capable of lining up along side Ferdinand, Evans and Evra, Sir Alex currently lacks a stand out right back in the squad.
Since Gary Neville made the position his own, playing 400 games in that position, United have struggled to find a player capable of delivering the same levels of consistency both defensively and offensively, although Wes Brown certainly put in some of his finest performances for the club there.
This season, Sir Alex has chopped and changed his right-backs more often than the Coalition has changed its views on banks, pasty taxes and fighter jet orders. Inevitably, some of these changes have been forced on him through injury but despite this we are coming to the end of the season without any clear candidate for the right-back role next season.