Billed as a ‘mismatch’ between England’s best rated and worst rated clubs, Manchester United’s home game against Queen Park Rangers proved out to be a fantastic affair for the neutral fans as well as the Old Trafford faithful.
Coming into the game with a point adrift of Roberto Mancini’s troops, ten second-half minutes, that produced three goals, helped the Red Devils muster their sixth come-from-behind win in the league this season.
However, the game provided various talking points, particularly regarding United’s ongoing defensive woes that have heavily contributed to the club’s inconsistent and mediocre form this term.
Hence, what follows is a tactical analysis of United’s defensive frailties against the Rangers.
Over the past few years, European football has witnessed as a massive influx of attacking full-backs with the likes of Dani Alves (Barcelona), Philipp Lahm (Bayern Munich) and Maicon (Manchester City) exhibiting phenomenal attacking prowess to supplement their colleagues in the final third.
Sir Alex Ferguson, too, has been a major advocate of attacking full-backs as his traditional 4-4-2 formation derives its optimum creativity and impetus from the flanks and currently, Patrice Evra and Rafael Da Silva are the Red Devil’s prime defensive wingmen.
However, what one often forgets is the fact that full-backs are first defenders, then spin-off to the attacks.
The above image depicts one of QPR’s many counter-attacking attempts to burn down United’s defence. Patrice Evra is largely at fault on the left wing as the Frenchman failed to track back and fulfil his defensive duties, leaving gaping holes on the flank free to exposed by the either of Kerion Dyer or Stephane M’Bia.
Rafael, on the other hand, although did make an encouraging run to cover up for the lost ground is too caught high up the pitch. The Brazilian’s inability to time his attacking run and subsequently losing ground on his marker forced Rio Ferdinand to intercept Taarabt. This in turn, however, resulted in United losing a vital piece from the heart of their defence, giving Mackie the space to run between the two disjointed centre backs, although the 27-year-old was unable to capitalize on the home side’s defensive catastrophe.
Rafael has shown a slight improvement in his defending this season and due to his young age, the Brazil international is only going to showcase exponential growth rate over the next few seasons. Thus, it will be premature for United to look out for a new right-back in the winter transfer window and the club could instead deploy Antonio Valencia in that role. The Ecuador international has often filled in for Rafael in the right-back position and his performances there consist of contributions towards both ends of the pitch, a trait that could well come in handy until Rafael truly matures with his overall gameplay. Apart from Valencia, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones too are capable back-ups for the right-back role.
However, it will be interesting to see how United meet their left-back issue. Patrice Evra is experiencing a spiral downward in his career right now with his performances clearly indicating that the club’s vice-captain has passed his prime years. Although Alexander Buttner impressed during his debut against Wigan, the Dutchman is arguably a bigger liability than Evra at the back. As per WhoScored, Buttner’s tackling, interception and passing rates have been below Evra’s and the former Vitesse star also gives away almost thrice as many fouls as his senior. This leaves Ferguson without any adequate defender on the left flank and the 70-year-old might just regret not going for the true Grade-A material in the form of Leighton Baines during the summer.
For a strong back-four, it is essential that the two full-backs don’t neglect their defensive roles. Barcelona witnessed a similar problem at the start of the campaign with Jordi Alba and Dani Alves.
However, as the season has panned out, Tito Vilanova’s conservative tactical approach has started to pay dividends as Alves and Alba can now often be seen alternately timing their runs, ensuring that one stays back while the other goes upfront to add width to the attack.
Perhaps, United could adopt a similar approach?
Many a times, Alex Ferguson has been found guilty of underestimating the ‘mid-table’ and relegation threatened clubs and deploying unequipped players in the centre of the park when United come up against these ‘lowly’ opponents. Last weekend, the Scot made a horrendous error by starting Ryan Giggs against Norwich City as the Welshman panned out be an anonymous personality on the pitch who remotely contributed on the defensive front.
This time around, Fergie committed a similar mistake as he opted for a midfield duo consisting of the ageing Paul Scholes and comeback-man Darren Fletcher. Although both the players are without doubt one of the best exponents of their respective arts, at-least in England, the two clearly don’t have the legs to make the pivotal defensive contributions that are needed by the two central midfielders in the 4-4-2 formation.
Above we can see that although Fletcher has tracked back, the 28-year-old has failed to keep the hold of his marker, who should be Adel Taarabt. Rather, Fletcher can be seen too close to Wayne Rooney, giving ample space and time to Taarabt to make a run down the left flank, as one can also notice the fact that Rafael has been again caught out-of-position.
Scholes on the other hand, is not visible in the above image as the former England international like Rafael, failed to carry out the work he is supposed to in his team’s own half and was perhaps in no-man’s land when Rangers’ countered United in the 59th minute. He might be able to pick out passes that other midfielders can’t even see, but the ‘Ginger Prince’ lacks the pace and anticipation to play against pacey attackers and midfielders, with the game against QPR a true testament to this claim.
From the aforementioned, it is quite evident that Manchester United’s play is desperately crying out for a robust defensive midfielder like Kevin Strootman or Victor Wanyama. Fellow Premier League opponents have often exposed the club’s vulnerability in midfield and the Red Devils could do better with a defensive-minded midfielder in the team.
A player who characterizes a strong tactical sense and positioning bias and also possesses the ability to shut down the holes between the centre-backs and the midfielders and break down oppositions’ play should top Fergie’s winter transfer wish-list.