Manchester United registered their most comprehensive win of the season so far with a 4-0 romping of Norwich City at home on Tuesday night.
Yet, the victory against the Canaries and the one against Stoke City before that gave origin to some more questions regarding United’s midfield.
This article looks at those.
United won 3-2 against Stoke City over the weekend. In the game, Stephen Ireland was predominantly told to mark Michael Carrick.
United’s play flows through Carrick. With the Englishman out of the picture, United failed to build up attacks from the deep. The defenders looked confused and lacked ideas. Shinji Kagawa was often forced to drop deep to get on the ball but the Japanese is not a player who can build up plays.
United’s transition from the defending third into the attacking third was very slow, unless Carrick was able to unshackle the marking from Ireland to play a quick pass to one of the strikers.
In the 12th minute of the game (11 minutes, 30 seconds to be precise), Jonny Evans got possession of the ball. With Carrick marked, Evans loitered with the ball for a couple of seconds before passing it to Kagawa, who had fallen back. Kagawa struggled to find a way through Marke Hughes’ troops and United’s play became stagnant for a while before Phil Jones eventually shifted the ball out wide to the right wing.
At 12 minutes, two seconds, Carrick found some space, received the ball from Chris Smalling and released Nani within the next five seconds. United almost managed to enter the attacking third at 12 minutes, 11 seconds had Nani been accurate with his pass to Robin van Persie. It took Evans, Jones, Smalling and Kagawa almost half a minute to find a player who could take the team forward, while Carrick took just five seconds.
Carrick is the only player at United who can play the ball in between the lines to likes of Wayne Rooney and van Persie. And when the 32-year-old gets marked out of the game, other United players resort to playing the ball out wide to the full-backs and wingers- who are the safest passing outlets.
Against Stoke, Carrick could only enter the fray when United had entered the Potters’ territory as then Ireland stopped marking Carrick to join the midfield bank of four.
So Carrick generally received the ball slightly ahead of the half-way line- his usual position when Untied are controlling play in the opposition’s half. But this meant, Carrick wasn’t involved in the build-up. And the latter is the crucial part and the transition period. It needs to be quick and pacey. In Carrick’s “absence” that wasn’t the case.
United’s comeback against Stoke started as soon as Rooney dropped into the midfield. The 28-year-old is the second best passer of the ball (in terms of creativity) at Old Trafford. So, if Ireland marked Carrick, Rooney could spread the play.
He couldn’t play vertical passes but his diagonal balls were more direct, better timed and more purposeful than that of Cleverley’s. Eventually, Ireland got exhausted battling both Rooney and Carrick and gave up entirely on marking anyone. Thus, Carrick was unshackled from the close monitoring and it wasn’t long before he played the ball to Evra which led to Chicharito’s goal.
So the game suggested two things:
1) Carrick needs a partner who’s not only capable of attacking but also an able passer of the ball. Or United can never attack through the centre. Rooney is a temporary answer, for he can’t play vertical passes.
2) Carrick can be easily marked out of a game. He needs to more bias with his positioning, albeit he eventually did a fantastic job against Stoke.
Chris Hughton probably went through the tape of Untied’s win over Stoke a dozen of times before his side’s meeting with the champions.
With Carrick an absentee, Hughton’s task was made easier, only he was led down by a dismal Steven Whittaker.
To congest United’s midfielders, Hughton ordered Robert Snodgrass to drift centrally. Snodgrass, along with the other midfielders and Johan Elmander stayed close to Tom Cleverley and Phil Jones- preventing them time and space on the ball.
And United again struggled to get the ball out of the defense. Without Carrick, the situation was horrendous at times.
Rio Ferdinand was lackluster with his passing and Adnan Januzaj and Ashley Young were forced to drop back and take the ball forward. But what actually was required was a player who could feed Januzaj in between the lines.
None was available so United chose the safer way- to get the ball to the wingers and thanks to Whittaker, this tactic worked.
Alexander Buttner had acres of space owing to Snodgrass drifting in. So, Buttner and Young continually exploited Whittaker’s lack of pace and abysmal positioning sense. Januzaj regularly ran the channel opened between Whittaker and Ryan Bennet.
Three of United’s four goals were owing to Norwich’s woes on United’s left flank.
For the penalty Januzaj got in the space between Whittaker and Bennet before Leroy Fer’s foul.
United’s second started with Young plucking in Snodgrass along with him from the left. Buttner made the overlapping run and was released by Young. Whittaker’s failed to block the Netherlands international’s cross and seconds later Javier Hernandez doubled the Red Devils’ lead.
United’s fourth came after Fabio Da Silva made a run behind Whittaker to latch onto Rooney’s pass.
United exploited their opponents’ weakness thoroughly but they still struggled to attack down the middle of the park and a Whittaker-esque full-back won’t face them every week.
To sum it up, United’s problems against Norwich were:
1) Like Carrick, inability of the other midfielder to be more mobile and creative with their positioning. The players need to be more fluent and make more attempts to find open space.
2) Inability of the midfielders (excluding Carrick) to play forward vertical passes in the attacking third.
1) Buying a terrific ball-playing centre-back like Mats Hummels.
2) Buying an excellent passer of the ball, who is also nimble and mobile.
What do you think about Manchester United’s midfield? Comment in the section below.