By Thomas Doyle.
1. Phil Jones is not a superstar just yet
While Jones has rightly been gaining plaudits for a series of impressive displays this season, it is undoubtedly clear that he is still an extremely raw centre-back. He is only 19, and could not have envisaged playing this much football this early on in his Manchester United career, but there is a legitimate case to be made for him being at fault for all three of Newcastle’s goals on Wednesday night. Doubts over his positioning and decision-making at the back have largely been ignored due to his marauding runs and the license that being a makeshift midfielder have given him (a la David Luiz), yet in central defence he is making errors that are simply not expected of Man United players, regardless of age. Jones Is the natural choice given the injuries to Nemanja Vidic, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans, but Sir Alex Ferguson will no doubt be keen to get Jones on the training pitch and up to speed in the near future. Either that, or a return to United’s paper-thin midfield would be the smart short-term move.
2. Without Fletcher, the midfield lacks bite
It seems an obvious point, but United are badly missing Darren Fletcher’s industry in the centre of the pitch. United have never been a team to look for the long ball, but Ferguson’s sides have always combined their prodigious skill with a steely brawn in order to combat other side’s varying styles, in the likes of Roy Keane, Bryan Robson, and more recently Fletcher. After the match Alan Pardew acknowledged that Newcastle’s game plan was to press United: “We won because we controlled the game in terms of what we wanted to do, we wouldn’t let them play.” More worryingly, Pardew said: “Physically and aerially we had an advantage.” If that clear advantage is leading to 3-0 drubbings, then Ferguson should start to worry; there is still variation to United’s play, but there is the danger of slipping into Arsenal’s mentality of the last five years, being unable to adapt as circumstances change around you. United need an enforcer to bully opposition sides and dominate games, which would allow the likes of Nani, Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov to do what comes naturally.
3. Squad rotation combined with injuries are killing consistency
Up until Wednesday night, Anders Lindegaard had five clean sheets in the Premier League. The first two goals were almost unstoppable, and the third could be attributed to either Jones or the keeper (depending upon communication between the two), but it’s clear that defensive injuries, coupled with insecurities over the goalkeeping position, have started to hit United hard. Nobody could have predicted that United would concede six goals in back-to-back games against Blackburn and Newcastle, but this season has been anything but predictable. The trouble is that with Vidic out for the season, Ferguson may be left with the unenviable task of chopping and changing between the ageing Ferdinand, and the talented but inexperienced trio of Jones, Smalling and Evans. Likewise with the keepers, Ferguson may find himself switching between the dependable Dane Lindegaard, and the promising yet erratic Spaniard David de Gea. Before the Blackburn game, de Gea had only played with the same back four in front of him twice this season, and Ferguson will be keen for his keeper(s) and defenders to start forming strong relationships to prevent farcical events such as Jones’ own goal last night.
4. Clichés can be damaging
Every pundit keen to show their knowledge about the title race will have said that United “kick on” after Christmas, and it is true that with their shared experience and talent, the team usually does find a way while those around them crumble. However, to simply rely on what has gone before would be foolish; United have lost two in a row in what has traditionally been a strong time for them, and Jones has already called for United to show their famous fighting spirit. It is clear that Ferguson’s men can afford no more costly slip-ups if they are serious about the league. It is one thing to have the upper hand in mentality, but it counts for nothing if it is not followed through on the pitch. The difference is only three points, but United have tricky away fixtures to come; Manchester City must be considered favourites now, and Ferguson’s resolve will be tested to the limit in clawing them back. The title is there to be won, but much depends on form, injuries, and a better mentality from now on.
5. The manager may be forced into spending
While Ferguson has insisted that he is happy with his squad and is usually loathe spending in the winter window, there must be a temptation for the Scot to dip into market following some decidedly shaky defending against Blackburn and Newcastle. The loss at the Direct Sports Arena (St. James’ Park to us) also highlighted the lack of strength in the spine of the team, notably in midfield. It wouldn’t be surprising if we saw a midfield enforcer and some defensive cover arrive during the window, although there are also rumours of Inter attempting to get rid of Wesley Sneijder – could he be the wildcard to save United’s season? Gary Cahill is also an interesting option – talks with Chelsea have reportedly stalled, and the Bolton man would be a solid, cheap option with international experience while United’s youngsters shake out their nerves. Either way, the window will be interesting for what Ferguson does – or doesn’t – decide to do, particularly in relation to City’s pursuit of Roma’s Daniele De Rossi.
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