More dropped points in the once fortress of Old Trafford, the reds’ home increasingly becoming more a theatre of nightmares than dreams for David Moyes. Stunned silence greeted Darren Bent’s injury time equaliser, which has surely now consigned Manchester United to a season away from Europe’s elite. Here are five things we learned from a largely inexcusable draw with a side rooted to the foot of the table. Perhaps most concerning of all is that many of these things are nothing new.
1. No defence for a lack of concentration
Whilst Fulham posed a threat on the break (Kieran Richardson should certainly have made it 2-0 before half-time), both goals from the West London outfit were avoidable from a United perspective. It is a worrying trend that United have seemingly been so vulnerable to the counter-attack this season. But no amount of work on the training ground can compensate for individual errors.
Steve Sidwell marched past Rooney, Mata and Fletcher with the freedom of Old Trafford to slot home for the cottagers’ opener. With Vidic drawn out of position by the movement of Fulham’s makeshift teenage striker in front of him, Evra, too far apart from his centre half to begin with, failed to tuck inside to avert the imminent danger. Deployed at no.10, Sidwell was not Rooney’s to track, but communication should have seen Fletcher or Mata assume responsibility. As it materialised, Sidwell waltzed through un-opposed.
Whether a momentary lapse of concentration or a regrettable absence of responsibility the ease with which Fulham went in front was inexcusable, but those on the pitch, not those in the dugout, were to blame.
Having battled their way in front, United looked to be seeing the game out with relative ease only to feel the full force of a devastating sucker-punch. Once more, individuals on the pitch were at fault. The otherwise excellent Vidic exhibited a momentary lapse that defied his experience in attempting to head the ball to Carrick as opposed to clearing the danger with seconds remaining. Carrick, albeit second favourite, was beaten to the ball allowing Sidwell to surge forwards. The midfielder slid in Kieran Richardson down United’s left channel, which was left hopelessly exposed with makeshift right-back Antonio Valencia caught further up the field. Richardson’s shot was parried agonisingly across goal to the unmarked Bent to head home.
Having admirably gone for broke with substitutions, it is hard to criticise the lack of a natural right-back. However, with so little time remaining the disjointed nature of the back four and the lack of intelligence and leadership to remain compact having taken the lead made for painful viewing. Individual indiscipline and momentary lapses were ruthlessly punished, and not for the first time this season have cost United dearly. For all the groans at a lack of attacking invention, it has been United’s defensive misgivings that have been equally culpable for the club’s struggles this season.
2. A Mata for concern
The tangible lift delivered by the signing of the diminutive Spaniard is fast becoming a distant memory. And whilst the playmaker has demonstrated undoubted glimpses of his quality in his early minutes in the red shirt, Mata’s transition into the side was never going to wield instant impact, an issue pertinently illustrated against a resolute Fulham side.
The midfielder is unquestionably best suited to the role invariably occupied by Wayne Rooney at United. Parallels with the misfiring talent of Shinji Kagawa are inevitable, and the apparent inability to tactically incorporate the undoubted ability at the manager’s disposal without sacrificing the talents of at least one is concerning.
Calls bemoaning the manager’s tactics were plentiful as the team sheet delivered once more a seemingly prehistoric 4-4-2. “Mata wasted out wide again”, came the cries, but they are doing David Moyes a disservice. Although granted there is credence to the notion that Fulham’s negativity facilitated it, Mata was certainly afforded licence to drift and roam, not just centrally but all over the pitch. The Spaniard added another assist to his fledgling United statistics for Van Persie’s equaliser and the midfielder is impacting games.
But for those who wish to see Mata deployed more centrally the question remains as to where Rooney (United’s best performer so far this season) fits in that eventuality. Few would argue that Rooney, Van Persie, Mata and Januzaj are not United’s most potent attacking four. But accommodating them all requires a change of system, and these things take time. Mata’s integration, his relationships on the field will build and his effect on the team will increase, but patience is required.
The fluid 4-2-2-2 employed on the blue side of Manchester may prove a useful blueprint, with Mata and Januzaj just as well equipped to match the subtlety and guile of Silva and Nasri as Rooney and Van Persie are to mirror the explosive penetration of Aguero and Negredo.
Nevertheless, United are devoid of the dynamic central midfield that can facilitate such fluidity in front of it and an underperforming side is far from an ideal environment to make significant tactical changes. It may be a while before United’s midfielders are sliding deft passes between the lines as opposed to spreading the ball wide. Imploring a change of system is one thing, implementation is quite another. Mata will prove a great acquisition, but the long-term promise is mitigated by the present, but obvious, concerns as to the playmaker’s suitability to United’s traditional system. For those reasons things may get worse before they get better. However, criticism levelled at Moyes for his mismanagement of Mata’s talents may be premature.
3. At the cross-roads
It has become a prevalent theme and criticism that United insist, either through design or lack of alternatives on crossing the ball this season. The red devils attempted a record 81 crosses against the cottagers, of which 18 (which equates to 21%) found their target. United are a side famed for playing with width so a reliance on balls into the box from wide areas is not surprising; but variety is imperative in football.
To provide some perspective, it is important to note that the way Fulham set up paid homage to this. For those bemoaning the amount of crosses it is important to accept that in sitting deep with two narrow defensive and midfield lines, Fulham conceded space in the wide areas. It is all well and good crying out for intricate balls through the middle but Fulham deliberately denied room in central areas. Moreover, for all the criticism of a lack of quality in the final delivery, United completed a higher percentage of their crosses than Arsenal, Everton, Tottenham and Chelsea did this weekend.
The greatest concern is that Fulham’s tactics were nothing new or revolutionary. Sit back, stay compact and hit United on the break; sound familiar? With the Old Trafford outfit’s tactics seemingly painfully predictable, and a playing staff becoming increasingly suited to a narrower system, David Moyes has reached the cross-roads, and it may be time to twist. As mentioned earlier, a change of this nature will take time. But unless United add another dimension to their game, the blueprint for success for opposing sides will remain obvious for all to see.
4. Signs of fight
The draw against Fulham is unfortunately the latest in a regrettably long line of poor results this season. Rumours of discontent and disillusioned players unconvinced by their new manager have emanated from the negativity. But for all the obvious lack of quality in the final third and lapses of defensive concentration, the endeavour was evident from most.
Performing what essentially turned into a training ground attack versus defence drill, the game was likely as frustrating as it was strange for the men in red. But tactical misgivings and individual inadequacies aside, for the most part United showed fight and desire. The team never stopped pressing forwards and but for the painful ending, match reports may well have centred around United’s famous character as opposed to their recent frailties.
Van Persie, a primary target of the suggestion that some players do not have their heart in the club at present, orchestrated the crowd following his equaliser, imploring support. Wayne Rooney sunk to his knees in delight in front of the Stretford End as Carrick’s deflected shot found its way into the corner of the net. By no means was this a display of passion and fight in the typical mould, but there were some positive signs that the players are beginning to assume responsibility all the same.
5. The champions’ league form may leave Europe a dream too far
It is regrettable and, for most, largely painful that the reigning champions of English football have fallen so far from grace this season. For those with realistic aspirations, the retention of the Premier League title was never a possibility this season, but the extent of United’s struggles will have surprised even the most pessimistic visionaries.
There will be those who still believe, and it is in the very fabric of the club to never give up, but on current form it is hard to make a case now for United joining Europe’s top table once more come September. Liverpool’s demolition of Arsenal only further illustrated their resurgence this season, and with United now nine points off fourth spot the mountain appears insurmountable on current performances.
For many, if Champions League qualification is not attainable, the absence of European football altogether is preferable to the Europa League. It would allow the much promised “new United” built over the summer to concentrate solely on domestic re-invigoration. Nevertheless, a lack of Europe’s elite competition endangers the re-building process itself and would be difficult to stomach.
Much has been written that United could survive a year outside of the Champions League, but seasons should never be written off. Now, with seemingly not much else to lose, it is hoped that the shackles may be removed and a more confident United will step forward. Now may be the time to throw caution to the wind and to experiment with the more expansive systems so coveted by the United faithful.
If the present is lamentable, then look to the future. A season of disappointment is much easier to digest if ended with tangible signs of progression and optimistic futures. Europe’s top table may prove too far, but United will always go down fighting.
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