Manchester United’s failings down to a lack of attacking variation

May 11, 2010

It depends how you want to interpret the number ‘1′. There is no shame in losing a league title by a single point, but the flip side is that when you’re a club as used to success as Manchester United, a mere one season without silverware is considered a failure.

The statistics about goals easily sum up United’s problems. They had the best defensive record, despite the fact that first-choice central defensive partnership Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic started just nine of the 38 games together.

Where they trailed Chelsea, however, was in front of goal. The raw ‘goals scored’ statistic demonstrates how far they were behind Chelsea in this respect, but perhaps becomes slightly irrelevant in terms of the league title when Chelsea were winning games 7-0 and 8-0.

United actually scored more goals this season than in their title-winning display last term, but the problem was the distribution of goals.  Last season, United were the master of the 1-0 win – they won ten matches by that scoreline. This season, there were just four 1-0s. Their goal tally was inflated this season because they thrashed teams more often – four 4-0s, and three 5-0s.

The more salient statistic is that on six occasions United didn’t find the net, a fact that seems more alarming when compared to Chelsea’s record of scoring in 37 of 38 games (Birmingham were the only side to keep them out) or last year’s record, when it was three times (one of them after United had clinched the title).

This turned out to be crucial – a single goal in the scoreless game against Blackburn would have won them the title. And six shut-outs is all the more surprising when you consider that United had more than 50% of possession in every game all season with the exception of one (away at Arsenal, when they convincingly won by playing on the counter-attack anyway). They had the ball, so why couldn’t they find the net?

Losing two top-class players in Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez last summer was clearly always going to be difficult to recover from, whilst Dimitar Berbatov’s lack of form, Michael Owen’s injury problems and Wayne Rooney’s own fitness worries played a part – had Rooney played against Blackburn, things could have been different.

But there is an argument that, in terms of quality, United were not that much weaker than last season. Rooney’s transformation into a world-class central striker, Antonio Valencia’s instant impact on the right wing and Nani’s vast improvement partially made up for the loss of Ronaldo, whilst Michael Owen scored only two fewer goals this season than Tevez did last season, despite being injured for the final three months.

United’s problem this season was not a lack of quality, but a lack of variation in attack. Ronaldo and Tevez were so useful for United in recent years not merely because of their ability, but because of their versatility. Both players could play on the left, on the right, as a central striker or just off the front. Given Rooney’s similar nature, and Nani and Park’s ability to play on either flank comfortably, United were so difficult to face, because the opposing manager was never sure quite what he would be facing – even when he became aware of United’s starting XI.

Owen and Valencia, however, are both limited to one position. Owen is a forward, plain and simple (although he has developed his game into a more all-round player in recent years) whilst Ferguson has acknowledged that Valencia is only comfortable on the right-hand sidebefore the match away in Bayern, he admitted dropping Valencia in favour of Park and Nani on the wings, because those two had the ability to switch midway through the game if necessary. If it was a factor in Munich, it’s fair to say that it will have been a factor at other points in the season, and handicapped Ferguson’s ability to tactically outwit opposing managers.

And of course, the lack of versatility of Valencia and Owen has a knock-on effect on other players in the side. Nani’s ability to play on either flank is of little use if Valencia’s right-sidedness dictates he must play on the left (Nani admits he prefers the right).

United’s lack of striking options when Rooney was injured late in the season suddenly became very apparent, especially with Berbatov’s lack of confidence. In that crucial game at Blackburn, the Bulgarian played alongside Federico Macheda (making his first start of the season) as United failed to score. United seemed rigid and inflexible. Last season, with Rooney, Tevez and Ronaldo able to interchange, the Blackburn defence would have been left guessing until the final minute. This season, United were simply too predictable when it came to breaking down the opposition on six occasions, and ultimately it cost them the title.

Ferguson’s shopping list this summer will surely feature an attacking player, but versatility might be as important as raw quality. Ferguson has become a fine tactician in recent years, and he needs the right tools to work with – this season he was constrained by too many players being one-dimensional.

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