As Manchester United's season unravelled last year with an early exit from the Champions League and poor league performances, criticism of their gameplay surfaced. Most of those have been silenced with an improved showing in both competitions, but are those problems really gone?
Their dominant league position suggests that Manchester Unites have been totally dominant. But in reality, their games have been filled with the same shortcomings that saw them garner harsh criticism in the past couple years.
Manchester United is capable of keeping the ball, but often incapable of turning it into proper, effective attacking play. Their defence has improved considerably with the return of an ever-impressive Nemanja Vidic, but still shows signs of great vulnerability.
At the heart of this team is a group of players that Sir Alex Ferguson should expect better from. Some of them have improved and matured in their games, but shown weaknesses in other aspects. Some of them require more adjusting to their position. But the commonality in all of them is that none of them are complete players at this time, and that is unacceptable to supporters who expect quick, free-flowing football.
Rafael Da Silva
He's been perhaps the best right back in England this past season, but his game is still incomplete. As a man-marker, he's one of the best defenders in the league.
However, one way for opposition managers to force Sir Alex to make an immediate substitution is to simply play tall strikers. The Brazilian has a good jump on him, but he isn't consistent enough like Gary Neville to be effective against someone like Rickie Lambert for 90 minutes. This means that if he is to be the starting right back at Manchester United for years to come, there will always have to be a taller option on the substitute bench.
Little flicks and good vision make him a promising option for Manchester United next year. Just when he is gathering praise after months of difficult adjustment, there are still frustrating parts of his game. Too often, he seems to forgo the simple trap, instead preferring to kick the ball out three yards to gain a step in an unexpected direction. While this move is useful in getting away from defenders, there are lot of situations where if he had trapped it simply, Manchester United's counterattacks would have not had to slow down. And in congested midfielders, there have been instances where him doing so have led him to lose the ball quite easily.
As someone signed to increase United's creativity going forward, slowing down their trademark counterattack simply won't do. He has to have better decision making when it comes to choosing when to trap simply or utilize the kick-out.
Smalling is consistently a great aerial presence and displays good strength despite a skinny frame. However, his passing leaves very much to be desired. While passing may not be the most important attribute to focus on from a centre half's point of view, there is no reason that a defender can't both defend well and pass efficiently. Smalling's long balls often never meet their targets and frequently show a palpable hesitancy in deciding which direction to pass.
His game shows full belief and practice of the pass-and-move philosophy. That wonderful characteristic of his game has made him a Roy Hodgson favourite. The problem is that when Manchester United or England need that spark in midfield to create something, he is not capable of being that impetus consistently. Often in the congested midfields of modern football, the bit of magic needed between two highly organized midfields is the ability of one man to move past his marker and create an imbalance between the offensive and defensive numbers. In that sense, Cleverley falls short to other centre midfielders like Jack Wilshire or Moussa Dembele. This contributes to a frequently seen dynamic in United's midfield that looks capable of keeping the ball, but frustratingly incapable of moving it forward.
Poorly out of form, and with no signs yet of improving, last year's quick and powerful number seven looks a shadow of himself. Dips in form happen to every player. Yet, a slow down in Valencia's efficiency was inevitable.
In past years where Valencia has flourished, it was inexplicable why more teams simply didn't lead him onto his weak foot. Instead, they let him play his right and essentially play his favoured game. It seemed an obvious tactical decision that no one was implementing. With more of that coming to into fold, it has to be wondered if his decline is indeed a dip in form or simply the late realization of Premier League managers.
When Valencia is able to get a cross with his right, he seems to either take one step too much before crossing. Valencia's highlights from prior years was from early whipping crosses, but its rare that he puts those in any more, choosing instead to take it further along the wing before releasing. When he does get the timing right, the crosses have gone into the stands. One thing is clear, he has a lot of problems to solve if he is to be able to justice to the number on his back once again.
David De Gea
Starting this season, Sir Alex has made a tactical shift to his defence on any aerial balls coming into Manchester United's box. As it is obvious that improving David De Gea's command of the box will be a long-term project.
David De Gea is thus confined to his little box, while if any crosses come into the the danger zone, Vidic, Smalling or Rio Ferdinand will collapse in front of him to head out the ball. This takes De Gea's weakness out of the equation. It has proven an astute tactical decision, and the team looks far better at defending set pieces this year. Problem solved, case closed?
Not really. while it masks De Gea's shortcomings, the problem that creates is that the defence drops needlessly deep to cover for De Gea. When the backline drops that deep, then the midfield drops deep as well, and the attackers are not in advanced positions to launch their traditional counter attacks.
Playing it out from the back is not to be frowned upon, but once has to wonder how many counterattacking opportunities Manchester United have missed by doing so. Long gone are the days where Peter Schmeichel would punch a ball 40 yards to Ryan Giggs to start a goal-scoring move that would take all of 10 seconds.
The lanky Mancunian is a curious case. He is undeniably athletic, has great tenacity, which are both good attributes that make him a great transition player. However, he always seems to miss one dribble or step in the crucial moments that will deny him a chance at goal.
It is really easy to see young Welbeck do so well to create a shooting position, and yet stumble or kick the ball out just a touch too far when the shooting opportunity presents itself. At present, he is more a scorer of good goals than a good goal scorer. If only he could improve himself to be more decisive and vigilant with the ball, he would undoubtedly find himself with more goals to his name. His current rate of return is probably being ignored as he is one of a few Manchester United players capable of turning defence to attack singlehandedly. One can only imagine his potential if he is able to build upon his tactical importance to Sir Alex.
Lack of playing is fast becoming a defunct excuse for Young's thus far slow return to form. Since his Watford days, Ashley Young has been a good player because of his delivery and diligent tracking back. In that sense, he's a very proper English winger who does the fundamental things properly and skips the flash. As a piece of a starting eleven, he is thus far more comforting when compared to Nani who, in contrast, has the most magic on Manchester United's squad, but the least tactical reliability.
When one-on-one, Young has very simple moves to beat his man that are often too predictable if the defender knows his small repertoire of tricks. He'll either fake the shot, or roll his feet on the ball when shielding. And that's about it. So if his delivery is poor on the day, he doesn't have other strong suits in his arsenal to justify a presence on the pitch.
So what happens is that it’s often very easy to tell whether Young is going to be effective or not. When he whips accurate balls in and plays good overlapping passes through to Evra or to the striker on the day, United's attacks flow quickly and efficiently. The issue is that this has yet to happen this season unlike last year.
Nani is like a spark from a wooden match. When used at the right time, he will light up the game; use it too often, and he'll burn the house down. At his age where much of the mental development in his game was expected to have matured, it is difficult to see whether he will be able to stay in the first-team.
His ability to beat a man and do the spectacular is unparalleled, but his decision-making still remains a terrible flaw of his game. One fantastic season where both of those aligned was giving Manchester United the winning edge every game, but those days seem like a distant memory. It seems that unlike a fellow Portuguese winger, he has been unable to improve his decision-making capabilities that would push him to world-class status. It's come to the point where he either improves his in-game intelligence, or surrenders the fight against Young and Valencia. The sad truth is that on pure ability alone, he is better than both of them.
At the end of the day, Manchester United has had a fantastic season, and this will seem like needless complaint. But much of United's league success is owed to the performances of Vidic, Ferdinand, Giggs, and obviously Robin van Persie who have used all their experience to protect three points most weekends. And yes, the charges above have played great parts, particularly individuals like Rafael who has grown to become amongst the league's finest.
However, if United is to return to the days of being in Champions League finals, they will have to be better as a whole before thinking about improving overall gameplay. And while Sir Alex's men above are young and have time to enhance their game, it cannot come soon enough given that their experienced heroes are not getting any younger.
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