What a difference a week makes. Last week we were waxing lyrical about the freedom and excitement in United’s performance against Norwich, it appeared Giggs had the midas touch. Fast forward 7 days and it was a throwback to the disappointing home form under David Moyes.
Giggs’ team selection surprised every single United fan today; the inclusion of Nani and Ashley Young in the wide areas was puzzling, especially considering the form of both players this season, coupled with the growing on-field relationship between Shinji Kagawa and Juan Mata. It appeared Giggs wanted to play with speed and width, with Juan Mata restored to the line up in the number 10 position to service the wide players. Hernandez was chosen in place of Rooney as the lone striker following the England man’s groin injury.
Slow and steady does not win the race
Just like the opening half an hour against Norwich, and several performances under David Moyes, United’s first half performance was pedestrian, slow, lacking imagination and at times extremely difficult to watch. There was a clear plan to exploit the wide areas through Young and Nani, and the pair saw a lot of the ball in the opening periods of the game without creating any problems for Sunderland. Initially it seemed the problem was not necessarily this game plan, but more the tools chosen for the job. Every single time Young crossed the ball he either overhit it, or failed to beat his man and the move broke down. The story was similar on the other side with Nani, who failed to do anything with any sort of speed or fluidity before being hooked by Giggs after 51 minutes. It was a wretched performance from the pair of them and they contributed towards a miserable first half.
It was a similar performance across the pitch, United were slow, wasteful and lazy. Nothing positive was retained from last week’s hammering of Norwich and the alteration in team selection had a lot to do with it. Last week the midfield partnership was the base from which United were able to mount attacks and create such a plethora of chances, today with Fletcher and Carrick, it was the cause of the stagnation in United’s play and United created virtually nothing against a dogged Sunderland side.
The problem with the midfield today was the double pivot of Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher. Last week against Norwich I was complimentary of the role Tom Cleverley played, and I believe a player of better quality playing in exactly that role would succeed, because Cleverley made a difference despite not being good enough for United. He wasn’t selected by Giggs and United missed the positive sides of his performance last week; particularly his energy and his forward runs in and around the Norwich penalty area. Above all, he allowed Michael Carrick the space to control play from a deeper area of the field. Fletcher doesn’t provide the same option as Cleverley, and while he helps control possession better, he does not have the legs to play from box to box like Cleverley does, and traditionally United have always succeeding when fielding a box-to-box midfielder. As a result, Carrick to/from Fletcher was the most common pass combination in United’s team, with far too many passes being made sideways or backwards during the afternoon. Not one of the top pass combinations in the United team involved the front four, and that, along with the passing maps below, is indicative of how ineffective the attacking side of Uniteds midfield was today.
As a result the build up play was slow and steady, but didn’t catch out the rigid Sunderland defensive operation. Any space that was available was immediately smothered by a spare man because United only ever really had four options available, with the fullbacks providing an extra two on occasion. United suffered from the same problems that Bayern Munich struggled with against Real Madrid, although the opposition today were far weaker and so the excuses are somewhat unacceptable for this Manchester United team. There were no runners from midfield at all, everyone wanted the ball to feet, and so there was no movement in and around or behind the Sunderland defenders. Everything was in front of them and it made it far too easy for Sunderland to compress the game and win the ball back.
The lack of quality in key areas coupled with another flat performance shows that Giggs is not the man for the job just yet. Today’s showing was just the reminder the fans needed that the rebuild required is still monumental this summer, and Louis van Gaal is far better suited to doing that job than Giggs. After admitting he found it difficult to leave players out last week it is clear to see that he needs some distance from the players before coming in to rule with an iron fist. Van Gaal won’t suffer fools when he’s in charge and some of the ego’s in the squad won’t be tolerated. Several attitudes haven’t been right all season and it was in evidence again this afternoon. Hopefully LVG can get in the players he wants and we can all look forward to next season under the Dutchman.
By Adem Berkay
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