Manchester United’s Struggles – Blame the Defense, Blame Ferguson

Posted: December 10, 2013 in Football
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

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Manchester United are struggling. Manchester United can’t win the title. Manchester United won’t make it to the Champions League next season.

Whatever the story is you’re reading about Manchester United’s fortunes, one of the three statements above will likely be made within the story, often all three. So, now that I’ve got the obligatory knocks on the team out of the way lets begin.

Manchester United are in a transitional period. People don’t like to hear it, but they are and it’s been going on longer than David Moyes has been with the club, it’s just become apparent now because Moyes is trying to address things and actually allow the transition to happen.

The transition I’m talking about is reshaping the Manchester United defense.

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Sir Alex Ferguson left Moyes with a championship winning team, minus Paul Scholes. It was widely assumed that there may be a blip or two in that transition, but that a team capable of winning the Premier League by 11 points the previous season should be able to at least maintain their status as a top four team.

The criticism being leveled at Moyes in the wake of up and down form by United is inevitable. After all, he followed a man who had been able to achieve and maintain success over three decades, a man who hand picked him for the role. The level of criticism he is facing, however, is unfair but the only way he can get out of it is to hit the formula he’s seeking. The other approach he could take is an absolute non-starter for Moyes and would be career suicide. So, since the United manager can’t say it I will.

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The shambolic defense Ferguson left Moyes with is the reason for the up and down form.

There, I said it. It isn’t Moyes’ fault, or Manchester United’s fault. Instead, the blame lay at the feed of the greatest manager of all time, Sir Alex Ferguson.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying Ferguson was incapable of creating a solid defensive foundation to his teams. After all, the man brought us Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister (not to mention Dennis Irwin and Paul Parker). Ferguson was generally blessed with stability at the back early with the aforementioned Bruce, Pallister, Irwin and Parker. Parker moved on to pave the way for Gary Neville, who took the right back position almost all the way up to today. Some defenders, like Jaap Stam, came and went. Some, like Laurent Blanc, were brought in as stop gaps while younger defenders continued to develop. Then partnerships like Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic blossomed. With the long career of Neville, the emergence and longevity of Evra, and several solid years from Edwin van der Sar between the sticks, the United back line was as formidable at times as its front line.

Times change, however, and people age. Ferguson saw this and drafted in Chris Smalling and Phil Jones to hopefully usher in the new era alongside Jonny Evans. That transition depends upon a couple of factors, most important being the continued health and form of the veterans of the defensive lineup. This is where the shambolic mess Moyes was left with comes into play.

 

Ferguson saw the need to work on the next generation of the Manchester United defense and sought out the players who fit his mold. Defenders who are comfortable both on the ball and in the tackle. Defenders who are versatile enough to fill in when required in other positions. Defenders who could learn from Ferdinand and Vidic. What he failed to do was see that the writing was already on the wall with regard to Ferdinand and Vidic. Ferguson overlooked the fact that their days were done in terms of being world class defenders who would ease the youngsters into both life at the top and comfort in the Manchester United lineup.

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When Ferguson should have been seeking out a truly world class defender to play alongside the younger defenders as they continued their development he instead fixated himself with his offensive line. Like any true striker, Ferguson wanted to fill his squad with the type of attacking quality to strike fear into his opponents. It worked. With Robin Van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez, Ferguson had three world class strikers. Add into that mixture the versatile Danny Welbeck, Shinju Kagawa (fresh from being a revelation in Germany), the crossing ability of Antonio Valencia and the ever present Ryan Giggs and Ferguson had an attacking force to rival anyone.

The manner in which his front line pulled the team out of trouble and into winning positions time and time again papered over the fact that Manchester United were screaming for some established quality in defense. The younger defenders are still working on holes in their games and the veteran defenders are too far past their best to compete against the best of the best. Manchester United had no middle ground for defensive reliability, but Ferguson chose to do nothing. Whether this was because the team was such an offensive powerhouse that he didn’t notice the defensive frailties I sincerely doubt. I believe it was more a mixture of the loyalty he felt to the likes of Ferdinand, Vidic and Evra not to replace them coupled with his belief that Smalling, Jones, Evans and Rafael were the players to take the team forward and that they would develop quicker than they have.

What is still a factor is that these younger defenders have no world class leader to keep pulling them in. It’s all well and good for them to hear about what great defenders Ferdinand and Vidic were and how they can learn a lot from them, but when they see week in and week out that these defenders are being caught out by any top class players they face it negates that talk. They have needed at least one world class defender in his prime to enter the picture and show these youngsters the kind of stability, consistency and dedication to keep improving they need and that didn’t happen.

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Moyes is still the man to move Manchester United forward. The work he did with Everton’s defense is allowing his replacement, Roberto Martinez, to reap the benefits and plaudits of his attacking flair and free flowing football. However, what is often overlooked in the praise heaped upon the “revolution” at Everton is the fact that without Moyes none of the current plaudits for Martinez would be possible. Martinez is a good manager and is constantly improving, but his footballing philosophy is about attacking football, ball retention, passing and opening up opportunities through that mentality. At Everton it is working and at Wigan that same style had them in a relegation dogfight every year, culminating with relegation. It’s not a vast difference in the quality of the team he has that has made the change, but the fact that Moyes organized and schooled the Everton defenders to a degree that they arguably the most complete defense in the league. Martinez finally has the one thing missing from his teams – a defense. He wasn’t able to organize, build and school that defense and now has one ready made. He is an astute man who will allow his defenders to teach him rather than thinking it is all his doing, and when it is time to replace retiring defenders he will be versed enough to be able to continue the legacy Moyes left him with.

Moyes, on the other hand, has moved to a club with three decades worth of success who are reigning champions, but who defensively are two or three steps behind the level he had achieved with Everton. Not necessarily in terms of talent, but in terms of organization, positional and tactical knowhow, intuitive understanding and belief in themselves. Ferguson was right that Smalling, Evans and Jones can take United forward for another decade of success, but he wasn’t ready to let go of his “old guard” to allow a successful apprenticeship for these up and coming stars.

The secret for immediate improvement in the fortunes of Manchester United lie in the defensive organization of their new manager. Moyes is one of the better defensive tacticians in the management seats around the Premier League. He needs to not be afraid to ruffle a few feathers by pointing out to the veterans that their times have come to an end. A high caliber central defender and a quality left back will allow Moyes to be able to bring in his defensive philosophies to players whose bodies are still capable of making the adaption in style. This way he can bring the future stars forward in their development while correcting a porous defense.

One final note on the subject comes from an article I read on UK Yahoo Eurosport, actually more a headline for an article. Moyes pleaded for the media to blame him and not the players for the clubs current poor form. I would like him to have worded that differently in order to take an indirect shot at the fact that he was left with a defense that had past and future but no present. I would like to have seen Moyes say “Blame the Manager”. While many would still read into that headline blame Moyes, the few who are looking at a broader scope could read into in the fact that he was left without a ready to go defense in spite of reputation and title credentials.

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Comments
  1. jc12oc says:

    Moyes has got a lot to prove. I’m not loving his style at the minute so definitely one to watch. Great blog, followed you!! Feel free to check out my blog and follow me back 🙂

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