United They Stand As Champions, United They Could Fall
In the 1996 movie Independence Day, upon finding out the best way to tackle the alien mother ships, the general orders “Get on the wire, tell them how to bring those sons of b*****s down..” In the film they had spent countless hours searching for the strategy to bring down a seemingly invincible opponent until, eventually, they found an effective offense against them.
This is the situation in Man United’s quest for the hallowed quintuple, seemingly appearing invincible, in imperious form since taking the title of World Club champions in Japan. On the back of unconvincing performances, particularly against Liverpool, Fulham, Villa and Porto respectively, Fergie’s boys seem to have hit a malaise in their apparent “historic season”.
This article sets out to explain how Man United have hit this dip in their form and much like those relentless Americans in Independence day, the emergence of a new found opportunity and confidence when taking on the “indestructible”: the champions of England. A task which appeared impossible before Blackburn took on the Red Devils.
As evidenced in the aforementioned recent convincing performances the best way to bring Man Utd down is, put in simple terms, one word: Attack!
Since the 2-1 defeat of Blackburn, a game blighted by controversial refereeing decisions, with a scoreline that unfairly represented the attacking Blackburn, the world champions have been on the decline. This was a refreshing new approach to playing Man United. In complete contrast to the game versus Everton, where Moyes side sat back letting the Red Devils attack and win.
This Blackburn approach wasn’t surprising as under previous manager Mark Hughes they were a regular thorn in the side of Ferguson. Who is a proponent of this approach citing in the Times Game Podcast in 2008 that “you have to be brave against Man Utd. With tactics like three up front you are more likely to gain a result”.
This was the very approach that Porto took so very effectively on Tuesday night. One which severely damaged Fergie’s Champions League defence, which now hinges on trying to gain an unlikely win at the fortress that is the Dragao. Porto took a positive approach playing 4-3-3, with the effective strike force of Rodriguez, Lissandro and Hulk. The aptly named Hulk providing a battering ram to the back four of Man Utd.
Hulks inclusion was a tactical master-stroke from manager Jesualdo Ferreira with the big man drawing Vidic onto him. This allowed the pacey Lissandro, Rodriguez and later Mariano to torture Evans who was later substituted for a slow Gary Neville (not Ferguson’s ideal move). If not for a error from Bruno Alves gifting Rooney a goal then Man United could be in a terminal situation in Europe rather than a bad one. All down to one primary reason; Porto attacked United, they weren’t afraid. Manchester United don’t like it coming at them.
It has been suggested in the media that was probably a idea given to Porto by Liverpool, as it seems likely that the 14th April 4-1 drubbing of Man United was in the Porto players DVD collection the past few weeks. This was the zenith of what could be regarded as the growing trend of attack versus Man United. This match showed clear vulnerability on the part of defence which in matches can be exposed.
This was corroborated by Rafa Benitez who suggests “We knew their defence had weaknesses”. In this strategy Benitez identified that the Old Trafford club key tactic was to deploy penetrating passes between the lines. Under this Benitez adopted a more attacking approach putting their midfield under pressure every time in ball possession thus nullifying this tactic. Under this Liverpool employed fast break away attacks, working as a result of Man Utd’s perhaps heavy focus on attacking. Through this habit united are always high up the pitch, but by counter attacking Liverpool relieved the pressure on their defence something Fulham also managed, notably making Ronaldo work back, something he clearly does not like doing as evidenced by his petulant nature at Craven Cottage.
In the Blackburn game with Santa Cruz, Lovenkrands for Newcastle, Rodriguez for Porto and Torres (Liverpool) they (united) are extremely prone to counter attacks with pace. The textbook example of this was Torres for Liverpool on the turn causing Vidic to make a mistake and scoring a key equaliser. Benitez afterwards made no secret that this was the tactic he used stating “We knew with Torres movement that we could cause problems for defence”.
There is certainly weaknesses to be found in the back line of Man Utd, certainly at the moment with the injury to Ferdinand. It has been proven that with the right tactics Vidic can be vulnerable, and as proved by Carew on Sunday for Villa that Gary Neville isn’t the player he was in 1999.
Of course employing an attacking tactic does not ensure victory against Man Utd but they can certainly take the game to them and force Sir Alex to think on his feet. As with playing any world class team, the opponent must have an organised and way defence, but they can’t be intimidated by the counter-attacking prowess of the strike force, as this tactic works for the very reason of the attacking wealth of Man Utd.
As was the case with Hull at Old Trafford, Man Utd will score more than you if you simply go “all out attack” and play on belief. An industrious midfield definitely helps to push the Red Devils line back. The prime example of this was Mascherano and Gerrard for Liverpool. Next you need a big physical striker to take away the attentions of Vidic such as Hulk showed on Tuesday or Carew on Sunday. Lastly and most importantly to expose the weaknesses in their defence you need a striker of some pace.
This is the approach the teams playing against them need to take starting this weekend with Sunderland. Sbragia should be considering the physical abilities of Kenwyne Jones to draw the attention of Vidic and Cisse’s pace, alongside Reid and Malbranque in the middle to pressurise their possession of the ball.
Sir Alex will need to find ways to amend these frailties or their quest for the quintuple could end up a disaster. Looking at recent performances, Arsene Wenger’s rampant Arsenal side are bound to fancy their chances, still to face United in the league and potentially the Champion’s League if they manage to get past Porto, Ferguson will need to be extremely wary of The Gunners style of play. That isn’t mentioning the influence the recent run of results for Manchester United will have in terms of confidence and tactics on the remaining Premiership teams still to play.
For the neutral, this is going to be an exciting run in, for the fan; a nerve-racking one. Who knows what will happen in the last 2 months in English football!? One thing is for certain, it would take a brave man to predict it correctly.