United Must Bulk Up Goal Threat From Midfield And Other Lessons From Manchester Derby

What did we learn from last night's derby? Well, for one, Phil Jones is more than an expensive John O'Shea... plus, United were too casual, and can't rely on the strikers for goals.
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What did we learn from last night's derby? Well, for one, Phil Jones is more than an expensive John O'Shea... plus, United were too casual, and can't rely on the strikers for goals.

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So, for the second time in a row, Manchester United lost their biggest remaining game of the season. After the poor performance in the previous big one against Chelsea, and an ‘efficient’ win against Sunderland, the derby that most billed as a damp squib would have been exactly that were it not for Aguero’s ridiculous solo effort.

Still, it’s pretty unlikely that United will go on their worst seven game run for eight years while City win every remaining game, so twelve points ought to do it. It was a bit of shame, though, to see such a lack of urgency from United until Aguero kicked them up their collective arse. Looking forward to next season, the game did highlight a couple of noteworthy points: the fact that underneath Rooney, Van Persie and Hernandez, the squad is worryingly goal-shy, and that, more positively, it looks like Jones could indeed be the central defender Fergie thought he was when he acquired him two years ago, and not just an £18m John O’Shea.

United casualties of casualness

Ok, so barring an NHS-scale cock-up, the title’s done and dusted. This kind of drop in incentive does inevitably result in a drop in intensity, regardless of what managers and players tell the press. Let’s face it, United have been playing with that kind of mid-league malaise ever since the final whistle of the second leg against Real Madrid. The fact that they’re so incomparably better than the teams they’ve faced since-Reading and Sunderland- has somewhat masked this fact, before Chelsea and now Man City have clearly exposed it.

Yes, Tevez was definitely offside for City’s first goal, but Giggs’ back heel that gave away possession was as over-casual as they come. It wasn’t an isolated incident either. Throughout much of the game many United players were guilty of being over-casual in possession. Probably the worst culprits were Rooney, Giggs and Evra- three of United’s most experienced players.

Many of the passes were short, the flicks unnecessary and the movement predictable. Patrice ‘I only defend in the really big games’ Evra obviously decided it wasn’t a big enough game for him to defend, and as a result, was standing in an overly advanced position on 78 minutes, allowing an exuberant Aguero to dart into exactly the space Evra should have been occupying to smash in the winning goal at the near post. Indeed, the stand out players for United were the comparatively inexperienced Phil Jones and Rafael. Even Welbeck- though guilty of being over-casual on the counter attack- did at least track back well, tackle hard, and pass and dribble with purpose.

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Obviously I have to whisper when saying this, but it could even be said that Fergie was a little over-causal in his use of substitutions. Lacking any cutting edge up front- with Rooney and Van Persie off form/bored- Hernandez was needed much earlier than 85 minutes. If he was desperate to give Rooney the full 90 minutes, taking off Young or Welbeck and slotting Rooney wide would have worked perfectly well. The desperate need for the ever-urgent Hernandez in those scenarios is itself a symptom of an issue that probably needs some addressing next season too…

Without RVP, Rooney and Hernandez, the full-backs are the most likely goalscorers

Last night Rooney and Van Persie were as toothless in attack as a strikeforce of Craig Burley and Shane Macgowan. That happens I suppose; you can’t always expect both your key strikers to be on form. Hernandez is a bit of a goal machine too- with a handy eight goals in six starts and nine sub appearances. Between them this season, they’ve scored 39 of United’s 66 league goals. Of last night’s starters, the highest goalscorers were Evra (4) and Rafael (3). Martin Tyler announced confidently after Aguero’s goal that ‘United have so many players who can score; goals can come from anywhere.’ Really? Because it seems we know exactly where they’ll come from: up front. And if Rooney and Van Persie aren’t on form, it’s only Hernandez who’s going to be likely to pull United out of trouble. Behind the front two, the goalscoring threat came from Giggs (two league goals), Carrick (no league goals), Young (no league goals), Welbeck (one league goal), Ferdinand (no league goals) and Jones (no league goals- and no, his glaring-miss-turned-goal-off-Kompany’s-back doesn’t count). So if anyone was in any way likely to help out on the goalscoring front it would have been Rafael or Evra. Even from the bench, other than Hernandez, there was only really Kagawa (whose five league goals included a hat-trick vs Norwich) or Cleverley (two league goals) who have actually more than one goal this season. It’s hardly inspiring stuff is it.

I’m a massive Welbeck fan but he does seem to be in danger of making a domestic and international career as a non-scoring striker, currently possessing as he does sub-Heskey scoring stats. Cleverley has also done much to cement himself in the United first team line-up, but surely there comes a point when these types of players are expected to provide a healthy contribution to United’s goal tally. Van Persie, Rooney and Hernandez are clearly a sufficiently strong strikeforce to score United to a title- as exemplified this year- but United have been pretty fortunate with minimal injuries in this department this season, and it certainly seems worth bulking up the scoring threat from midfield going ahead next season.

Jones was an excellent City sweeper

My personal view on Jones since he joined two years ago was that he seemed to be best suited to a defensive midfield role, given a good few wobbly performances at centre back littered with positional naivety, heavy touches and over-commitment, but last night was Jones’ best display at centre back that I have seen thus far. He played in a more sweeping role than usual, allowing Ferdinand to push up on Tevez and cover any runs or crosses beyond Ferdinand.

On 21 minutes, for example, Jones made a brilliant goal-saving sliding challenge on Tevez and a couple of minutes later he mopped up an attacking threat with sublime awareness and control. Despite his hairstyle giving him the increasing appearance of a young delinquent David Lynch, or Beaker from the Muppets, Jones showed that he is capable of producing quality, assured performances at centre back. Smalling had taken over as the go-to fourth choice centre back after Ferdinand, Vidic and Evans, but with that performance Jones has possibly jumped up a rung. It’ll be interesting to see if he can replicate it.