Let’s face it, Manchester United’s victory over West Brom wasn’t exactly a stormer. In fact, it’s safe to say it was this season’s United fixture most naturally conducive to writer’s block for a ‘learning points’ piece. If it’s viewed in the context of the season so far though, yesterday’s fixture reveals some pretty interesting lessons and talking points…
Carrick And Cleverley: United’s No.1 Midfield Partnership
It was already at least partially established that Ferguson sees Carrick and Cleverley as his strongest midfield partnership. They played in the toughest games of the season so far, against City and Chelsea away; and look what happened when they didn’t start together in the third toughest fixture, against Spurs: they lost at home. It’s only now though, half way through the season, that we can review the success of the partnership with any meaningful recourse to stats. The combo have played together eight times in the league (discounting the Everton match where Scholes was partnered with Carrick at the base of midfield, Cleverley playing in an advanced position), losing none, keeping three clean sheets and conceding an average of one goal a game.
Compare that with the Carrick-Scholes combination: in their six games together United have lost twice (a third of games according to my calculator), conceding an average of two goals per game, keeping only one clean sheet. It’s hardly a new lesson that Carrick and Scholes should never again play together- other than against Wigan at home, when Macheda and Bebe could probably end up on the winning side- neither as the central midfield pairing of a 4-4-2 or the ‘buffer’ in a 4-2-3-1; their combined passing ability is great, but so too is their ability to get caught out for pace and lack of tackling ability.
The Cleverley-Carrick combo has by now proven itself as providing a well-rounded mix of craft and industry. Carrick supplies the vision, the transition from defence to midfield and the ability to dictate the tempo of the game. Cleverley provides the lungs, the snapping-at-the-heels tenacity and a decent shot. Between them they generally manage to get goal side at the right time and support the back four. Being used more recently as the midfield pairing in 4-4-2 places them in a system they were brought up playing in, and the more they play together, the more symbiotic they’ll become.
Kagawa Is Slick, Even On A Crap Pitch
It was lovely to see Kagawa return to action yesterday after two months out. His contribution was unspectacular but slick. On a sodden, mud-churning Old-Trafford-at-Christmas pitch, his pass success ratio of 30/31 is truly impressive. It was perhaps a little harsh for Kagawa and Welbeck to be paired together; one playing his first game in two months and the other barely having recovered from flu. It was therefore hardly surprising that Van Persie was needed to inject some incision into the United attack. But given the result, ultimately it was great to give both a game.
Kagawa is obviously a player of pedigree- as two Bundesliga winner’s medals as Dortmund’s main creative force will attest- and I’m certainly looking forward to seeing him grow into the team. It does, though, unfortunately remain something of a logistical nightmare figuring out how exactly he will fit into the team. The 4-2-3-1 shape that Ferguson worked with earlier in the season was geared up precisely to include the likes of Kagawa and Van Persie without having to sacrifice Rooney as well. Overall it wasn’t a major success, and Kagawa’s enforced absence made it easier to revert to 4-4-2, which has predictably proven to provide something of a saving grace. So, do United return to the slightly dysfunctional, imbalanced 4-2-3-1 in order to accommodate Kagawa, or continue with 4-4-2 at the expense of playing all of United’s attacking talent together? Then there are the wingers…
A Nani U-Turn?
So, if Ferguson does stick with the currently favoured formation, there is a heavy reliance on wingers. The West Brom game reminded us that other than Valencia and Young, at the moment there’s very little back-up in this area. So, here are the possibilities: United stick with 4-4-2, Ferguson swallows his pride and welcomes Nani back to the party. Secondly, he sticks with the formation but ejects Nani in January and brings in Zaha or Tom Ince (or Gareth Bale, in dreamland). Thirdly, he thanks 4-4-2 for all it has done for him, including getting United through Christmas in very good shape, and returns to an awkward combination of 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-2-1-2 that keeps both Rooney and Kagawa happy.
I actually find it quite hard to predict which will take place: all have their merits and flaws. In a way the first option seems the easiest, as it doesn’t actually require any changes on the face of it, which could be a good thing during a season of transition where the goal is to embed a system and well-oiled squad of players. The second option is perhaps the least likely; throwing as it does a new ingredient into the mix, whilst one of Kagawa and Rooney becomes frustrated. The third option is perhaps the most likely; 4-4-2 is hardly viewed as the future by modern coaches, and it would simply be a case of returning to the pre-Christmas tactical project, buffered now by the return of Vidic and an established no.1 presence in De Gea. It certainly wouldn’t surprise me, though, if Ferguson reverts to 4-4-2 for the Real Madrid games and the toughest league fixtures.
Follow Fabio on Twitter at @Fabzucci