FOOTBALL.BLUE (1) - The keystone
Below is an English-language version of my new exclusive column for Football.Blue, a new website presenting European football news to Japanese fans in association with The Independent newspaper.
While preparing to commentate on Manchester United versus Leicester City last Saturday evening, I tried to cast my mind back to the last time the Red Devils had truly excited me. Yes, there has been the odd comfortable win over Hull City or Newcastle United; and of course important victories against Arsenal and Liverpool – rivals both spiritually and for fourth place. But in terms of the thrilling, attacking brilliance one craves of United, the high point of the Louis van Gaal era thus far probably came way back in September when they visited Leicester at the King Power Stadium.
This may seem a strange thing to say, given the way everything ultimately unravelled on what Van Gaal described in his programme notes this weekend as “the worst day I have had in my job as manager of Manchester United”. Rafael’s impetuous habit of conceding penalties at inopportune moments triggered a defensive implosion in the final half hour from which Tyler Blackett is probably still recovering. The Foxes became only the sixth team in Premier League history – and the first straight out of the Championship – to put five past United. In 853 matches since the top division’s rebranding, the Reds had never once previously lost having held a two-goal advantage.
But at least it had been good fun. Still fresh from the late extravagance of the summer transfer window, United began that afternoon in a swashbuckling manner that got everyone off their seats. In the opening quarter-hour, Falcao marked his first start by racing behind Ritchie de Laet and swirling a perfect cross for new strike partner Robin van Persie to open the scoring. Three minutes later, record signing Ángel Di María burst out of his own half, played a 1-2 through a crowd with Wayne Rooney, before improvising a chip over Kasper Schmeichel as delightful as that famous Karel Poborsky effort at Euro ’96. Though Leonardo Ulloa pulled one back, a ravenous restart after half time produced a second goal in two for another recent arrival, Ander Herrera. All the new pieces were clicking into place and, for a moment, it looked a matter of how many.
As 1-3 became 5-3, we were all forced to hurriedly rewrite our conclusions. But at this stage, one thing felt eminently clear: Van Gaal’s United were an exciting guarantee of goals aplenty at both ends. As a Gamba Osaka supporter, this was a comfortingly familiar sensation; as a journalist, it was a standard for narrative. A solid truth upon which expectations could be based, just like the way Mario Balotelli would constantly entertain us at Liverpool with headlines good and bad, or how Chelsea would never be so careless as to suffer a 5-3 scoreline like that.
That things have not panned out this way is both a credit and discredit to Van Gaal. United have only lost twice since that crazy late summer afternoon. Their goals against record is the third best in the Premier League. After narrow defeat in a derby match played with ten men for the entire second half, they went on a six-game winning streak and remained unbeaten for 11. The Dutchman may only have accrued three more points than David Moyes had at the same stage but the comparison is meaningless when paired with the fact that, in a tighter top half this term, United’s current haul is enough for third place not seventh. Moyes and company began to resemble rabbits in headlights last February but there is much greater confidence surrounding the Van Gaal team, who have developed a resilient efficiency to repeatedly grind out one-goal victories despite not playing well.
But this last point, of course, is also the worry. Only Chelsea have scored with a higher percentage of their shots this season, but where might United be without the chance conversion rate of their forwards? How many times have these one-goal wins been protected by the late heroics of David de Gea? To return to my original train of thought, there still have not been many games in which the Old Trafford club have actually bossed proceedings.
In this respect, a straightforward 3-1 victory in the return fixture against Leicester was a relief after the horrendously slow build-up play that had characterised their previous two fixtures against Queens Park Rangers and Cambridge United. Van Gaal switched back, once again, from a three- to a four-man defence midway through the second half at Loftus Road – notably removing Jonny Evans, who had been selected as the central man in the back three for the first time all season. From 3-4-1-2 to the diamond, 4-1-4-1 to 3-3-2-2, new tactical variations have clearly added to the disjointed nature of a new manager at a new club with newly-acquired players.
One is reminded of Van Gaal’s early press conferences back in July, when he arrived in the afterglow of a run to the World Cup semi-finals built upon the last-minute switch to a Feyenoord-inspired 5-3-2. Then, he stated that a back three was the only way of utilising all his attacking players in a top-heavy United squad, but the narrative has changed somewhat as he now claims to prefer the extra centre-back for reasons of defensive balance. Another first-day quote that springs to mind is when he included the Eredivisie in his list of the world’s four strongest leagues due to the tactical intelligence his Holland players had displayed in Brazil. Perhaps he has discovered since that defenders of British stock do not possess the same acumen and flexibility as Ajax kids crafted for interchangeable 4-3-3 and 3-4-3 from the age of seven.
This is, and always was
the problem. Teams are built from the back, but United’s defence lacks the
central figure around which their new manager can do so. At 27, Evans is the
most senior defender but always performed much better alongside the calming
presence of Rio Ferdinand than with Nemanja Vidic and is still no real sempai figure. Phil Jones has actually
performed reasonably well in a back three but is very
much the one to step out of the line and cannot be trusted to hold it. Marcos
Rojo was bought for another purpose and remains new to both English league and
language. The list of three apparently most trusted to marshal the defence –
Michael Carrick (a midfielder), Paddy McNair (a teenager), and Chris Smalling
(Chris Smalling) – hardly inspires either awe or peace of mind.
Whether United are lackadaisically passing the ball between defensive three and midfield three, or surrendering late chances to Stoke City and Crystal Palace with a shaky back four, the fundamental issue lies here. Whatever formation Van Gaal deploys, he will not be able to fully exploit his attacking riches until he finds that leader of the rear-guard upon whom he can truly depend.
TrackBack URL for this entry:
Listed below are links to weblogs that reference FOOTBALL.BLUE (1) - The keystone:
» toms schuhe damen [Exploring the New New Orleans]
From Faubourg Treme to uptown, T+L disco toms schweiz vers the eclectic characters, strange beauty, and aut toms online hentic local experie... [Read More]
Tracked on 02/07/2015 at 08:03 PM
» ガガミラノ スーパーコピー [2013年05月23日]
サッカー協会に国務院に提出材料国レベルや支持中国サッカー2013年05月23日14:39 新浪体育 Twitter私でも（116人参加） 新浪体育ニュース5月23日北京ニュース:約十日まで、中国サッカー協会、体育総局に国務院政策研究室に正式に渡したプロリーグすべての材料、および中国プレミアリーグ、中甲、キャンパス足校等の関係書類、中国サッカー協会は各部門の統一行動共に渡した81書類.このことは国務院を正式にはプロ議論の展開状況.それ以外に、財政部、教育部などの省庁主導の調査のための仕事も終... [Read More]
Tracked on 02/08/2015 at 06:14 AM