Sunday, December 30, 2012

Kagawa return gives Fergie selection headache...

Shinji Kagawa made a welcome return to action following a lengthy spell on the sidelines to face West Brom at Old Trafford on Saturday. United maintained their seven point lead at the top of the table and kept the pressure on rivals Manchester City, with a two-nil win over the Baggies, thanks to a first-half own goal following Ashley Young's shot from close range and a second-half trademark Van Persie pile-driver.

As expected Wayne Rooney made way for the returning Kagawa. According to Ferguson, Rooney picked up a training ground injury last week and so he could be out for up two to three weeks. There is a suspicion that following his below par performance at Swansea and the immiment return of Kagawa, Ferguson had in fact decided to rest Rooney. Ferguson has to keep his players fresh and on their toes and prior to Saturday's clash with West Brom he confirmed squad rotation would be a feature of United's festive programme. Whether Rooney is genuinely injured or not doesn't really matter - his name wasn't included in the United squad that faced Steve Clarke's, West Brom.

The fact Rooney was left out serves to highlight Fergie' selection dilemma: How will the United manager fit Kagawa into this Manchester United team? Many see it as a straightforward case of "it is either Rooney or Kagawa - but not both" .

United fans like what they have seen so far of the Japanese star, many view the former Dortmund attacking midfielder as a possible successor to Paul Scholes - the early signs look promising. Kagawa has an excellent range of passing and like Scholes he is comfortable on the ball.

It's fair to state that it's generally accepted Fergie looks to have finally settled on Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley as his first-choice central midfield pairing, this partnership has started to blossom over recent weeks. Bryan Robson heaped praise on Cleverley's performance in the derby, the United legend thought that YaYa Toure had been kept "reasonably quiet". High praise indeed. Given that Carrick and Cleverley are developing what looks to be a useful partnership, there wouldn't be a lot of sense breaking that up.

The win over City served to once again highlight one of United's big strengths - that is the ability to attack down the flanks. Having tinkered with a wingerless formation several times this season and with limited success, Fergie went back to his favoured 4-4-2 formation - it was a decision that paid dividends. City lack width and have to rely on their fullbacks to provide ammunition from the flanks - but when a  move breaks down they are often left exposed to the counter attack and this is where United capitalised in the derby.

So if we accept that Fergie is likely to continue with 4-4-2 and if Carrick and Cleverley are Fergie's first choice central midfield pairing, where does that leave Kagawa?

As he showed in the derby, Rooney is still a very important player for Manchester United. Fergie has to find a way of accommodating his best players and at the same time, get the best out of them. Leaving out Rooney will surely only be a short-term option. So Fergie has limited options, let's run through some of them:

Rooney on the left: This ploy doesn't really suit Rooney at all, far better to have your most potent threats in central areas where they can go left or right. The is also a danger that Rooney could become isolated on the flank where he cannot affect the game. However, the reality is Rooney wouldn't stick to the left, he would keep on coming inside - but this leaves United open the counter attack with Evra getting exposed - at least that is the big danger. While he's been scoring goals of late, Patrice Evra has come in for some heavy criticism in relation to the defensive side of his game, with one pundit on Sky's Gillette Soccer Saturday going as far as saying United were playing with just two at the back at times with Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans. Clearly, whoever plays in front of Evra has a duty to help defend that left flank when the need arises.

Kagawa on the left: You can pretty much read the above ref Rooney on the left. Except it's arguably an even worse case scenario as Kagawa doesn't look as though he's as good as Rooney at dropping back to help the defence. What's more, Kagawa would be better suited to the David Silva roaming role.

Fergie's only other option would be to change formation to 4-3-3 or a variant of, but for the reasons already outlined, we think that isn't going to happen and if it does happen, it will be a compromise.

With the danger of stating the obvious, the trick is to get the best out of the players at your disposal - we can talk about a hypothetical 3-5-2 formation, but one suspects that would be too radical. If Fergie adopted a 3-5-2 system the benefits are obvious - you get that extra man in central midfield plus you retain two strikers. The key to 3-5-2 success lies with wingbacks and your three central defenders knowing their roles and it relies on them having a solid understanding. Wigan deployed such a system last season at the DW Stadium and went on to beat United who never came to terms with that formation.

While mulling over the Kagawa, selection headache, we shouldn't forget Anderson, because the Brazilian has proven his worth several times this season, but here again, how does the manager square the circle?

Injuries will undoubtedly continue to play a part in Fergie's decision making - sometimes those tough decisions are made for you. But for now let us hope the likes of RVP, Rooney and Kagawa stay fit in so doing making Fergie's job an even tougher one where selection issues are concerned, but it's a nice problem to have.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Tinkering Fergie continues to gamble and get away with it, as United open up seven point lead at the top...

After 'throwing away' two valuable points and after 'battering Swansea' (was Fergie watching a different game?) at the Liberty Stadium, Manchester United faced Newcastle at Old Trafford on Boxing Day. What followed was typical of United's season so far - plenty of goals, excitement and controversy at both ends of the pitch. A proverbial festive seven goal feast was decided by a last minute winner by Javier Hernandez - a result which leaves United with a yawning looking seven point lead over neighbours Manchester City, who lost at the Stadium of Light.

Following what could be described as an indifferent performance at the Liberty Stadium last weekend, Wayne Rooney was left out of the United squad that faced Newcastle. According to Ferguson, Rooney sustained a 'slight knee ligament injury' in training - while this might be deemed as entirely plausible, this blogger has serious doubts (see below).

United's defending has been questionable over the past couple of seasons, but especially at Old Trafford where the Premier League goals conceded column currently stands at just over 2.1 per game. Clearly, Old Trafford is no longer the fortress it once used to be.

Remarkably, according to our reckoning, Manchester United have gone behind and fought back to win in 11 (we are losing count) encounters to date, but nonetheless the Boxing Day win over Newcastle was a bit special. In what has been a season of dramatic comebacks, United had to once again fightback from a goal down, but this time on three occasions. To summarise the win over Newcastle: Hernandez was the goal hero, but Michael Carrick was the driving force, his passing was sublime - especially in the second-half.

Ahead of the Boxing Day fixtures, many fans and pundits alike, will have fully expected United to comfortably beat 'struggling Newcastle' (Mike Ashley must be asking himself why the Magpies offered Alan Pardew that lengthy new contract), and the same pundits will have fully expected Man City to win away at Sunderland. For their part, City threw the 'kitchen sink' at Sunderland, but somehow, Martin O'Neill's players held on after City old boy Adam Johnson added another blemish to Joe Hart's copybook.

With United and Newcastle trading shots for fun and with City laying siege to the Sunderland goal, the prospect of United opening up a seven point lead at the top of the table looked improbable for much of Boxing Day afternoon, more likely, the gap would be cut to just one point - at least that *was* the big fear.

Against the odds, United have won away at Anfield, Stamford Bridge and most pleasingly of all, at the Etihad, but to the collective frustration of millions of fans, the same team has come unstuck at Norwich, Everton and Swansea.

While it has been an action packed season, it has also been one of frustration, one that has often seen Ferguson's players having to dig themselves out of self-made holes - the fact they are able to do is testament to their collective strength of character, skill and resilience.
Following his touchline ranting on Boxing Day, we fully expect Fergie will be fined and or banished to the stands. Being a United blog, we fully support Ferguson's point of view regarding Newcastle's controversial second goal, but the FA are likely to see things differently....

How they performed against Newcastle:

De Gea 6/10
For the second game on the spin - parried the ball back into the danger area, which led directly to a goal. A worrying trait - if not checked. Ferguson will not be pleased. Other than that, a near faultless performance. Handling on crosses has improved a lot.

Smalling 7/10
Standing in for Rafael, didn't cover himself in glory on Newcastle's third goal, should have done better. Allowed Obertan to cross too easily.

Ferdinand 7/10
Once again at the heart of a leaking defence. Like the rest of United's defenders, needs to raise his game and must lead by example.

Evans 7/10
A bitter sweet game having scored at either end. Some sympathy on OG. Like Rio et al, needs to cut out mistakes.

Evra 8/10
Superb going forward. Arrival of Buttner has given him something to think about. Defending needs to improve. Scored a great goal - one that was out of character, but most welcome.

Carrick 9/10
Apart from his part in Newcastle's opening goal, this was arguably his finest game in a United shirt. Passing sublime.

Scholes 7 /10
Didn't get booked which is a relief. Did ok on the whole. Fergie's gamble paid off, but only just,

Giggs & Valencia 7/10
Confounded their many critics with a solid performances on the flanks

Van Persie 8/10
Scored another well taken goal. Always a threat. Superb again. A masterstroke of a signing.

Hernandez 8/10
Never stopped trying, always looked dangerous. Scored a well deserved winner. A great example to all strikers.

Cleverley: Made a significant impact after replacing a tired looking Paul Scholes.
Fletcher, no time to impress after replacing Hernandez on 90s mins


Earlier this week we learnt that Ferguson only reveals his team two hours before kick-off - he then reportedly spends the remaining time prior to kick-off explaining his decision to those left out. This story came to mind when the Boxing Day TV cameras panned to Rooney in his executive box - he looked less than happy - the phrase 'face of a bulldog chewing a wasp springs to mind'. Ergo, if you believe Fergie's latest Rooney injury story, chances are you still believe in father Christmas.

For very good reason, Ferguson became known as 'Tinkerbell' during the 90s, thanks to his constant tinkering with his team. When Tinkerbell delivered bad news to his players, it often came in twos or threes. It was no different against Newcastle as out went Young and Cleverley, along with Rooney.

The thing is this, unlike Rooney, Ashley Young was one of United's better performers at the Liberty Stadium - but if we believe Fergie, like Rooney, Young is injured. Having dropped two priceless points against Swansea, as far as many fans will be concerned there appeared to be absolutely no logic behind the decision to bring in Paul Scholes and leave Cleverley on the bench - yet that is precisely what happened. We can say the same regarding the decision to leave out Young in preference for Giggs. This was classic Tinkerbell at work.

 Being charitable, for some reason, Rooney was very out of sorts against Swansea and so the manager axed him (this blog's view), but according to Fergie - the player is injured. In truth, the manager was rotating his squad and of course he has every right to do so.

Fergie will often select a team that he believes is good enough to beat the opposition which is perfectly logical - until it goes wrong...To further illustrate this point, the last time Paul Scholes started a league game was against then bottom of the table QPR. United struggled badly at times against QPR, but eventually won 3-1, but once again after going behind.

 Fergie is a gambler, one who knows his players better than anyone - results are testimony that we can't really argue with his logic or his decision-making, nonetheless, when the fans want to win back the title and having dropped valuable points, the decision to gamble can be perplexing, to put it mildly...

It is well documented that from time to time, Fergie has invented an injury story to protect the player concerned, former United stars including winger Lee Sharpe have publicly spoken about this. There is method behind Fergie's logic: the player's pride is left in tact and should a result go against his team following such tinkering, the manager has his own ready made injury excuses.

Despite his tinkering the fans love Fergie & United, but our nerves are in shreds, is it any wonder?

Happy Christmas let us hope it is a Happy New Year,