Despite only losing last season's Premier League title on goal difference, Manchester United will still need to make changes if they are to have any chance of overhauling rivals Manchester City in 2012/13. Alex Keble, editor of TheChalkBoard.org.uk, assesses where they went wrong last season, and where they need to strengthen...
Central Midfield: Playmaker
Needless to say, the constant presence of Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs in the centre of midfield last season was somewhat alarming, given their age and declining mobility. Despite this, the pair did manage to generally maintain a high level of performance.
Ferguson has recently moved away from his tradition of fielding a robust, hard-working midfielder and begun to accommodate more passers into his central midfield. His system mainly featured Michael Carrick alongside Scholes or Giggs; the runners received little playing time. Anderson made only 10 appearances, Phil Jones featured only six times in this position and Ji-Sung Park three.
The ball-winner is no longer a necessity for Ferguson, with greater dependency placed on Carrick to perform defensive work. He has begun to adopt a Fletcher-esque role while retaining his passing duties, beginning attacks and giving more freedom to those ahead of him - as argued extensively here. This reshuffle allowed Giggs or Scholes, who no longer have the mobility to feature in multiple areas of the field, to focus on controlling the game from the centre of the pitch, giving themselves the time and space to work the ball out wide.
Despite their strong influence on the game, these screen grabs show the absence of attacking thrust provided by any of the current midfield pairings. Even though their performances have been first class, their role is almost exclusively aimed at giving the ball to United's wingers, where a huge majority of their goals came from.
Giggs may have provided eight assists, but the next most creative non-winger was Rooney, with four. Nani, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia made a combined 30 assists in the league last season.
Manchester United cannot afford to lack central attacking intent again next year; it makes them too one-dimensional. In the 1-0 defeat to Wigan last season, United's wingers were rendered ineffective by Wigan's wing-backs, as their surprise 3-5-2 formation marked Young and Valencia out of the game. Wingers nullified, United's ability to attack was completely stifled.
Take a look at the screen grabs below. Valencia was closed down quickly, forcing him to almost exclusively play backwards passes, while Young simply could not get into the match. Manchester United were forced to create chances centrally, which they found very difficult to do.
What can Man Utd do about it? Ferguson has already begun to address this issue with the capture of Japanese star Shinji Kagawa. Asian football expert John Duerden wrote, “wherever he plays, Kagawa's presence translates into goals. [He has] vision, technique, movement and deft passing”.
Kagawa's favourite position is as a secondary striker, although he is widely expected to play in a slightly deeper role for Manchester United. Playing 31 times in the Bundesliga last season for Dortmund, Kagawa amassed 13 goals and eight assists: “the boy plays like an angel”, in the words of former team-mate Nuri Sahin.
As well as their new signing, United can look forward to the return of Tom Cleverly, although he is not exactly in the mould of the playmaker they crave. Cleverly is a player that controls the game with the crispness of his passing, constantly making himself available to his team-mates, as the screen grabs show us. He is more a Jack Wilshere than a Cesc Fabregas.
Nicolas Gaitan, Benfica's play-maker, has been linked with a move to Old Trafford following his excellent performances in last season's Champions' League (five assists in five matches). Gaitan shone against Manchester United in the group stages, displaying the directness of his attacking ability, as indicated by the amount of useful possession he had deep in United's half.
Brazilian wonderkid Lucas Moura also appears to be on Ferguson's radar, and since he currently has only one play-making central midfielder in the squad, it is not surprising he is looking for another. Lucas would surely struggle to adapt to the English game, presenting the starlet as a prospect for the future, rather than an immediate solution. His exploits at the Olympics will tell us much about his Man Utd potential.
A key factor in Ferguson's 25 years of success at Old Trafford is his adaptability and unpredictability, winning titles with a number of different tactics, formations, and player types. One area in which he has rarely changed his policy, however, is the way he expects his two strikers to compliment one other.
He expects one of his front men to drop deeper, acting as a link between the midfielders and the forwards, with the remaining striker in a more traditional centre-forward role; he is expected to run the channels, hold up the ball, and find the spaces to exploit. The classic example of this is Yorke and Cole, but this combination had great success last season with Rooney as the secondary striker, behind Danny Welbeck.
Note how the majority of Welbeck's passes are backwards, with most of his useful work coming in the opposition penalty box. By contrast, Rooney is active all over the pitch, creating many chances from a position in-between the midfielders and forwards.
It is Ferguson's propensity towards this system that has kept a frustrated Berbatov out of the team. His style doesn't particularly fit into either of the striker moulds Ferguson uses; his imminent departure comes as no real surprise.
After a rare Rooney absence in September last year, Berbatov lined up in the deeper role in a 1-1 draw away to Stoke, where his creative impact on the game was virtually non-existent.
When the Bulgarian exits Old Trafford, Sir Alex will find himself left with Rooney, Welbeck and Hernandez as his only senior forwards. If Rooney was to pick up a long term injury, there really wouldn't be many options left.
As previously mentioned, Kagawa can play in this position, but considering he is already the only attacking midfielder in the squad, it would be a shame to rely on him in this role, leaving the midfield lacking its central thrust once again. Not to mention that the Japan international will be making his debut in the country, and therefore cannot necessarily be relied upon immediately.
Essentially, Ferguson has few options centrally, both in regards to his forwards and to his midfielders.
What can Man Utd do about it? Surprisingly, the main transfer targets (if heavy rumours are to be believed) are Robin Van Persie and Klaas Jan Huntelaar. Neither of these players provide a link-up role, although both are strong all-rounders.
It is possible that, expecting to play a more advanced central midfielder next season, Ferguson expects that the transition from a secondary striker to fielding two more traditional forwards would be a smooth one. This is still providing Rooney receives a long-term injury.
After failed attempts at fielding Berbatov as a secondary striker, perhaps Ferguson recognises that Rooney is irreplaceable, and that he simply needs another experienced, all-round forward that could shuffle up in the England star's absence. Neither Hernandez nor Welbeck are particularly versatile; the commanding presence of a Van Persie or a Huntelaar could do the trick.
In the North London derby last February, Van Persie shows us why, although not a deep-lying striker, he can provide a lot more to an attack than Hernandez or Welbeck. Note how frequently he creates chances for his team-mates, and how often he receives the ball in a deeper position.
Van Persie is also a decent poacher – something that is often overlooked due to the sheer brilliance of the more exciting elements of his play. 54% of his goals last season came from the 6 yard box, indicating his ability to function in a United side that currently relies heavily on their wingers for creativity. What's more, the Dutch striker scored 34% of his goals in the final 20 minutes of matches. The determination and resilience that characterises Ferguson teams - hence their astonishing record of scoring late goals – is a quality RVP also appears to possess.
At 31 years old, Patrice Evra may be in the beginning of his decline. Although opinion is divided on the quality of his performances last season, there remains a percentage of United fans that believe his pace and concentration is not what it used to be. Admittedly, many still believe him to be an excellent full-back. Unfortunately, the statistics are not in his favour.
In the vast majority of United's poor performances last season – in matches where they conceded at least three goals - almost all of the chances created by the opposition came down United's left side. This, of course, could be as much Young's fault as Evra's.
Regardless of who is to blame for this unnerving correlation, Man Utd have only one senior left back in the squad.
What can Man Utd do about it? Ferguson has been trying to sign PFA Team of the Year member Leighton Baines for a while now, and the pursuit is on-going; his age and attacking flair make him the perfect fit for this side. Evra's position in the United team may be less certain in the 2012/13 campaign.
Clearly there is work to be done if United wish to keep up with their local rivals. Signing a forward, a central midfielder, and a left-back to bolster the squad are the minimum requirements. A central defender to replace the ever-slow Vidic and Ferdinand may need considering, and question marks remain over the solidity of David De Gea.
An active window beckons, but if Ferguson and the Glazers are to be believed, Man Utd have the funds to find the players they need to keep their title aspirations alive.
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