One thing which is often highlighted when discussing the strengths of Manchester United over the years under Sir Alex Ferguson is the ability to salvage games in the dying moments with last-gasp winners or equalisers. It is something that has already been seen on numerous occasions this season possibly even more so than seasons in recent memories. Whenever United manage to do this they are commended for the attitude shown and the refusal to beaten, which of course is a great attribute and one which has served them so well in the past. The problem, however, is that it often detracts from a full analysis of the performance and the reasons why they were in that situation in the first place. The fact United were not able to salvage the game against Villa should provide an opportunity to analyse the problems faced by the current side.
The injury headache at the back cannot be ignored but United were fortunate to start this game with two International centre-halves. The partnership of Wes Brown and Nemanja Vidic should have been able to cope with the Villa strike partnership of Gabriel Agbonlahor and Emile Heskey but in truth they looked uncomfortable all afternoon. Vidic especially has had a troubled season often struggling with his positional play against pacy strikers such as Fernando Torres. Here he had problems up against Heskey, often getting the wrong side of him and having to dive in and foul the England man. It makes for worrying viewing when the Serbian struggled to deal with the threat posed by Emile Heskey as this is much more concerned with brawn than pace or deftness of touch something which Vidic’s uncompromising style of play should be adept to handle.
Wes Brown on the other hand could have been forgiven for struggling against Agbonlahor as the Villa man does posses exceptional pace but it was in the air, a strength of Brown’s, where the Birmingham born striker won the game. Brown found himself horribly out of position following Agbonlahor’s lay off and couldn’t get near him once the ball was delivered towards United’s six-yard-box. With the current injury problems it may seem like a blessing for United to have two fit centre-halves on the pitch but when they get there they have to perform.
The two centre-halves were poor but United were poor all over the pitch often looking bereft of ideas against Villa’s back four staying tight across their penalty area and then struggling to cope when a team playing with two strikers broke against them. This is not the first time we have seen this at Old Trafford this season with the Sunderland, CSKA Moscow and Wolfsburg games being strong reminders of the problems in the team this year.
Sir Alex Ferguson made some interesting team selections prior to the Villa game. Michael Owen was left on the bench following his midweek hat-trick and Nani did not even make the bench after starting in midweek and providing the assist for the first goal. In the case of Owen its looks as if Sir Alex wanted to revert to the formation which has proved successful over recent matches with Wayne Rooney as a lone striker but surely the man in form buoyed by his recent exploits should be given a start. It appears that despite his praise for Owen in midweek the United boss does not fully trust his new striker in the Premier League – further evidenced by the fact Owen has only started three Premier League games. If he is to get the best out of a player who has struggling for consistency over recent seasons he needs to be given just that – consistency. This may have proved the ideal opportunity to form a partnership with Rooney but now his hat-trick will be all but forgotten as United try to recover from another defeat. Nani on the other hand looks to be on his way out of Old Trafford as he is so far out of favour that his world cup hopes could be compromised. It is likely he will go on loan in January or for a fee much lower than the one United paid for him.
Poor decisions may have been made with the starting line-up but they were also made with the substitutions against Villa which showed more than a hint of desperation. United finished the match with Rooney, Owen and Dimitar Berbatov on the pitch meaning Rooney operated more on the left side. To take United’s most influential player out of the middle and play him inside left seemed a strange decision and it cut Rooney’s influence on the match and only caused to increase the number of bodies in the Villa final third which diminished the space available. United never created anything in the final few minutes of the match and simply looked hopefully for a mistake which unfortunately was not forthcoming as it was against Sunderland or CSKA which left their manager with the only option but to complain about the added time.