Manchester United failed to impress despite a late surge to secure a 2-2 draw at home to Sunderland. Regardless of the flaws this season (and this game) may have thrown up, the ones the summer highlighted are still the cracks Sir Alex can’t paper over.
Ben Foster continues to play like an outfield player who has reluctantly been handed the gloves, Anderson and Nani are looked upon to create more than they are capable of at this moment, Danny Welbeck and Antonio Valencia the same, but are shamefully wasteful and indecisive on the ball. Wayne Rooney looked tired, and full of mistakes whilst Dimitar Berbatov’s moment of magic threatened to erase the memories of wasted performances past, and Nemanja Vidic has seemingly decided rugby is the sport for him. Paul Scholes is showing signs that a central midfield of just two does not suit his style of play, and his slight physique and inability to tackle saw him dragged off at half-time as Sunderland’s players continued to run, pass and hoof the ball past the yellow-carded No 18.
But all that is just small niggles of the formation rearrangement and fatigue after a third game in a week for the Red Devils. However, last night, the playing staff at Old Trafford looked lost on occasion, and worryingly with Rooney off colour, all that Berbatov could do still wasn’t enough to drive the creativity and vision going forward. Last night’s game and that against Wolfsburg in midweek have shown worrying signs that when Rooney isn’t on his game, neither are United. Ryan Giggs has so far stepped back up to the plate to also contribute creatively in past games, but age caught up with the Welsh wizard, rested for the visit of Steve Bruce’s side.
Of course there is nothing to panic about from two dropped points. United will have off days over the duration of the season, and the flaws listed above will be magnified intensely on such occasions. But the one that will remain in focus throughout the season will surround Wayne Rooney and that midfield. Everyone has been quick to criticise Nani’s ineffectual performances on the wing so far this season, but credit the man, last night’s second half saw the return to Old Trafford of a Portuguese man who made United look dangerous at times from the wing. But who was Nani crossing to? At corners they could overload the box with hard-hitters Vidic, Jonny Evans and John O’Shea, but in open play, the crosses that the 4-4-2 encourages are just not being met by men in the middle. Berbatov is getting used to the idea again of earning his wages and getting in the box more, but both his and Rooney’s best position is not in that six-yard area the balls are falling in.
United are still functioning solidly and efficiently in the defence and midfield (although Rio Ferdinand’s assuredness was missed yesterday evening) but going forward, it’s through Rooney or nothing at the moment. Nani and Valencia do look solid crossers of the ball (once they achieve maximum confidence and the wind is blowing in the right direction and it is a full moon) whilst Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher and Anderson are all getting forward a lot more this season, but United still don’t know where to look for that genuine goal-threat, other than to their No 10. Rooney can lead from the front, but someone in that midfield has got to kick the team through games by the backside, to give Rooney that helping hand. Chelsea have Didier Drogba to get the goals, backed up by a host of goal-getting midfielders and Fernando Torres may be scoring all the goals, but Steven Gerrard and Co don’t half help him out.
The 4-3-3 formation never encouraged the United dynamos running that midfield to surge forward – after all, they had three very talented strikers to do the job between them, but times have changed, money has exchanged hands, and United are running short of attacking midfielders. It is too early to lament the loss of the £80m man or disparage the efforts of players who are currently adapting to a new formation and indeed both the goals last night didn’t involve Rooney, but performances under the mindset of ‘waiting for Rooney’ won’t always win you football matches and certainly won’t win you the league.