Club Focus – Manchester United – Out of the title race?

The injury problems faced by Manchester United concerning the back four do not seem to be letting up at all as the club heads into the difficult Christmas period, trying desperately to keep in touching distance of Chelsea.

When discussing United’s title credentials season after season, one thing which is always cited is the ability to hit form in the second half of the season, often coming from behind to take the title. Whether the Red Devils can do this again this season is seriously in doubt following last weekend’s round of fixtures. The depleted nature of United’s defensive rearguard will be cited as one of the main reasons for the disastrous nature of the defeat at Craven Cottage and it cannot be ignored. Any side playing in any league in any country of the world would struggle when only able to field one first team defender and having to rely on midfield players playing hugely out of position.

This was certainly a factor forcing a tactical change which on the day was totally wrong. In electing to start with a back three Sir Alex Ferguson resurrected tactics used previously away at Wolfsburg in the Champions League with some success, so it can be understood with the options in front of him why he may have decided to go with this again. What seems a very strange decision, however, was to remove Patrice Evra from the back three pushing him further forward as a left wingback. There is no doubting Evra’s ability going forward due to his earlier career as a left winger. The Frenchman is often the first point of attack for United, a role which he plays superbly. However, to remove the only recognised first team defender out of the back three, leaving two midfield players and a 21-year-old to defend against a Fulham side containing a rampant Bobby Zamora was a poor mistake.

The option of playing either Fabio da Silva or Ji Sung Park on the left side was there and looking back seems like a more appropriate selection. Ritchie de Laet is certainly a promising defender and has made some encouraging performances already this season. In the game he looked out of his depth, often giving the ball away or hitting aimless long balls to Wayne Rooney of which he had no chance of winning. Similarly when chasing the game late on, United finished with Dimitar Berbatov partnering Danny Welbeck in the central striking positions with Rooney operating on the left hand side.

This was something that United tried in the loss against Villa and did not work then as it removed the most dangerous player from the action. It was too much to ask of Welbeck as he was unable to impose himself on the game. The youngster is comfortable on the left side having played there for the first team before so it was a mystifying decision. When the personnel are as thin as is currently the case these decisions have to be right and clearly they were not. The team selection may have been poor by Sir Alex, but he can be forgiven for thinking that the more established players on the pitch would be capable of putting Fulham under pressure on occasion.

Anderson was again anonymous constantly on the periphery of the game and Paul Scholes had one of his worst games in a United shirt. For someone with such a fantastic ability to keep hold of the ball and consistently find team-mates, to give the ball away so much was extremely costly for United. How much more of Ferguson’s patience Anderson has left remains to be seen. He has consistently failed to live up to his early hype, putting in performance after performance without any spark. Ferguson does not often like to admit he is wrong, especially where high transfer fees are concerned but he seems to have done this in the case of Nani. If Anderson continues in this vein his days at Old Trafford may soon be numbered.

United were extremely lucky not to have been cut adrift with Chelsea not able to fully capitalize, and are still in amongst the race for the title. In truth Sir Alex’s side are still within touching distance and following the return of the first choice defenders they may still be able to mount a significant challenge. United travel to Hull this weekend in dire need of the three points. This encounter provides a potentially winnable game for United but also it has to be said for Hull. If United go into this with the wrong tactics and their influential players do not perform, United’s title challenge could be all but over at Christmas.

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