Basel Won’t Be Last Team To Expose United’s Obvious Defensive Vulnerability
On the night their dear neighbours faced a daunting coming of age over in Germany in the Champions League, Manchester United faced a rather ordinary looking tie at home to Basel, the Champions of Switzerland who have never qualified for the knockout st…
On the night their dear neighbours faced a daunting coming of age over in Germany in the Champions League, Manchester United faced a rather ordinary looking tie at home to Basel, the Champions of Switzerland who have never qualified for the knockout stages of the competition that Sir Alex Ferguson claimed on the dawn on the tie was the “greatest in the world”.
It was a game bordering on the elementary when the fact that United have not lost at Old Trafford in European competition for 22 months is taken into account, nor have they lost at home in any competition since Chelsea’s 2-1 victory in April of last year, a record spanning a total of 34 games.
The script was being wholly adhered to by United who kept their side of the bargain with Danny Welbeck’s two early goals, yet Basle refused to buckle and continued to create chances with the bullishness of their manager Thorsten Fink’s pre-match comments that “they did not travel here to lie-down, we have come to play football” and they did just despite having a seemingly insurmountable two goal mountain to climb, Sir Alex Ferguson has not seen a two goal lead surrendered to a defeat in all of his 26 years in charge of Manchester United and it very nearly occurred. Phil Jones and Rio Ferdinand conspired with poor defending to allow Basel’s Frei duo of Alexander and Fabian to draw them level before the former made it three from the penalty spot after Marco Streller was tripped by Luis Valencia. It was down to an Ashley Young header in the final minute of time to rescue United from only a third Champions League loss at home in 54 matches, and cause more Manchester based last gasp heartbreak for Fink, the German coach played for Bayern Munich in the dramatic Nou Camp final of 1999.
Ferguson drew on character and resilience in fighting back but genuine positives were scarce, United have been warning a performance like this over the past fortnight, beginning with the game with Chelsea the previous Sunday. As so many dissected the failings of Fernando Torres, it was possible to overlook the ease in which the United backline was breached so frequently in a game that could have varied anything from the 3-1 score-line it registered, to a 2-5 away victory. Torres took the unwanted headlines on an afternoon that could have been seriously different had the Spaniard, and some of his team-mates, kept their nerve in front of goal in the true heat of the occasion.
Had the normal run of expectation prevailed to run its course, then Torres would have buried his 83rd minute chance and narrowed the difference down to a single goal from the three goal chasm existing at the interval and further announced he had well and truly returned to the group of elite strikers he had deserted for so long. As it were, his impressive performance paled into insignificance as the embarrassment of his woeful miss took precedence. But also forgotten was the ease and the rate in which he ruptured the Manchester United back-line to threaten a self-led fight back for his team. Defensively, United were startlingly open and amongst the dismay of Torres’ moment there may well have been a degree of relief ringing from the Stretford End.
Almost bizarrely, the powering velocity of United’s start which has yielded 22 goals in six league games, and only five conceded, has overwhelmed the observation that this is not the defensively sound United of recent years. Sir Alex Ferguson has pinned an increased importance on solid foundations over the past few seasons; only once since 2006 have his side conceded in excess of 30 goals, the total of 37 on the way to winning last season’s title being the most shipped since the 45 in 2002. So far this season, even though the goals against tally suggests otherwise, Manchester United are not a team of vintage stability at the back. Chelsea became the third team to visit Old Trafford and register over twenty shots, one more than the amount of teams who managed to do so in the entirety of the last five years. While David De Gea has not been afforded any respite from his early season doubting, he has been the busiest goalkeeper in the Premier League, being forced to make 32 saves in five games, already a third of the total amount of 81 that Edwin Van Der Sar made in his retiring campaign of last season.
Cancelled out with the exuberant vigour of their youthful attacking play, United have seemingly managed to get away with such defensive abandon. Tottenham and Arsenal were overpowered, Bolton demolished and Chelsea stunned by a first half display of ruthless finishing. Though Football can sometimes be a strange concept, for merit does not always reflect endeavour and this rung true against Chelsea, the score-line was evidently out of synch with the true reflection of balance of play. The visitors had 21 shots to United’s 12 and had Ramires and Torres not been so profligate with the most elementary of chances, then Chelsea may have come away with a clear win. The same occurred at the Reebok the week previous, where in the midst of some Bolton pressure, De Gea was forced into a wonderful one handed save which launched the break to the deflating second United goal, which ended the tie as a real contest. Shorn of Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez on Saturday evening against Stoke, when Manchester United’s winning start was brought to an abrupt end, De Gea had to make a series of top class saves to secure a draw at the Britannia, Stoke managing a total of eight shots on target.
Before the contest with Stoke, it may have been apparent to the on-looker that Sir Alex Ferguson has installed a new brutality into his team, yet all is not what it seems; so far this season, United have afforded 42 shots on target to opposition teams than any other team in the league, yet sit pretty at the summit at the top of the Premier League on the crest of an all-conquering juggernaut with a 1-1 draw the anomaly of a barnstorming start. In this case, the maxim of Football being a “funny old game” springs to mind.
It is with Rooney that part of the explanation lies in how such vulnerability has appeared between the lines, he no longer feels the duty to operate as an auxiliary midfielder and his presence in a deeper role has declined at the pleasant expense of a higher goal rate. No longer the rampaging ball of enthusiasm that exhumed such a will to win, he stays further up the field in a de-facto striking role and it has supplied him with his most prolific spell since his 26 goal campaign of the season before last and is already two off his total tally of last season. This has brought less protection to United’s midfield two and against Chelsea it showed. The Brazilian steam train of energy Ramires ran from deep many times without trace and Juan Mata and Raul Meireles both finished with impressive passing stats from creative positions, generating 85% and 77% respective completion rates. Frank Lampard misplaced one of his 28 passes from his attacking midfield position despite his half-time withdrawal. United’s central pairing of Fletcher and Anderson were required to play further up the field to support Rooney and Hernandez, the space behind them allowing a lot of joy for Chelsea’s creative force and it may have been hugely telling had their forwards been less merciful in front of goal.
Devoid of Rooney altogether through injury, such lack of defensive protection was in abundance against Basel, the dangerous Streller and Jaques Zoua infiltrating the cavernous lack of defensive cover provided by Michael Carrick and Anderson, the Brazilian in conflict to his early season form that has bred optimism he is finally discovering the potential he promised early in his United career that has been shown so woefully erroneous in judgement. This Manchester United team has been forged on offensive progeny and the protection to their own goal has suffered because of it, yet how ironic it is that Basle are the first to properly take advantage of the warning signs that have been in abundance at Old Trafford in recent weeks.
This Manchester United philosophy of unwavering focus on attacking vigour has brought harking memories back to the side that were exposed by Bayern Munich at the Quarter Final stage of the Champions League in 2010. United’s lightning break from the blocks that night delivered three first half goals but gaps at the back were not plugged and Bayern narrowed it back to a 3-2 defeat, enough to take the Bavarians through on aggregate.
In Europe this year it is also proving a downfall, Benfica’s line-up of Latin American schemers managed to penetrate the pockets of space enough to occupy Andreas Lindegaard throughout a 1-1 draw in Portugal whilst Basel have presented them with a second drop of points, placing the unwanted emphasis on the four remaining group games. It has been an underlying problem at Old Trafford in the recent past, the lack of a defensive midfield screen. Barcelona have pounced on such vulnerability with such convincing authority twice in the past three years and it has failed to be addressed even after another summer of evolution and now relative minnows from Switzerland are getting in on the act. United continue to mask it with their own attacking prowess, but the genuine feeling cannot be escaped, they do have problems at the back.
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