Manchester United’s best performance in the 2011/2012 season was on Sunday, 28th August 2011, when they walloped an injury-ridden and pre-panic-buy Arsenal 8-2.
This standout performance wasn’t a blip. In their first five competitive games of the season, United won all 5, including their best performance against Manchester City (although it was the Community Shield, people forget that United played City four times, not three times, and beat them twice) that was far more in United’s advantage than the 3-2 scoreline suggested. There was a 5-0 thumping of Bolton and 3-0 defeat of Tottenham as well.
In short, United kicked off the new season in fine form, showing a new verve and energy in the team that caught other teams off guard.
If you ever hear United players speak about Ferguson, one thing is immediately clear – everything thing is meticulously planned in advance, from squad rotation to training regimens to rest periods, and you don’t diverge from that planning unless a player is injured.
United’s burning start was no coincidence – as Ferguson himself said at the time, United had planned their pre-season to ensure that they would get a fast start in the league and then maintain that tempo throughout the season. This was in light of the increased challenge that Manchester City would pose and Ferguson knew, before most other people, that United would need to hit 90 points to beat City to the title.
The key to that tempo wasn’t just the pace at which United moved the ball from defence to attack (always a United trademark) or width and pace on the wings (again, a United hallmark under Ferguson), it was the energy in central forward quadrant, where the two central midfielders and the two strikers could pass, move and press quickly, alleviating United’s 1-man disadvantage in midfield against most teams through tempo and quality.
This was Ferguson’s tactical blueprint for 2011/12 – to build a title winning side that would learn to control the midfield with aggression, not with the sit-back-and-watch approach they had employed in previous seasons.
Injuries coupled with an stubborn over-reliance on the existing squad meant that United had no one to maintain that tempo after September. Ferguson had to rip up all the work done in pre-season and start from scratch to build a new tactical plan. Under pressure, he went for the short-term option of bringing Scholes back and reverting to a midfield duo of Carrick + Scholes, slow as they come and designed to pass the opposition to death but not to win the ball back.
With the season now over, and the title lost on the finest of margins, Ferguson will be busy preparing his plans for the next season. Will he bring his plans for last season back, albeit with a few tweaks? That will surely require United to sign another midfielder (or two) to provide cover and also counter the fact that Anderson and Fletcher are hardly reliable options. Pogba is not ready to play for United at this level, and with Cleverely’s lack of experience, United need what they’ve needed for 8 years – a stronger midfield.
Or will Ferguson draw up a new strategy, having watched how Madrid have torn up La Liga and beaten Barcelona, and build a squad that allows him to play with a front three, meaning that he needs reinforcement on the flanks / up front as well as in midfield?
How United’s midfield lines up also impacts their defence – in 11/12, the midfield sat deep and the central defenders (Rio hampered by a lack of pace and Vidic / Evans sitting back to cover) sat deep too, meaning that De Gea often had very little space when the defence made a mistake. In fact, if there was a mistake, it would happen in the penalty box, giving De Gea next to no chance to stop the goal.
This lack of pace was highlighted at the very start of the season in the Community Shield when Ferguson took off Vidic and Ferdinand at half time and put on Jones and Evans. In a setup where the midfield was pushing up, United needed defenders who can keep up the pace.
Evans / Smalling / Jones are the future, but all three of them need either surgery or rest this summer. Vidic is not back till August. Rio is the new ‘old’ Paul Scholes, and is probably better off playing as a defensive midfielder where he can influence the game more. If United’s midfield setup is again all about sitting deep, they will need Vidic fit for the whole season and a better ball-winner in midfield. If United are again trying to play fast, they’ll need their young center backs fighting fit for the whole season.
Surprisingly, the only position that leaves United fans happy with what they have is the man guarding the goal. David De Gea is a phenomenal goalkeeper who has had a very deep-sitting midfield and defence that can’t tackle to deal with at times. United are safe in goal. Elsewhere on the pitch, there is brilliance and potential sprinkled across, but there is no shining light pointing to the future.
Last August that shining light was supposed to be the new United style of playing. This summer, United’s transfer dealings will depend on how Ferguson wants his team to play next season, not on who fans think United should buy (if Kagawa is coming in, you can expect another fast start in August).
We all know United need to strengthen the squad. But more importantly, United need to build on last year’s planned system and evolve it to be more durable. As Barcelona, Man City, Madrid, Milan, Arsenal and Chelsea have shown in defeats, hitting any side with fast passing and concentrated pressing while stretching the play (vertically and horizontally) in attack will cause them significant problems.
If United can find the players to play that way, City’s billions won’t be enough.