How Manchester United Can Make Old Trafford a Fortress Again
Nemanja Vidic started pre-season training a week before his teammates. This is brilliant news for Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United's prospects this season.
Vidic's injury in December 2011 and his subsequent absence for the rest of the season was the most critical factor in United's being pipped by Manchester City. Nemanja is to United what Vincent Kompany is to City.
He may not be the most vocal captain, but he leads by example, putting his body on the line.
In a team like United, you need many captains on the pitch. Edwin van der Saar and Peter Schmeichel were particularly vocal in getting the defence organised.
Rio Ferdinand, Wayne Rooney and Patrice Evra also have their say.
Some people believe that the pairing of Vidic and Ferdinand at its height was the best in the world.
They may point to Ferdinand's having slowed down with age, but Sir Alex anticipated that problem and told Rio to play smarter. Together with the exercise regime to strengthen his core and his back, Rio was like a new man last season and stepped up to fill the gap that his club captain had left—even shifting to left centre-back to accommodate Evans.
There is no doubt that these two can recreate their partnership for at least one more season, and that will be the prime building block in the foundations of Fortress Old Trafford.
In 2010-11, Manchester United won 18 and drew one of their Premier League matches at home. In doing so, they conceded only 12 goals (two of them in the dead rubber against Blackpool). Vidic and Ferdinand were the main reason.
But not the only one.
In the same season, United conceded a total of 37 goals, which wasn't so smart.
There are other possible explanations, however.
United have failed to fill the gap left by Roy Keane's departure. Fletcher and latterly Carrick have been called upon to play the holding role in midfield.
Carrick has adapted well but stunted his natural attacking instincts to do so. During both seasons, he also had to fill in at centre-back due to injury problems.
There is another possible explanation. If any team does, United defend from the front. This is evident in two particular ways:
They attack more than most teams, putting their opponents on the back foot—especially at Old Trafford, roared on by the crowd. It cost them against City last season because with Vidic out and Evans off, United continued their all-or-nothing attacking policy and lost the game as headless chickens.
Secondly, every offensive player coming to Old Trafford, whether by transfer or through the academy, is told to bulk up and taught to tackle. Look at Cristiano Ronaldo's tackling back in the Euros. Where do you think he learned that? (Though he didn't practice it often at Old Trafford).
If Valencia is the best wing-forward in the world, isn't part of that because he tackles well enough to play left-back, as he did several times last season?
The next factor which is key to United's Old Trafford fortress is the integration of the younger players.
Every cloud has a silver lining, and if United lost out through Vidic's absence, the plus point was that Jonny Evans at last became established as a top central defender.
Like Evans, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones delight in marauding forward. When Smalling first played for United, he looked like potentially one of the best England prospects for many a year. In due course, he may become established alongside Gary Cahill as their first-choice partnership.
There is a growing clamour for Smalling and Jones to be that winning combination, which only goes to support the argument for United's being much more mean in defence in future.
If Carrick was messed around last season, Jones was even more so. We are left no clearer as to what is his best position.
He acquitted himself well at full-back, but Rafael has just signed a new four-year contract, so he looks like first choice for next season.
The pre-season friendlies will give us some important pointers for who will play where, but unless he is prevailed upon by the manager (after getting no playing time in the Euros), Jones will not be in South Africa and China.
That is a pity, because Ferguson could have tried him at defensive midfield. For those of us who, like me, think Javi Martinez should be a priority signing (because of his ability to play DM and CB), Jones is the obvious alternative.
It looks as though Darren Fletcher will not start the season and in my opinion may have played his last game for United, which would be a pity. Unless they sign Martinez, Strootman or Witzel, or Ryan Tunnicliffe makes a major statement on tour, there is still no determined solution.
You can have as many attacking midfielders as you want, but without a man playing in front of the back four, United will remain vulnerable in big matches.
If there is no such signing, either Tunnicliffe or Jones should become that man, and Sir Alex must persevere until the conundrum is solved.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the pitch, United will not be short of attacking options. Sir Alex has hinted that Berbatov might stay. With Nani, Valencia and Young fully fit—together with the hugely talented Welbeck, a rejuvenated Rooney and a fit Hernandez—you can expect more marauding at Old Trafford this season.
Last season was, in many respects, a critical one for United and Sir Alex. It has forced his hand on changes, highlighted those that are surplus to requirements and given him a new challenge to rise to.
The crowd is silent when United don't score. They will be even more attacking this season. Any opposition will feel the pressure.
Meanwhile, with Vidic and Ferdinand restored, several options in reserve a more grounded and restrained pair of full-backs (still Evra and Rafael, but more responsible), a confident De Gea and a fully fit Lindegaard, Old Trafford can once again return to be the fortress it was in 2010-11.
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