CFR Cluj vs. Manchester United: Looking for Blood in Transylvania
Crisis, what crisis? People saying Manchester United haven't played well for three years. Growing references to last season's ECL failure. Why should that happen again?
Then, Cluj already have a win under their belt, so they're now the team to fear. The truth is that United now have their destiny in their own hands. And that just about sums up the season so far.
Sadly, this does seem now likely to be Sir Alex Ferguson's last year as manager. There have been suggestions that he would like to win both the Premier League and the Champions League. I suspect the latter is more important.
He has suggested that Chelsea are the main threat in the Premier League and that's how it looks so far. Maybe some people are already wading into the Blues for the title, with their early lead.
Let's be more sanguine about things.
Chelsea have had a much easier fixture list, with the exception of Arsenal; and were able to create early momentum.
Arsenal and United are still integrating new players. City have defensive problems. Liverpool and Spurs are learning new styles of play; and Newcastle are suffering from second season syndrome.
And most important as I've said before, the effect of all the money that has come into the EPL via the Sky contract (and its imminent big boost) is that every team has been able to improve the quality of their squad. So any team can beat any other with a bit of fortune.
Putting Saturday in Perspective
Which brings me to Saturday's match against Tottenham.
I was away at the weekend and only had a chance to watch the entire match on MUTV today, twice. From the reports I had read and heard, United were awful.
Of course there was a sense of shock descending over Old Trafford. No home match lost in 2012; and no defeat by Spurs since 1989.
And yes United were disappointing in the first half. Yet again. But Spurs were lucky.
Vertonghen's goal took a massive deflection. Two minutes gone, already a goal down, shocker. Bale's goal was class and once again the finger can be pointed at Nani.
But after 94 minutes I was left feeling very optimistic. Yes United were poor in the first half but they were electric in the second. And the difference was Wayne Rooney. Back. Fit. Sharp. Now we can get started.
But Sir Alex cannot continue to blame his players, or somewhat ludicrously the referee for not playing a minute more injury time.
No. He needs to take a long hard look in the mirror and learn from Jose Mourinho. Time to say "it was my fault, not the players", Sir Alex.
United have an excellent First Team Coach in Rene Meulensteen, but he is a technical coach. United desperately need to do what Arsenal have just done and appoint a Steve Bould to sort the defence out.
It's not just the back four, it's the entire team. You defend from the front. In the past United have done that through the maxim "attack is the best form of defence". That was exactly true in the second half, to the extent that Sir Alex was able to replace Ferdinand with Chicharito.
Spurs were under the cosh for 35 minutes and could hardly get out. Even allowing for bias, but with better penalty decisions and a modicum of luck, United could have won 6-3.
The big problem is that Sir Alex seems trapped in the headlights of a car. He seems reluctant to take the risk of blooding his burgeoning young talent and keeps turning to the Old Age Pensioners.
That backfired badly on Saturday and must change tomorrow night.
In fact at the moment he would be better playing young, fit fast players in the big matches and Giggs and Scholes in the lesser ones.
It does seem somewhat ironic that Sir Alex has pointed to Chelsea's old players in the past, but seems now compelled to put his faith in a 39 and 38 year old...
Anyhow, lets look at the key considerations for that match.
The One Problem That Must Be Resolved
OK so Sir Alex will have been frustrated that he didn't manage to land Hazard or Moura, but by the end of the window he will have looked around and felt he had all the bases covered.
He has a world class match winner who can close off matches, in Robin Van Persie. Kagawa will also score at least 15 goals from midfield and create several more. While he is slowly finding his way in the EPL, when his partnership clicks with RVP, it will raise the whole offense another notch.
A key consideration is also pace. Van Persie has a ground eating stride and great presence. He also has exceptional ball control, almost on a par with Berbatov. United's style is to ping the ball through defences at pace like a pin-ball machine, but that isn't always working yet, for reasons discussed below.
There are up to 80 players to choose from for the First Team, because of the depth of young talent coming through, but Sir Alex must now "walk the talk" by playing the young ones as he did in 1992.
What he has, however, when he widens the coterie of players he will trust, is the basis of three distinct squads.
This is the so-called First Team squad. He must now reverse the recent trend of relying on Giggs and Scholes, returning to Cleverley and Anderson as he did this time last year. If either had been in the team on Saturday, United would have won the match.
I believe there is a very obvious problem with a very simple solution.
I have said in recent seasons that for all Paul Scholes' outrageous talent and ability to hit extravagant passes, those actually go against the grain of what Sir Alex is trying to achieve.
The problem is that Scholes simply plays too deep. When he starts the game, because he is closer to the defence than the attack, a vacuum opens in midfield, which the opposition quickly fills. And a player like Gareth Bale will fill that vacuum.
Watch the number of times that Paul is actually behind Michael Carrick! And yet the latter is supposed to be the holding player.
So with midfield flooded by the opposition, either Scholes needs to find an extravagant pass, or the goalscorers will be starved of supply. Yes, the wingers are good at finding the cross from the by-line, but because the build-up has been so slow, the opposition penalty area is packed with only two United players to try and score.
So a secondary effect is that Kagawa and even Van Persie start coming deeper and deeper to try and get the ball. Then there's nobody left up front to score the goals...and so it goes.
The consequence is that Ferguson simply must find a way to play all three of RVP, Kagawa and Rooney.
The answer? Play Rooney in central midfield instead of Scholes, for the big matches. He wants it; he has been playing a few extravagant passes himself. He can defend, is hungry and can be the box to box player United are crying out for.
Enough of that for now. Tomorrow he must play "in the hole".
Oh and by the way. Welbeck can be just as good and dangerous as Gareth Bale; even more so when you consider his heading ability. So Sir Alex must find a way to play him as well. Answer? Stick him on the left wing.
Valencia or Nani would play on the right. The former without exception if he's fit.
Sir Alex must sort out Nani's head as well, because at his best he can waltz through any defence. If his judgement is sound and his end-product is good, he is a match-winner. He can score with either foot. Valencia cannot.
So in conclusion, the simple solution is: Close the gap in midfield.
Now there is also an alternative, which would be the way to go in the Champions League.
While always being prepared to play the best team to get a crucial result against the best opposition, as above, it is time to move on from Scholes and Giggs.
Every player that Sir Alex has bought in the last couple of years has pace. There is a reason for this.
The team may set up as 4-2-3-1, or 4-4-2 but the idea is to play a completely fluid formation, with short passes at pace, to break down the modern "flooded" defences.
So Carrick is the holding midfield and the rest interchange.
When you set up with Scholes alongside Carrick, you might see "ooh and aah" passes, but because Scholes is so slow, the game starts too slow, the midfield is too deep, the vacuum opens up and the initiative goes to the opposition.
It happened against Liverpool and Tottenham.
Look at the contrast in the Newcastle United match last week. United had a scratch defence, but won at a canter. Why? Because Cleverley and Anderson played. Fletcher was the holding player and, if he remains fit, should alternate with Carrick in the holding role.
In the biggest matches they should both play and alternate as appropriate in who goes and who stays.
In due course and as players like Tunnicliffe, Lingard, Brady, Petrucci and Powell are blooded, this fluid attacking at pace will become embedded in the same way that Barcelona's tiki-taka has.
Meulensteen has created an army of young players coming through who have the technical skill to play a passing game at pace and who can both attack and defend if necessary. Like Rafael and Fabio already are. That's why Buttner was chosen. Just look at the Wigan match.
The Cup Squads
Of course United would like to win everything and the further they go, the more matches they will have to give younger players a chance.
It will be interesting to see the team selection against Chelsea in the Capital One Cup.
There are a dozen or so young players who simply must get their chance at some stage. Otherwise some may follow Pogba and Fryers out of the door.
Apart from anything else, Sir Alex will also get to understand who will be part of the future (like Michael and Will Keane), and who won't make it (like Chris Eagles, Kieron Richardson, Darron Gibson, et al.)
The style of play in these Cup squads simply must match what Sir Alex (and after him hopefully Pep Guardiola) want to achieve.
Provided United make the Knockout Stages of the Champions League and at least fourth place in the Premier League, it would justify the sort of experimentation with young players that has been forced on Brendan Rodgers and Andre Villas-Boas. Resulting in players like Raheem Sterling and Steven Caulker emerging as future stars.
Team and Formation Against CFR Cluj
Darren Fletcher may always have ulcerative colitis. The hope is that, like Sir Steven Redgrave, it can be managed.
The "greatest oarsman ever" won nine gold medals after being diagnosed and four after also finding he had diabetes. So that shows what can be done.
Fletcher looked close to full match fitness and almost back to his best against Newcastle. He is already contemplating a Scottish comeback (That will please Sir Alex!).
Assuming that Fletcher or Carrick will take the holding role going forward, Darren will play on Tuesday night.
It was no surprise whatsoever to hear that none of Carrick, Scholes, Giggs or Valencia were travelling to Roumania. The latter is still injured, Carrick needs to be moth-balled for Sunday and Scholes and Giggs should be at the heart of the Cup squads in future, for reasons stated earlier.
Sir Alex must start trusting his younger players.
Cluj are very likely to start with a 4-4-2 formation, which will suit Sir Alex, so that he can match up. He has made clear that United will try to qualify as soon as possible, so his ideal strategy would be to start a strong team, get the game sewn up and give some young players experience in Europe.
A likely team would be:
Rafael Ferdinand Evans Buttner
Nani Fletcher Cleverley Welbeck
Rooney Van Persie
Lindegaard, Keane, Vermijl, Anderson, Kagawa, Powell, Hernandez
Rooney showed he was back to his sharpest on Saturday. That was the one big plus point, because as soon as he came on, that vacuum in midfield was filled. Cleverley will also ensure that.
There are goals aplenty in this team. If Van Persie is still sore from Saturday, he may start on the bench with Hernandez up front. His speed and Welbeck's strength will rattle the opposition.
The Red Devils will be seeking blood in Transylvania where they will face a hostile environment.
While it may have looked like United have the easiest group, Cluj should not be under-estimated.
They have already had a surprising win against Braga, who put out Udinese on the way to the Group stages.
Cluj themselves beat Liberec, but also Basel, who knocked out United last season.
Nevertheless, you wouldn't fancy Roumania to beat England and surely United can get a morale boosting result, before a difficult visit to St James' Park on Sunday.
Cleverley and Anderson need plenty of game time. While Scholes and Giggs simply can't play two matches a week, the two under-employed midfielders will be like Wayne Rooney: ready, willing, fit and able to play every single match if called upon.
With the team proposed earlier, United have the pace to frighten any opposition. They must restore their form and confidence and there is no better opportunity than immediately after a shock defeat.
De Gea, Buttner, Cleverley, Welbeck and Hernandez need no encouragement to go out and stake a claim for a permanent first team place.
An early goal would help and Wayne Rooney looked hungry on Saturday. With Smalling likely to be fit by the weekend (and Valencia by the way), Ferguson can afford to play Ferdinand and Evans again.
The threat from Cluj is likely to come from the Brazilian Bastos, Sougou or Kapetanos.
Although they had what looked on paper like an easy win against Braga, the latter made it easy with a three man defence that tended to go AWOL. That augurs well for the next match at Old Trafford.
Assuming United start at pace, they should be able to secure a 2-0 win, with Rooney and Hernandez scoring.
Relax and enjoy.
If United start slow, invite on the Roumanians and concede an early goal, it is the manager's fault.
He cannot keep bemoaning his team's tendency to stumble out of the blocks without eventually taking the blame himself for bizarrely being unable to motivate the stars of the Premier League era.
On the other hand, if the Roumanians are demoralised midway through the second half, expect to see Keane, Lingard and Anderson given a run-out for Ferdinand, Nani and Fletcher respectively.