Villa Match Confirms Man Utd's Inconsistency and Ferguson's Dilemma
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Manchester United’s topsy-turvy match with Aston Villa on Saturday once again left their supporters elated and exhausted in equal measure as their heroes teased and tormented them right up to the final whistle.
The Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of United’s performances this year have defied belief. With a few exceptions, individual players have looked like world-beaters in one game and nervous novices in the next.
Yet, for all that, this morning they somehow sit two points clear at the top of the Barclays Premier League.
The only consistent thing about the team is its inconsistency, and it must be a real problem for Sir Alex Ferguson to decide on his best team and his best formation.
Let’s look at a few individual players to start with.
David de Gea has had a lot to live up to in terms of expectancy and struggled initially to justify the hype that came with him from Atletico Madrid.
He showed on occasions against Villa that his ability to take control of high balls pumped into his area is improving, although you feel there is still an element of nervousness in his defensive partners in this domain.
Anderson has proved to be a real enigma this season. Left out of earlier games or brought on as a substitute, talk abounded of this being "last chance saloon" in terms of his time at the club.
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He then shone briefly when replacing Tom Cleverley against Arsenal, only to fluff his chance of a regular place by a nervous and careless performance against Braga where he contrived to give the ball away at every conceivable opportunity.
The general opinion of Nani, with a few exceptions, is that his days are numbered at Old Trafford. Despite occasional flashes of brilliance, he is Mr Inconsistency; Mr Unreliable. He unquestionably has talent oozing out of his every pore but his decision-making is sometimes woeful, and he probably needs to be moved on.
Ashley Young has not really returned to the form he showed before his injury and he looked lost on Saturday. Whether or not he was affected by the booing from the Villa fans every time he touched the ball remains unknown, but his substitution by Sir Alex at half time almost seemed to be the kindest move for Young, who was never really "at the races" in this game.
Wayne Rooney has also, by his own high standards, had an up-and-down start to the season.
At times he looks back to his best, forging a promising partnership with the new boy Robin van Persie. At other times, however, he appears frustrated and slightly unsure about where he is being asked to play.
I applaud the fact that he is always on the lookout for the killer pass, but he has been profligate with his distribution at times and has not reached the levels of performance we have seen in previous campaigns so far this season.
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Turning to the tactical inconsistencies, Sir Alex really seems not to have decided on his most effective formation, and perhaps this is complicated by the amount of attacking options he has at his disposal.
On the one hand, United’s main strength is in the forward department, but Sir Alex is more than aware that his team have conceded too many goals already this season. And this defensive frailty could prove to be an Achilles heel if the front men fail to deliver.
Because of that fear, perhaps, the first half on Saturday was not very "United-like" in the careful and sometimes ponderous nature of their build-up play.
It began to look like we were watching Barcelona, but without the finishing touches.
The ball was sprayed around the midfield endlessly, allowing Villa to get everyone behind the ball and making any incisive pass through their defence more difficult.
In the second half, finding themselves 2-0 down and requiring a bit more of an urgent approach, United became more direct and almost instantly reaped the rewards of this change in strategy.
Yes, they opened themselves up to being hit on the break, but that has always been the United way.
It was a similar story against Braga and, to a certain extent, in the Arsenal match. United appear to need to be up against it before they raise themselves out of their torpor and get into top gear.
When they do that, most teams struggle to stay with them.
The question is, why not play that way from the start of games as they did on many occasions last year and in previous seasons, finishing teams off before they knew what had hit them?
Javier Hernandez’s match-saving performance against Villa following his similar intervention against Braga, surely cements his place in the starting lineup against Norwich City next week and may persuade Sir Alex to take a less cautious approach.
Of course, Rooney’s ankle problem may rule him out; if it doesn’t, the thought of a Rooney/Van Persie/ Hernandez triumvirate terrorizing Norwich’s defence is mouth-watering.
It is, as yet, early days in this season and we perhaps shouldn’t be too critical of a team that is at the top of its domestic league and has qualified as top of its group in the Champions League with two matches to go.
It could be argued, I suppose, that part of the secret of United’s success is rooted in an element of inconsistency and unpredictability that makes them difficult to play against and plan for.
Maybe this is all part of Sir Alex’s grand plan.
In which case, perhaps we should just sit back and enjoy the ride!
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