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The Effects of the Injury Crisis

Our sluggish start to the season has been much discussed and much lamented. All sorts of reasons have been offered up for this, many individual players have had their reputations torn apart. I think that a lot of people can’t see the wood for the trees, and are missing either the main reason why we’re struggling or have lost focus on it because it has been going on for so long. So let me remind you: we’re in the middle of an injury crisis.

The biggest criticism and the biggest source of frustration has been our lack of attacking prowess. Where have the dazzling football, the breathless attacking moves, the surgical unpicking of defences gone? Why haven’t we dominated games, creating hatfuls of chances?

Well, think back to last season. Aside from individual moments of brilliance, what defined us most was our team play. The speed with which we moved the ball, the spaces our players found and the almost telepathic way in which they were picked out by their colleagues. Nobody could live with us – even Chelsea, the second best team in Europe, supposedly, had to shut the game down and turn it into a scrap because they weren’t good enough to play us at our own game.

This team play didn’t come out of nowhere. It was the result of a settled starting line-up, chosen from a limited pool of players with a high degree of consistency. The players built their level up and up and up, and they did it together. They became a machine, greater than the sum of their (very considerable) parts.

This season

This season, so far, we have been the opposite. A collection of players, all doing their own thing and all doing all right in their own way, but not playing together. No long strings of passes, no mesmerising interplay. But this shouldn’t be a surprise. To illustrate, let’s look at the front six (ie midfield and attack) we have played in the first five matches of this season (excluding the Charity Shield and the Super Cup, and including subs where the sub has played a significant portion of the game).

Giggs (Possebon), Carrick (O’Shea), Scholes, Fletcher; Rooney, Campbell
O’Shea, Fletcher, Scholes, Anderson; Tevez, Rooney
Anderson, Carrick (Giggs), Scholes (Hargreaves), Rooney; Tevez, Berbatov
Park (Ronaldo), Hargreaves (Anderson), Fletcher, Nani; Tevez, Rooney
Park (O’Shea), Fletcher, Scholes (Ronaldo), Hargreaves; Rooney, Berbatov

What a total mess it has been. Not, of course, because that is how Fergie has chosen it – he is no Benitez (don’t get me started on Benitez) – he has had to cope with a series of half-fit, tired and old players through no fault of his own. But look closely:

  • we haven’t had the same central midfield pairing for two matches in a row
  • our starting central midfield pairing has only finished the game together once
  • there have been two midfield substitutions in four out of the five games
  • the only ever-present, Rooney, has played as a centre forward twice, as second striker twice (with two different centre forwards) and as a right-winger once; and that after being rushed back from a debilitating virus which wiped out his pre-season
  • the most-used midfielder, Scholes, is too old to play effectively for more than 60 minutes
  • the best performances have come from supposed bit-part players, Fletcher and Park, who are used to coming into any line-up and fitting in regardless
  • two of the three hardest games of the season (Liverpool and Chelsea away) are included in this group of fixtures
  • our golden triangle of Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez (who scored 71% of our goals last season) has played together for only 30 minutes; last season would have been a different story without them, and indeed was a different story when Ronaldo was suspended, Rooney injured and Tevez pressed into action before he was ready.

Quick trivia question – without cheating, who was United’s fourth top scorer last season?

Is it any wonder that we’re losing midfield battles? Or that our strike force isn’t firing as a unit? Nobody has the first idea who’s going to be on the pitch from game to game, and are having to adjust to significant personnel and formation changes 2/3 of the way through each game.

People are complaining about losing our mojo as though they seriously expected us to have one under these circumstances, and complaining about tactics which try to sneak 1-0 wins. I find watching these games as depressing as everyone else, but frankly we need those 1-0 wins to keep going at the moment – the glorious, champagne-football-riven 4-0 thrashings will have to wait until later.

Last season

By contrast, here is our “front six” from January, when we won every game and conceded only one goal:

Nani, Carrick, Anderson, Park; Ronaldo, Tevez
Ronaldo, Carrick, Anderson, Giggs; Rooney, Tevez
Ronaldo, Hargreaves, Carrick, Park (Giggs); Rooney, Tevez
Ronaldo, Hargreaves, Carrick (Scholes), Giggs; Rooney, Tevez
Nani, Carrick, Scholes (Anderson), Park; Ronaldo, Rooney

Note this time round:

  • the standard formation, the consistency of personnel and the lack of significant substitutions
  • two of our golden triangle were playing in every match, and all three played in 3
  • Michael Carrick, whose intelligent ball retention, shielding and passing we have badly missed this season, played all five games (and also played in 9 out of the 10 games in which we scored 3 or more after his return to fitness in December)
  • what inconsistency and substitutions there was is due to easing Park and Scholes back from injury and resting the over-used Anderson
  • no top 4 opponents in the group of fixtures

This was a well-oiled machine producing the football we all love to see – there can be, and should be, no comparison with our current sticking plaster line-ups. We can get through this – we did so last season, when we had the same sorts of problems, by grinding our a series of uninspiring 1-0 wins which kept us in the game until we got back to full strength. Until then, let’s not write off our entire squad and management team as no-hopers and has-beens.

Answer to trivia question – Louis Saha, aka Mr Glass, who we would all have sworn blind was injured for the entire season.

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As an aside, I’m starting up my own blog for additional musings which don’t fit in here – I intend there write a bit about general football matters which only affect United in passing or not at all, to publish collections of links to good articles written elsewhere on the web, and to try my hand at match previews and reports (I doubt they’ll be anything like the quality which RR produces so regularly). I’m not sure how it will turn out yet, but if you dropped in occasionally or signed up to the feed to see if you like it, then so much the better.

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