Rangers’ nine-man defence leaves United at sixes and sevens


Some people are accusing Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson of fielding his Carling Cup XI for Tuesday night’s opening Champions League group game against Rangers at Old Trafford, in which the home side were held to a frustrating goalless draw. Darren Fletcher was the only survivor from the weekend’s match against Everton, as the United manager made ten changes to the team that started at Goodison Park. Despite the overhaul to the starting line-up though, United began the game against the Scottish champions with nine full internationals in their side. Left-back Fabio and Chris Smalling were the two exceptions. With Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand and Wes Brown returning, it was an immensely experienced team that Sir Alex named. To call it a Carling Cup XI would be grossly inaccurate.

That said, United’s inability to break down the Rangers defence hints at problems ahead that owe themselves to the make-up of the squad, specifically in midfield. Walter Smith’s team came for a point and, following a rigorous defensive display, that is exactly what they left with. Rangers erected a wall of five defenders between the edge of their box and the narrow four-man midfield in front, with Kenny Miller the nominal forward. As their opponents sat deep and squeezed the space between the two lines of players, United were restricted to long-range efforts from Darron Gibson and hopeful crosses into a packed penalty area. Fabio and Wes Brown were able to play as auxiliary wingers, such was the ground that Rangers conceded on the flanks, which meant that the game was effectively an exercise in eight-versus-ten attacking for the home side. With space around the box at a premium United just needed someone to pick the lock, but instead Rangers’ defence shut them out for the full 96 minutes.

The truth is, there is a worrying lack of creative options in the centre of midfield for the 18-time English league champions. United boast an array of talented, hardworking midfielders but, in a game such as Tuesday night’s, against a team that defends deep in numbers, Darren Fletcher and Darron Gibson are not the sort of players who will breach the back line. Neither is Michael Carrick, who is currently injured. The threat posed by pace is rendered ineffective when there is no space to run into, when it is a lot harder for a winger to beat his man, but it is possible to overcome a rearguard action such as Rangers’ if there is a player in the middle of the park capable of seeing the opportunity for a killer pass before the defence sees it first and shuts off the angle. Paul Scholes has been that player for United for fifteen years but the 35-year-old was rested against Rangers, to the surprise of few given the action he has seen already this season, and United always find it hard to play without him against teams that sit back.

The awful injury suffered by Antonio Valencia in the second half is likely to keep the Ecuador international out until at least April. It is a cruel blow to a player who grew into his role at the club last season, most notably in his game-changing introduction at the San Siro against AC Milan. Valencia’s absence means that, just as Scholes remains United’s most potent player in central midfield, Ryan Giggs’ influence out wide is going to be required more regularly than had perhaps been hoped for in his twenty-first season of first team duty. A lot now depends on Nani’s fitness and continued good form as he is the club’s only remaining established winger under 30. Park Ji-sung and Darren Fletcher can also operate from the flank but what they gain in youth over Giggs they lack in guile. Gabriel Obertan is more akin to a traditional winger but remains a peripheral member of the squad.

The game against Rangers made United’s failure to sign Mesut Özil look all the more disappointing. Given that Sir Alex is likely to make do with the midfielders that he has now for the rest of the season, one bright part to Tuesday was the sight of Anderson on the substitutes’ bench. The Brazilian has been out injured for so long that his return feels like a new signing and, if he can rekindle the promise that he showed in his first season at the club, he could have a big part to play this year.

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  • Suminder Sandhu says:

    I’m glad you mentioned Anderson – I’m a big fan but can only hope his ‘falling out’ with Ferguson doesn’t have the usual ominous eventuality.

    I think, like you said, the match was an exemplar; it showcased United’s lack of creativity in attacking midfield positions especially. Someone like Sneijder or Ozil.

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