Why Manchester United Won’t Finish in the Top Four

Nick Cohen

By Marc Vitenzon

When Sir Alex Ferguson resigned, in his farewell there was one message which stood out the most: “your job is to stand by the new manager”. But the club as a whole has failed to hold true to his instruction. After David Moyes’ miserable campaign in charge of the Red Devils, the dutchman, Van Gaal, was hired to take reign of the red devil outfit.

“Every club where I have been, I’ve struggled for the first three months,” Van Gaal said during the pre-season. He claimed that he needed more time in order to allow the players to grow into his playing mentality and style.The defeat of teams such as Real Madrid and Liverpool during pre-season truly provided a glance at greener pastures for United supporters. In preseason, Manchester United succeeded to triumph in the Guinness Cup, in which Van Gaal employed his favorite 5-3-2 formation. After great success in pre-season, however, United’s form began to slump.

The beginning of United’s season began with defeat to Swansea City on the opening day. The great number of draws and lackluster displays in the beginning of the season forced Van Gaal to abandon the 5-3-2 formation.

Throughout the rest of the season, up to this point, Van Gaal has gone on to experiment with multiple formations and playing systems. In contrast, the manager of the league leaders, Chelsea, has held true to one playing system, the 4-2-3-1, for the previous two seasons. With a five point gap over second place and a game in hand, the results speak for themselves. As a result many have blamed United’s formation to the point where fans were chanting “4-4-2”!

Sigurdsson’s goal against Manchester United on the opening day of the season should have been a warning sign for Van Gaal that his formation would not work.

Notice, how for Sigurdsson goal, United is successfully able to get players back on defence and organize. Ashley Young drops in behind Blackett and the midfielders track back to the penalty area to defend. The problem, however, lies in defensive discipline. Pay close attention to the last three Manchester United players who enter the box. They completely fail to mark the only player open inside the box. The unmarked player, Sigurdsson, picks up a rebound and ends up being the goalscorer. On that day, fans learned not only that Ashley Young is the unluckiest man in all of soccer (as a bird pooped in his mouth),  but also that United has no defensive discipline, which is vital when playing with three center backs. Thus, Manchester United’s greatest weakness is midfielders failing to do their jobs. The opening day of the season was a reality check for supporters: despite the team’s spending spree they still failed to play as a team. There is no communication, there is no leadership, and more importantly, there is no urgency to be perfect. Manchester United have failed to find a true leader in  the past two transfer windows.

Now let’s look at Jonjo Shelvey’s goal against Manchester United on the 21st of February 2015. For this match, United lined up with a 4-2-2-2 formation:

This is an image of Shelvey’s position prior to his goal. Notice how besides shooting, he has plenty of passing options. He can choose to play a pass to his left, splitting the two United players, and he can choose to play a ball directly in front of him, into space.

Either of these decisions have a great chance of resulting in a goal. This is evidence of United’s failure to mark players. There should be no open Swansea players whatsoever, and yet they all are. United is again punished by an opposing midfielder drifting into space, away from their two midfielders and their defense. However, what stands out the most is how much space Shelvey is given. The player who played a key role in Swansea’s previous triumph against United and setup the first goal of the match was left with acres space. The play occurs after a Manchester United attack, and the goal is scored on a Swansea counter attack. The United midfielders succeed in backtracking and getting back into position to defend, as they did for Sigurdsson goal. It is their defensive discipline and lack of communication which leaves Shelvey unmarked.

It is true that defensive mistakes frequently happen. But when they are the same mistakes that happen over and over again, versus the same teams, there is a problem.

Defensive communication and discipline will be the factors that decide whether United finishes in the top four or not. Although Manchester United has only conceded four more goals than Chelsea in the Premier League this season, one goal is a great blow for a side which fails to score and is scored upon on a regular basis. If Manchester United struggles in competing with the lower half of the league, there is no way for them to escape unscathed in the final matches of the season. The matches include: Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham, Manchester City, and current league leaders Chelsea. These top teams can punish opposition for the smallest mistakes. Therefore, due to lack of defensive discipline and communication, Manchester United will fail to finish top four this season.

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