Date: 16th January 2009 at 6:49pm
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It looks like the attacking prowess showed against Chelsea was only temporary. United returned to their previous goal-shy ways against Wigan and it is now a real concern for the champions.

Fergie blamed it on missed chances but in all honesty, United do not create too much. Since beating Stoke 5-0 on November 15 United never scored more than one goal in a league game, the exception is of course the victory over Chelsea.

We dominated most of these games but failed to create many clear-cut chances and simply ended up pressing without any penetration. Against Wigan, we didn’t even dominate. We had more chances than the opposition but they kept us on the edge in the way Boro or City failed… and it is worrying because apart from the defence, not one part of the team seems to be working properly.

We cannot complain about the results though – after all, our last nine league games yielded seven wins and two draws, without conceding a single goal. I’m merely saying that sooner or later United will have to stop relying on the defence and start banging in the goals because 33 scored in 20 games is not a very good record…

The reason? Hard to find. The most obvious would be to blame the attackers and true, they must shoulder some of it. They are not sharp enough in front of goal, especially Carlos Tevez whose first touch let him down badly once again against Wigan when he could have put the game beyond doubt in the first half. Dimitar Berbatov is doing fine as a link-man but should be encouraged to shoot more, to go forward, to be a striker, not an attacking midfielder. Wayne Rooney, when controls his temper, plays very well this season but he’s out with injury right now which only makes the situation more difficult.

However, the real problems are Cristiano Ronaldo and the midfield. Ronaldo can’t be accused with lack of trying but his form is nowhere near last season’s and it looks like that the team is struggling to come to terms with the fact that they can’t always rely on him to pull everyone else out of trouble. His role has also changed slightly, he’s more of a traditional winger this season – and he doesn’t relish it, that’s why he frequently drifts inside though no doubt there’s a tactical side to that trend.

And there is the midfield. In 2006/07, our football was, for the biggest part of the season, fantastic. We took teams apart and created countless chances. It was down to the excellent chemistry and cohesion in the midfield: Giggs was rejuvenated along with the consistently brilliant Scholes, Carrick played with quiet authority while Ronaldo exploded in November and never ceased to dazzle everyone afterwards.

Last season, United’s approach was different. We created fewer chances and were less cavalier, partly because Fergie constantly had to chop and change in midfield because of the decline of Giggs and Scholes and the addition of Hargreaves and Anderson. The unusual pairings, the constant changes undermined the team slightly, we found it more difficult to dominate sides. Yet this was compensated for by an absolutely unbreachable defence and the superhuman work of Cristiano Ronaldo who simply turned into a goal machine, thriving on the selfless work of Rooney and Tevez.

This season saw a return to 4-4-2 which was barely used during the previous campaign and it gave a bigger responsibility to central midfielders. Tevez and Rooney are working as hard as ever but Tevez’s limitations (technique- and pacewise) and the fact that neither is a clinical finisher came into sharper focus with Ronaldo’s slight dip in form and slight change in role. Berbatov’s arrival complicated things: he needed and still needs time to settle in and the others need time to grasp his way of thinking. He’s got a sharp brain, a brilliant first touch and wonderful passing ability which singles him out as the link man but too often, there’s nobody to finish off the moves.

Why? Because Rooney is heavily marked and still finds it difficult to resist the temptation to roam all over the field, because Ronaldo’s role changed and they still double up on him, because the other winger is not up to it (Park, for example, is frequently getting into very good positions but his finishing is awful while Nani is simply not intelligent enough to fill the gaps). And the central midfielders are too defensive.

This latter reason is easy to see. Giggs, Scholes – neither has the stamina to make Lampard-style bursts into the penalty area. When Carrick plays he usually tries to get forward but he doesn’t have the pace for the job while Anderson is having a second season syndrome: he’s looking a bit lost on the pitch at times even though I think his performances are nowhere near as bad as many United fans reckon – it’s just that last season he was all the more impressive, dominating players like Fabregas and Gerrard.

It explains why we play our best football when Fletcher and Park both play. They have enough intelligence AND stamina AND pace AND workrate to track back, provide cover and contribute to the attacks at the same time. They provide the most balance even though skill-wise they are not in the same league as Scholes and Giggs.

Of course it’s not merely about tactics and abilities. The players are human beings therefore mental approach is also very important and as I have stated on several occasions, this United side still haven’t recovered from winning the European Cup. The signs are there though: the concentration levels of the defence became marvellous but if you recall the first two or three months they were just as culpable as the attack (Hull City home, Emirates away). And now when the big game came around the whole team could pull themselves together and gave a masterclass of 90-minute focus and concentration – unlike early in the season when we had to face our more committed rivals.

United are in a very good position right now. A win over a Bolton side that’s almost in freefall would put us top and put the pressure on Liverpool before their derby. It’s an enviable position, really. But sooner or later we need to stop overrelying on the defence. I think that with Rooney’s injury, the best we can do is to return to the modern age’s fashionable tactic, the 4-2-3-1, with Fletcher and Carrick playing behind a trio of Park, Giggs/Anderson and Ronaldo and of course Berbatov would be the lone forward. This would be a balanced side with crisp passing – in theory. However, it is merely a suggestion and it might be that I’m woefully wrong and that Fergie will come up with something better. I’m looking forward to it very much.