Things go on with mistakes

September 13, 2010 § 1 Comment

As with Fulham two weeks ago, this is a draw that can be taken either way. Positives? Well, like the Fulham game, this is one more point than the corresponding fixture last season. It was also the first time I can remember seeing Dimitar Berbatov convince as a lone striker; while the absence of Wayne Rooney is nothing to celebrate, there is relief to be had at the absence of dependence on Rooney.

But in the final analysis it has to be viewed as two points dropped. And while it is tempting to lay the blame at the feet of the forwards, who failed to convert at least three decent breakaway opportunities, it would be unjustified. Quite simply, most teams could and should be able to defend a two-goal lead once normal time has ticked away.

I noted after the Fulham game that United have trouble tracking runners from midfield, particularly when playing 4-4-2. In Rooney’s absence – about which I cannot  be bothered to speculate – Sir Alex Ferguson set the team up in a slightly lopsided 4-1-4-1: Nani playing as an out-and-out winger on the right; Ryan Giggs slightly narrower on the left; John O’Shea screening in front of the back four; and Berbatov – particularly in the second half – playing off the shoulder of Sylvain Distin in the inside-right channel.

And it worked, for the most part. O’Shea’s presence effectively gave United, when defending, an auxiliary centre-half, boosting the aerial presence against Tim Cahill and Marouane Fellaini. However, two tactical switches – one from each manager – exposed the heart of United’s defence, and gave Everton the opportunities to equalise.

The first was the introduction of Yakubu. While some distance from full fitness, by taking up the striker’s role he freed Cahill to drop slightly deeper, and escape the smothering attention of Vidic. In some ways it’s heartening to see Cahill always willing to play out of position as and when his team requires, but as a player he’s wasted on jostling with centre-backs.

Nevertheless, it wasn’t until the second substitution – the introduction of Ji-sung Park for Patrice Evra – that Everton found the space to equalise. Evra, by his own high standards, had been poor all afternoon, whether it was giving the ball away, conceding unnecessary fouls, or attempting ludicrous overhead clearances on the halfway line. But the relocation of O’Shea to full-back left the area he’d been patrolling vacant, and it was from here that Everton manufactured their equalising goal.

For the first goal, Cahill finds space in between Jonny Evans and Vidic, and meets a perfect cross from Leighton Baines. But it’s the second goal that really illustrates this concern. First of all, Cahill is unmarked as he makes the run across the box to connect with, and knock down, Baines’ cross. You can see how Scholes and Giggs are both marking space, focused on the ball rather than the man.

The ball then drops to Arteta, who is in yards of space despite three United midfielders in the box with him. 3-3.

Now, these clearly aren’t just tactical failings. It wouldn’t be too much to expect a bit more defensive focus from the players on the pitch, for a start. But of the five goals United have conceded away in the league this season, three have come from midfielders taking advantage of the space between a lackadaisical midfield and a hesitant defence. For a team whose recent success has been built as much on defensive meanness as attacking verve, it is, at the risk of repeating myself, a worrying trend.

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