It is so easy to criticise in retrospect and, who knows, Manchester United may still go on to win the title this season. Despite having less time to recover from their last game, the form of Newcastle United suggests that Manchester City are not going to have it easy at the weekend. Cisse is arguably the best striker in the league on form.
But, all that said, many Manchester United fans were struggling to understand the teamsheet when it was announced on Monday and their worst fears were realised when the team put in a limp performance, tantamount to an admission of inferiority, against a top Manchester City side.
It seems that Sir Alex Ferguson, for all his enduring qualities, always tends to tinker when it comes to the biggest games. He tries and tests a formula throughout the season, allowing players to develop the kind of telepathic, visceral understanding that every top team has. Then, when it comes to the crunch, he throws everyone a curve ball and changes everything. Why?
Manchester United haven’t had a great season by their standards but, for me, the positives have been the form of Antonio Valencia, the increased maturity of Rafael Da Silva in the second half of the season and the blossoming partnership between Rooney and Wellbeck up top. Whilst Wellbeck is still some way short of top class, he works as hard as anyone and has developed a really promising understanding with United’s star man. Sir Alex Ferguson has also been trumpeting the partnership between Evans and Ferdinand for at least a month, describing Evans as the best centre back in the country on form.
So what does he do on Monday? Swaps out Evans for Smalling. Swaps out Da Silva for Jones and Nani for Valencia. And he replaces Wellbeck with Park, whilst also including both the veterans, Giggs and Scholes for a very rare combined outing.
If it had worked we would be calling it yet another masterstroke from Fergie. But it didn’t. And many United fans felt sure that it wouldn’t from the moment that they saw that team sheet. A sort of sickness found the belly.
I totally understand the temptation to add substance to the midfield when playing against such a strong side, but surely the best bet would have been to bring Rooney back into the midfield and leave Wellbeck up front. That way you don’t have to change the personel at all and can exploit the understanding that those players have developed together all season. Instead Fergie put square pegs in round holes, selecting players such as Park, Smalling and Jones who hadn’t played a run of games for months and a team who hadn’t played together once all season. It doesn’t seem to make any sense.
Jones was awful and United, more often than not, seem to put in a poor performance when he plays. Rafael Da Silva may be prone to the odd error but he usually has the pace to make up for it and offers far more down the right flank than Phil Jones ever will. And whilst I rate Smalling very highly it also seemed bizarre to pick him for such a big game when he hadn’t played a run of games for a long time. In fairness, this change might have been enforced as Evans wasn’t even on the bench after taking a knock in training.
In midfield Park has always been someone who needs a run games to hit form. He hasn’t had them and that was patently obvious from his performance. Giggs and Scholes, for all their class, have never been the ball winners that United needed in the middle on Monday. If Rooney had been deployed further back he would have been more involved in the game, won the ball for United more frequently with his boundless energy and supplemented the attack when his team got forward. Rooney is completely wasted as a lone striker in such matches and it leaves Manchester United’s best player out of the game. He can’t have any influence there when the ball is so seldom in that area of the pitch.
The most bizarre selection had to be Nani over Valencia. Nani can be a match winner and it would have been completely understandable if Fergie had deployed him on the left. But to select him instead of United’s form player seemed utterly bizarre. Valencia may not have Nani’s guile but he also rarely gives the ball away and he is always a danger when in possession. Nani can be brilliant but is also expensive. United couldn’t afford to relinquish possession on the few occasions that they had the ball but Nani gave it away too cheaply as usual. If anyone from Manchester United could have done damage to City in that first half it was surely the on-fire Ecuadorian.
Some think that Fergie got it completely wrong and I reckon that, privately, he may think that too. Most fans would have preferred to lose by a couple but at least have had a go at City instead of what they got which was a limp, timid, performance with the aim of getting a draw. It’s just not United. The squad may, as some suspect, not be good enough anyway but Ferguson could have picked a far stronger team from the options that he did have.
It seems that, when it came to squeaky bum time, Fergie may have squeaked the loudest on this occasion.