Tuesday, March 15, 2011

United Failings Unpunished Again

Manchester United 2-1 Marseille. Aggregate: 2-1

On they stagger. United haven't been controlling games this season. They have been relying on an excellent defence. Against Marseille, shorn of both Vidic and Ferdinand, they were predictably less solid, and a more clinical outfit than the French team would have knocked them out.

For all the constant, sychophantic praise of Paul Scholes, he gives the ball away quite a bit and a midfield of him and Michael Carrick does not have the ability to horde possession or the legs for a midfield skirmish so United, after a whirlwind start and Hernandez's opener, sat deep and tried to win the game through Nani, Rooney and the Mexican.

This led to a strange contest. Unlike, say, Arsenal, who constantly commit six or seven players to attack, Marseille play cautiously, in the image of their manager Didier Deschamps. Even at 1-0 down, they never threw many bodies forward. Still, Gignac and Diawara missed wonderful chances to equalise before half time.

In the second half, they still refused to throw caution to the wind. Even when Valbuena came on, it was for the striker, Gignac. There were few clear chances, but a couple of situations where it was clear that they needed to flood the box, gamble on a cross. They retained their caution and United punished them when a rare decent move saw Valencia play in Giggs with a clever pass, and the Welshman square for Hernandez to net his second from close range. Wes Brown's own goal led to a nervy finale but United muddle their way through.

In fairness to Deschamps, he might argue that Marseille's controlled style of attacking was what kept them in the tie, that if they had commited further to attack, United would have torn them apart on the break. But United were clearly vulnerable, with Brown and Smalling an unconvincing partnership, and I think a more adventurous approach from the French team might have yielded a big reward. That said, even as it is they will feel that, on the balance of chances, they might well have gone through.

In fairness to United, while theirs was an unconvincing performance, injuries have depleted their squad somewhat. Twice tonight, there was an enforced substitution at right back- first O'Shea was replaced by Rafael, then Rafael by Fabio- meaning both Giggs and Scholes had to play ninety minutes. Understandable, then, that United failed to regain the tempo with which they started the game.

The plus point for United is the chemistry between Hernandez and Rooney. Rooney has always been at his most exciting when allowed to drop off and set up, as well as finish, chances. Hernandez is the ideal partner in this regard, as he plays off the shoulder of the last defender, is very quick, and shows clever movement. It's been a good few days for United, a bad few for Berbatov.

Then again, the poverty of United's current midfield means that Ferguson is likely to soon revert back to packing the midfield and using Rooney either from the left or as the spearhead of the attack.

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