Paul Little believes United’s soft centre isn’t at the back.
A month ago, Nemanja Vidic was many people’s pick for player of the season, as United’s impregnable defence provided a platform that catapulted the champions to the top of the league. Now as United’s defence has a whiff of Swiss cheese about it, Vidic’s reputation has taken something of a battering.
The Serb’s fall from grace is emblematic of the malaise at Old Trafford – but it would be unfair to place blame solely at his door. The reality is that United’s midfield has a soft underbelly that has been unearthed time and again in recent weeks – leaving Vidic and co in the rearguard exposed.
The rot seemed to be setting in the second leg of the Champions League against Inter. United got through, but largely due to the profligacy of their Italian opponents. If United’s failings had been covered up by that result – their weaknesses were ruthlessly exploited in their thumping by Liverpool.
That victory was a tactical masterclass from Benitez as his side unpicked the lock between United’s midfield and back four and then laid waste to United’s aura of invincibility. The tactics were two pronged. Firstly, Liverpool’s 4-2-3-1 formation saw Anderson and Carrick drawn into a combat with Mascherano and Alonso. In sucking them in, Benitez opened some space between United’s midfield and their centre halves.
Liverpool’s direct approach – launching numerous, early long passes to exploit the pace and power of Torres – forced Ferdinand and Vidic to play a little deeper than usual thereby widening the critical gap. Gerrard filled the vacuum and United simply could not cope. It was notable that Fergie substituted 3 of his starting midfield quartet that day.
The question then would be whether any other side could similarly exploit United’s midfield frailty. The surprise was that their next opponents, Fulham, did so with such ease. Key to this victory was Ferguson’s selections on the day – resting Rooney was bizarre, but had less of an impact than his decision to play the aging legs of Giggs and Scholes in the middle of the park – offering little in the way of defensive screen to his back four. Fulham capitalised, bossing midfield with ease – and again exploiting the space and time afforded them in front of United’s defensive unit.
Many felt that the international break had come at a good time for United, allowing them to analyse their problems and refocus. On the surface, their late late show against Villa suggested that normal service had been resumed. However, on the evidence of Tuesday night’s performance against Porto, the concession of two more soft goals against Villa on Sunday suggested that few lessons had been learned by the champions.
Yet again, the defensive weakness in United’s midfield was there for all to see. If United are still not aware of it, then it seems that observers in Portugal certainly were. Scholes and Carrick and later Carrick and Fletcher were desperately loose both in possession and without the ball. The performances of Lissandro and Hulk for Porto were reminiscent of Torres and Gerrard in Liverpool’s impressive Old Trafford drubbing of United. Both used the space in front of United’s defence to great effect – Hulk’s power and movement pulled the overworked Vidic into wide areas where he was less than comfortable, while Lissandro (and Porto’s midfield runners) probed intelligently in the space provided.
So while the spotlight shines on the likes of Vidic as United continue to concede goals and chances at an alarming rate, the truth is that as a team, United have sprung a leak further up the park. No matter how good a defender you are, if your midfield does not fulfil its defensive duties, then you are in danger of being exposed. Up until four of five weeks ago, Vidic and co dealt very comfortably with what slipped past the United midfield – which really wasn’t very much. But that defensive screen has become so porous in recent timers, that even the heretofore rock solid Serb has struggled to cope.