Aidan O'Hara: Ferguson missing the central point
WHEN a team loses to Barcelona, it is very easy for them to pile the praise onto the Catalans rather than wonder what more they could have done themselves. Being overrun and beaten at home by a team who haven't won there in 23 years, however, makes smoke-screens a little more difficult to come by. In fairness to Alex Ferguson, he still made a valiant attempt.
"They gave us four minutes (injury- time), that's an insult to the game," lamented Ferguson after Saturday's 3-2 defeat to Tottenham. "It denies you a proper chance to win a football match." The previous 93 minutes (including first-half injury-time) was insufficient to give them a 'proper' chance.
The most successful managers also tend to be the best at deflecting blame away from both themselves and the players, but the longer that Manchester United continue to produce performances such as the first-half of their last two Premier League games, the more difficult it is going to be to blame outside influences.
Midfield remains their biggest problem and it's a stunning indictment on both the manager and the club that a man old enough to have played professionally since before goalkeepers could pick up a back-pass remains so close to the starting 11.
On Saturday, Ryan Giggs was whipped off at half-time following a 45-minute period when he looked every one of his 38 years. There are only three clubs who have more league titles in their history than Giggs individually -- he needs one more to draw level with Arsenal's 13 -- but for all of his past glory, at present, he seems to be playing from memory. The problem, however, is that Giggs' memories of playing well in central midfield are few and far between.
For all of his brilliance, Ferguson's team selections are occasionally baffling. In the Champions League final against Barcelona last year, he started with a central midfield pairing of Michael Carrick and Giggs, which is neither good enough to consistently retain possession, nor strong enough to win it back from the opposition.
In the aftermath of Barcelona's 3-1 victory, their performance was routinely described as being a masterclass, yet Ferguson could barely have made it any easier for them. Sixteen months on from that final, Ferguson at least seems to have learned the lesson of Paul Scholes' importance, yet the combination of Giggs and Carrick in central midfield continues to offer the opposition hope.
In the last 10 games which Giggs and Carrick have started together for United, they have lost four of them, which is a far higher losing percentage than Ferguson has encountered in his United career. In that period United have suffered from injuries in attack and defence, but it's in the engine room where things are really starting to stall.
Having added Shinji Kagawa and Robin van Persie to his squad in the summer, there was a school of thought that Ferguson was going to employ the 'Polo formation' which involves being tasty around the outside with a big hole in the middle.
In the first half, it was remarkable how easily Tottenham's players charged through unchallenged and exposed Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans, who were hung out to dry by those ahead of them.
Scholes certainly makes Carrick look a better player, but when Giggs is added to the equation, it's easy to see why a fit and powerful opposition thinks they are in with a chance against a central midfield trio which has a combined age of 106. As well as Saturday, Carrick and Giggs started together towards the end of last season when United lost 1-0 to both Wigan and Manchester City -- results which cost them a 20th league title.
Their other defeat in that 10-game stretch was a 3-2 mauling from Athletic Bilbao yet, even in victory, the performances have been unconvincing.
Jonjo Shelvey's red card gave United the impetus after an insipid first-half performance last week, while wins over Norwich, Fulham and Sunderland last season were a long way from convincing with Carrick and Giggs attempting to be the driving force.
Far from his usual ruthlessness, Ferguson's decision to take Giggs off at half-time on Saturday merely highlighted the folly of starting him in the first place as Moussa Dembele -- who would have been available to United in the summer from Fulham -- was allowed to dominate.
United's second-half performance deserved something, but while Ferguson was deflecting blame towards the referee's watch, it's the closing in of old Father Time on his midfield that should be his greatest concern. It's the central point that Ferguson seems to be missing.