Saturday 14 December 2019

Manchester United's defence has no leadership, no discipline, no set system and no top-class players

Tyler Blackett of Manchester United and Jamie Vardy of Leicester City compete
Tyler Blackett of Manchester United and Jamie Vardy of Leicester City compete

Mark Ogden

Manchester United have now conceded 12 goals in six competitive games under Louis van Gaal, with Sunday’s 5-3 humiliation against Leicester City exposing a series of flaws in the team’s defensive approach.

With the transfer window closed until January, can their problems be solved before their top four ambitions suffer a fatal blow?

Lack of leadership

The summer departures of Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra saw United lose 1,096 games of top level experience from their back four and, while nobody ever suggested it would be easy to overcome the loss of three such senior figures, the reality has been far worse than even the gloomiest predictions.

All three had shown signs of age and wear-and-tear last season, but allowing each of the trio to leave now appears to have been reckless.

United’s remaining defenders are young and lacking in experience. Tyler Blackett needs to be guided through games, but so do Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Jonny Evans, who often relied on the presence of Vidic, Ferdinand and Evra to cajole them along.

1. 23 Oct 2011, Man Utd 1-6 Man City
Manchester United's heaviest home defeat for 56 years and the first time they had conceded six goals at Old Trafford since 1930. Mario Balotelli started the rout and United collapsed at the end, conceding three goals in the last few minutes. City went on to win the title. Picture: ACTION IMAGES
1. 23 Oct 2011, Man Utd 1-6 Man City Manchester United's heaviest home defeat for 56 years and the first time they had conceded six goals at Old Trafford since 1930. Mario Balotelli started the rout and United collapsed at the end, conceding three goals in the last few minutes. City went on to win the title. Picture: ACTION IMAGES
2. 20 Oct 1996, Newcastle 5-0 Man Utd Kevin Keegan's revenge for losing the title the previous season. Newcastle were brilliant as Darren Peacock, David Ginola, Les Ferdinand, Alan Shearer and Phillipe Albert scored - the Belgian with a memorable lob over Peter Schmeichel. Picture: ALLSPORT
3. 26 Oct 1996, Southampton 6-3 Man Utd "What's the difference between Peter Schmeichel and a taxi driver? A taxi driver only lets in five at a time." Only six days after the shellacking at Newcastle, United were thumped again down at the Dell. The 3-1 defeat at Southampton in April 1996 could have made this list, as United trudged off the field 3-0 down at half-time and Sir Alex Ferguson blamed the team's grey shirts. But this game does make our top 10, Egil Ostenstad scoring a hat-trick, Roy Keane being sent off and Matthew Le Tissier chipping Schmeichel. United did at least go on to win the league. Picture: ACTION IMAGES
4. 3 Oct 2000, Chelsea 5-0 Man Utd United had gone 29 games without defeat but lost at their then bogey team 5-0. Gus Poyet scored after 27 seconds, Massimo Taibi made a customary howler and Chris Sutton scored one of his few Premiership goals for the Blues. Picture: ALLSPORT
5. 21 Sep 2014, Leicester City 5-3 Man Utd United were cruising at 2-0, they were cruising at 3-1. Then referee Mark Clattenburg awarded a dubious penalty to the Foxes and Louis van Gaal's world fell apart. This was the first time for 30 years that United had lost having led by two goals, as Jamie Vardy ran their makeshift defence and Leonardo Ulloa scored twice. Picture: ACTION IMAGES
6. 16 Mar 2014, Man Utd 0-3 Liverpool Arguably the nadir of David Moyes's dismal reign, and that's saying something. The scoreline might not be as dramatic as others in the list but it could have been - Liverpool had countless chances to add more as Brendan Rodgers' team exerted total dominance at Old Trafford from minute one to 90. A month later, Moyes was gone, not before United had lost at home to Man City, also 3-0. Picture: EPA
7. 29 Oct 2005, Middlesbrough 1-4 Man Utd The match that eventually led to the departure of captain Roy Keane. He missed this game but didn't miss the opportunity to give his team-mates a good kicking on MUTV afterwards, for which he himself was kicked out of the club by Ferguson. United were truly abysmal as a Gaizka Mendieta-inspired Boro tore them apart, the Spaniard scoring twice and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Yakubu adding the others. Picture: PA
8. 14 Mar 2009, Man Utd 1-4 Liverpool Defeats to your fiercest rivals are always the most painful, not least in the midst of a fractious title race. Two months after showing off his famous "facts" dossier, Rafael Benitez proved he was pretty good at tactics too, as Fernando Torres gave Nemanja Vidic the runaround. United went on to win the league, but it was stained by this defeat. Picture: GETTY IMAGES
9. 14 Mar 2004, Man City 4-1 Man Utd No, not the 4-1 from last season, which came as no surprise to anyone. This result was 10 years old but is still remembered fondly by the blue half of Manchester. United had been knocked out of the Champions League a few days earlier and were more or less knocked out of the Premiership title race by this game. That Liverpool hero Robbie Fowler opened the scoring made it even more miserable for the away fans. Picture: GETTY IMAGES
10. 1 Jan 1996, Tottenham 4-1 Man Utd Remembered by United fans as the William Prunier game. United had lost several defenders to injury over the Christmas period and Ferguson, desperate for replacements, had been advised by Eric Cantona to sign the French centre-half. This was one of only two games he played, but his performance was so bad that he still makes it into most "worst Manchester United XIs of all time". Spurs couldn't believe their luck, Chris Armstrong taking full advantage with two goals. Picture: ACTION IMAGES

There is a dangerous leadership vacuum at the back and no obvious solution currently available for Van Gaal.

The issue could be eased by a commanding captain in the middle of the pitch, but captain Wayne Rooney is hardly in the Roy Keane or Bryan Robson mould.

Confusion reigns

So are United operating a three-man defence or have they now reverted to four at the back?

Van Gaal continues to evade questions over his preferred system for United, so supporters are as confused as the players on the pitch.

With a non-English speaking Marcos Rojo now playing in the defence, communication is another issue and every defender familiar with a three-man defence insists that communication is key.

At Leicester, weeks of practising 3-5-2 counted for nothing with United playing with four defenders, but it appeared as though the back four were caught in No-man’s land, uncertain of whether to push or hold, stretch or contain, when defending.

Van Gaal, who has typically played 4-3-3 throughout his career, has spoken repeatedly about the need to the ‘train the brains’ of his United players, but for defenders schooled in 4-4-2, perhaps it is too mentally-taxing to impose a 3-5-2 system on them.

No defensive discipline

The secret of any back line, whether it consists of three or four defenders, is to maintain a straight line when pushing up.

United, however, appear to have been operating with a zig-zag approach when attempting to maintain a defensive line, with the second-half collapse at Leicester a direct consequence of the lack of defensive discipline among Van Gaal’s defenders.

There is no organiser on the pitch, no Nemanja Vidic to pull defenders into position and, with two attacking full-backs in Rafael and Rojo, there is a nightmare scenario at times of defenders being further forward than midfielders.

Injuries have not helped Van Gaal in this area. Had Evans, Jones, Smalling and Rafael been fit throughout pre-season, perhaps an understanding could have developed that would have avoided the problems exposed at Leicester.

But each of that quartet suffer injuries on a regular basis, so Van Gaal cannot rely on their fitness in the long-term.

Transfer market failings

Former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher accused United of ‘mismanagement’ by failing to sign a top-class defender this summer, but almost £50m was invested in Luke Shaw and Marcos Rojo.

Money was spent, but Carragher is right to point out that United have failed to replace senior defenders such as Vidic, Ferdinand and Evra.

Efforts were made to sign German World Cup winner Mats Hummels from Borussia Dortmund, but United abandoned that pursuit after being told he was not for sale.

A deal for Thomas Vermaelen failed to materialise, while United stood back and allowed Manchester City have a clear run to Porto’s Eliaquim Mangala, who made such an impression on his debut against Chelsea on Sunday.

Dejan Lovren would also have improved United at the back, but no effort was made to rival Liverpool for the centre-half.

Rather than recruit a host of attacking players, United should have focused on signing at least one experienced centre-half.

Imbalanced team

Van Gaal has complained of inheriting an ‘imbalanced squad’ from David Moyes, one with more number tens than central midfielders and a needless stockpile of wingers.

While that has been addressed during the transfer window, Van Gaal seems to have moved the problem around his team rather than solve it and it is little surprise that the defence is struggling with so many attackers in the team.

Only Daley Blind, a defensive midfielder, offers the back four any protection and he was overrun at Leicester.

Van Gaal has deployed wingers in the wing-back positions, therefore denying his defenders the protection of defensive-minded players in front of them.

The likes of Juan Mata, Ander Herrera, Angel di Maria and Radamel Falcao offer little or nothing in terms of defensive contributions, while Wayne Rooney produces plenty of energy but fails to use it in an intelligent, defensive manner.

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