Thursday, 13 November 2008

The Defence - Problems and Solutions

There is a general dissatisfaction amongst United fans at the moment. Where's our mojo gone, people ask? What's gone so wrong that the same group of players as last year are struggling by their standards? I'm going to do my best to answer those slightly spurious questions by digging deep into the reasons why our defence and our attack are simultaneously a bit off colour. Since this requires quite a lot of detail, today I'm going to focus on the defence.

The Defence

Plain stats first - last season, in the Premiership we conceded 22 goals from the 38 games. This season, we have conceded 10 in 11 games - just under half the number of goals, with less than a third of the games played.

In my view, there are three main reasons for this decline as against last season:

1. The right back merry-go-round

It really is anyone's guess who is going to play at right back from game to game these days. I don't understand this - my analysis has always been that Gary Neville isn't as good as he used to be, Wes Brown is good enough but will never be great, and Rafael isn't good enough yet although he will be great. This isn't new stuff, I've said this repeatedly whenever the issue has come up.

The problem with rotating these guys is that they are so different that they change the complexion of the back four. And the player in the back four whom this affects the most is Rio Ferdinand. Rio plays on the right of the centre back pairing, and so is closely affected by the behaviour of his right back:

- Gary Neville, on a good day, is solid all round. He will do his share defensively and not get embarrassed (yes, I know - I said on a good day, not on an Arsenal day), he is competitive in the air but not that tall, and he will look to get forward and in particular overlap.

When Neville is playing, Rio doesn't have the first idea what to expect. One minute Nev will be attempting a cross from the by-line, leaving a big hole behind him, and the next his slightly failing legs will cause him to hang further back than he otherwise would. And whilst he will be solid against his opposite number for most of the game, the increased chance that he will over-commit or do something rash must be in the back of Rio's mind. Plus, when Nev is on the pitch, Rio seems to defer his moral authority and assume less of a leadership role than he does otherwise, which is a bad thing.

- Wes Brown is much the strongest defensively these days, and he is also the best in the air. He will get forward, but often as an outlet behind the winger as opposed to an overlap - this contributes to the fact that he is the least likely to be caught completely out of position defensively.

When Wes is in the team, Rio is free to devote most of his focus to the centre of the pitch and the strikers - whilst he may occasionally have to come across and cover the winger, most of the time Wes will be in control or at the very least capable of arriving fast enough that a central midfielder can come across and hold the fort until his full back returns. Also, set pieces are that much easier to organise and defend because of the presence of an extra player of centre-back stature.

- Rafael is much the weakest defensively, some well-timed challenges against Arsenal aside. He lacks the experience, and commits himself to the tackle too easily. He has no aerial presence to speak of, and he will get forward at every opportunity, where he is equally happy receiving the ball deep to run at players, overlapping or, as we saw, straying more centrally into the area.

When Rafael is playing, Rio knows that any defensive support he gets is a bonus. Rafael will go where he pleases, and even when he's back defending there's no guarantee he's going to stand up to scrutiny. Therefore, Rio is effectively playing two positions, and has no spare energy left over to organise the rest of the defence.

Conclusion to draw: a defensive unit is most effective if every member knows instinctively what the others will do. This may become a mantra. The solution here is to decide that Wes is the best pick this season, and commit to playing him in at least 80% of the games when fit.

2. The goalkeeping transition

We have similar issues with who should play in goal. Var der Sar is woefully out of form, probably due to age finally catching up with him. Kuszczak, whilst having been understudy for the past two seasons and therefore in some way deserving of his chance, has shown no signs of being good enough to be our next long term number one. Ben Foster has shown plenty of signs of being that good, but has been injured too much so far to force his way in.

Again, my views on this are well documented - I think Foster should be eased in as quickly as possible. But consider again how different these three keepers are, and how those differences change the demands made on the (already fluid, as we have seen) back four.

- EVDS is a shadow of his former self. In his pomp (which for me ended around February last season) he was both a superb shot stopper and dominant in his penalty area. Now he is an acceptable shot stopper and erratically dominant (in that his instinct is to dominate his area but his decision-making has become weaker and he has become prone to the odd unforced error). Also, as his form and so his confidence have declined, he has ceased to be a leader and an organiser - you never see him charging out to give his defenders a piece of his mind, one of the most reliable indicators of a goalkeeper's confidence.

With EVDS in goal, the back four and in particular the centre backs don't know what to expect. They don't know whether he is going to stay put, or come early and claim a cross or loose ball, or come late and make a mess of it (eg against Liverpool). This is an unnecessary extra bit of brain damage for them on top of coping with the rotation at right back and makes it harder for them to focus on their jobs. Notice, just to exacerbate this further, that Fergie has recently started experimenting with zonal marking to cover this flaw - it took Liverpool about a season to get used to Benitez's zonal system, and the last thing we need is to try to incorporate it once every three games.

- Tomasz Kuszczak is a very different keeper. His natural instinct is to stay on his line unless he has no choice but to come for the ball - on the other hand, he is an exceptional shot stopper. Therefore, with TK in goal, the back four have to play that much deeper when crosses and high balls are being played into the box and have to set up with a totally different mindset for corners and set plays. It isn't going to be enough to ease an attacker out of the way to allow your keeper to claim it - you have to deal with it yourself somehow. This is a higher risk way of dealing with difficult crosses, and if all the defenders aren't geared up for it trouble can easily result (eg the Chelsea goal). On the plus side, the defenders have certainty as to what is expected of them - but only when TK is playing.

- Ben Foster, on the other hand, is predisposed to try to come and claim absolutely everything unless there is no chance at all of him getting there. Providing this is done well (eg Schmeichel or Cech instead of David James), this is by far the best approach. It also allows your defenders to hold a higher line and to focus principally on neutralising their man, knowing anything going over their head will be dealt with. However, this also works best when the goalkeeper exhibits strong organisational skills to communicate his intentions and requirements to those in front of him. I haven't seen that yet from Foster, who is likely still a bit starstruck to be bossing Ferdinand and Vidic about.

Let's have that mantra again: a defensive unit is most effective if every member knows instinctively what the others will do. Solution: play Foster in 80% of the games, rather than conducting a season-long audition for the GK spot. Let him sink or swim - if he sinks, at least we know we have to go to the market next summer.

3. Evra's over-ambition

This has become a very long post, so I'll keep this bit short. Evra has in many games overcommitted going forward. I've made this point repeatedly in my player ratings, so I won't labour it now. But this gives Vidic a headache - just as Rio has to play as a part-time fullback when Rafael is next to him, as does Vidic when Evra is in an aggressive frame of mind. This is fine against a single striker, but against teams who play two up top and/or try to actually play football on the wings, it seriously weakens our defence centrally to have the best two centre halves in the league covering their fullbacks all the time. Not to mention when they could do with some cover from the fullbacks.

4. Midfield inconsistency

As a final point, the lack of consistent selection in midfield also has an impact on how the defence sets up. Each of our midfielders contributes defensively in a slightly different way:

- Carrick screens and obstructs areas, but rarely commits to a tackle
- Anderson tries to use his body strength and aggression to get between the opponent and the ball, and failing that actively seeks to win the ball in a challenge
- Hargreaves and Fletcher combine Carrick and Anderson's attributes, which is what makes them our premium defensive midfielders
- Scholes sometimes screens, but is prone to going to ground in 50-50 situations
- Giggs floats about and vaguely makes a nuisance of himself in a Carrick-lite way, but has no real defensive presence
- O'Shea is essentially a centre back pushed a bit further forward

The constant changing in the centre of midfield has affected the level of protection the back four can expect. In one game, you might have Anderson using his energy to track back and cover whichever full back has been caught up the pitch - in the next, Scholes will have given up chasing the same winger and instead tried to get back to assist on the edge of the area. These are big changes when it comes to what is the optimal way for your defenders to deal with a situation.

Again: a defensive unit is most effective if every member knows instinctively what the others will do. In this case, the lack of consistency has been caused by injuries rather than indecisive selection - but again, the solution is to try to play the same pairing as often as possible.

Sorry for the length of post, but I hope you find that in some way interesting - it's my best attempt to dissect our defensive woes. I'd be really interested to read your reactions in the comments.


MoYa said...

Another excellent article Penguin!

I think a lot of this comes with having such a big squad and playing so many games a season.
Fergie is trying to give everyone "their" playing time and also trying to keep players fresh.

I agree with your assessment of our RB spot, goalkeepers and Evra.

With Hargreaves out for the season, we don't have a natural defensive mid (which I think all great teams need to have).
Anderson is plays there because he can, but its not his natural position.
Even Fletcher isn't a defensive mid. I've noticed especially this season how he is trying to further his attacking game and making a lot of runs into the box.

Midfield is certainly a problem especially since we don't have any consistency in our pairings.

t_reason said...

very balanced analysis...i just think it boils down to the solution that players should be given a lengthy run keeping the team unchanged.. only then would the consistency and understanding rise and we ll enjoy the results we see...

RedJack said...

quick question when playing teams where evra is likely to be increasingly committed in a final half area would it be useful to play Park in the left wing spot?

Otherwise I would say that I would agree that Brown needs to play so that ferdinand can focus on what he does best.

With regards to our goalkeeper - foster, foster, foster - he is a fantastic keeper but needs the experience of playing a full season so he can have the confidence to boss ferdinand,vidic etc

swapnil said...

a good article.analysis of RB and GK is spot on.although i don't totally agree with the evra part.i suppose even last season evra used to be equally forward in position but used to track back whenever needed.i still think evra is the most consistent of all the defenders this season and shouldn't be blamed.
as far as midfield is concerned hargreaves' absence for rest of the season is going to be a big big blow.he was a key performer in all the big games last season not just defensively but in terms of creating chances as well.i suppose its time for anderson to step up to the mark.
i also think that we are missing carlos quieroz massively.he handled the tactical aspect of the game really i'm not saying fergie isn't good tactician but last season was very much influenced by by quieroz.
also acc to me another reason for our poor{not upto the mark}performences[and i know many of you will disagree] is lack of is very difficult to maintain that hunger after winning 2 prems and a champs league in 2 yrs.the reason why lpool are doing so well[atleast that's what the table says] is because they have more desire,more than ever as we are so close to breaking their record now.chelsea are doing so well because they are hungry for success as we really have stolen all the glory from them inspite of their huge spendings.

UnitedUnited said...

I appreciated this article there in Red Rants and I am posting this here again. Exellent article. Very well thought of. Penguin, I would like to know of your thoughts on Mike Phelan and the "need" to get a new number two.

RedJack said...

I don't agree at all. If the poor performances were due to too much success why have we been winning trophies pretty much consistently since 1995.

If this is the case Liverpool would have won the title at leastr once in the last eighteen years.

Ferguson instills the desire to players that you are only as good as your next game and if he doesn't players like giggs/scholes/neville will do it for him.

Retirement is the time to start dwelling on how good you were as a player.

PO13 said...

I agree with almost all of your points, yet I just can't see Sir Alex playing Foster 80% of the time. He will stick with Van der Sar and probably Neville as well out of loyalty.

f4tb34r said...

Totally agree with your points. You can sometimes hear someone blame Rio for his dropping standards but it certainly obvious that with the regular changing of RB and CM pairing, it doesn't help Rio at all.

And EVDS certainly have to make way for foster.

sam said...

I read this article in RedRants, once again Penguin you have offered some fantastic insight. Firstly I completely agree with you about Foster and EVS slipping. He is beginning to bring back some horrible suppressed memories of recent keepers like Roy Carrol and even he who won't be named. I just don't have the confidence watching him at the moment, and can only imagine what Rio and Vidic must feel on the field. Time to allow Foster to prove himself (though I honestly haven't seen too much of him, all reports suggest hes more than capable).

Wes Brown deserves to be our RB. Last season he stepped up and showed why SAF thought he was "the best natural defender hes ever worked with", but in saying that I would love to see Rafael get more game time. So for me, Wes our number one, and let Rafael be the understudy eg against lower teams, as a sub (especially if we are chasing games) and in the Carling and possibly FA cups depending on fixtures.

Rio just isn't in the same purple patch form he was last year when he really stood out as the best CB in the world, by an absaloute country mile. This year he is again some times falling into his old trap of day dreaming abit, whether this is due to the RB and GK situation I don't know, I think he just needs to get his head in the right place and concentrate on controlling his team, so heres hoping he bounces back soon.

Alright now the midfield, as Penguin might guess, my favourite topic. Everyone seems to disagree with my stance on Carrick. Can everyone be wrong? Of course my answer is yes, but Im willing to compromise. I still really think that diego is a player United really need to consider. His build up play and class is really undeniable and something that I feel would really create that attacking/flair midfield link to our attacking players that we have been missing in recent years. With OH out for the season we have to fill a hole. Does anyone think maybe Carrick can screen our defence? He does have a strong postional sense, which is key in the DCM postion, he just needs to really put the foot in. He can keep the ball, and is happy to just lay it off to the wide and defensive players(which I think he specialises in, but thats another story...). Sure he doesn't reek of strength like a Gattusso or a Essien, but he is more than capable of fillling that hole while Diego could pull our strings in the the ACM postion. Anderson and Fletcher allow decent rotations, and can allow Carrick to play a little bit further up the field.

On a side note I think it's time we cut our squad a bit. It's not fair to a player like Fletcher, who has been fantastic for us, and besides the top 4 he would be a week in-week out starter to waste his talent on the bench. So maybe once a couple of our younger plaers age abit he should be sold. That would leave us with Carrick, Anderson,OH, Diego(?) and Possebon. With Gary Neville, Giggs and Scholes retiring in the near future it creates a more tight knit unit who aren't continually rotated. Just a thought.

Sorry for the lenghty post.

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