One thing I really wanted to talk about this week was Patrice Evra; I spoke about him before in my column, and Gary Neville covered it excellently last night on television. I’ve spoke about the fact that Evra does not get back to defend and it was costly again on Saturday.
The centre halves were being left on their own; Fergie might not have seen Gary’s fantastic analysis due to him preparing for Europe but he’ll hear about it, and I’m sure more importantly he knew that it had happened. Evra is not primarily a defensive player and for someone so experienced, it’s surprising. You might expect it from Rafael but he wasn’t as bad as Evra.
When I was playing, if one of the full backs would go up, then the other full back would stay and you would come across with the centre halves to keep a solid three; so if the ball did come down the other end, you’d at least be in a position to sweep the ball. Yet with two of the goals, Spurs came down the right and Evra was nowhere near. Rio Ferdinand was criticised for not getting to Bale but Evra should have been better positioned; they would have been able to push him wide, and the chance would not have been as easy. Yes, Bale scored with his weaker foot, but pushing him further wide would have made it much harder for him to get a cross in as he wouldn’t have that natural whip. Rio’s not as quick as he used to be but he’s no slouch; I felt the criticism was very harsh and possibly misdirected.
Perhaps the fact that we don’t have a commanding goalkeeper or, at the very least, a vocal goalkeeper also had a part to play – with Schmeichel or van der Sar you can’t imagine that Evra would be so badly positioned. When I was coaching at amateur side Whitworth, I would always say “would you run across the road to help a mate?”, and for me, Evra wasn’t prepared to do that. He wasn’t prepared to break his neck to get back into the position he was supposed to be in. But this moves me on to another concern I have; we don’t seem to have a natural leader in the team or squad.
Who’s the one you look at on the pitch to say “he’ll sort it out”? Where’s the Robson, Keane, Ince, Neville? They were all vocal, players you could rely on, but this has become very obvious since van der Sar retired. The goalkeeper is the eyes in the back of your head as a player; if he is telling you to do something, it’s for the good of the team so you don’t lose a goal – it’s not necessarily like, for instance, Rooney telling Nani not to shoot because he’s better placed. If the goalkeeper says “go left, left”, you have to do it and you cannot question it. You don’t see the bigger picture; he does. I’m not sure that our goalkeepers – either of them, perhaps because of their language, though Lindegaard speaks English – are vocal enough. Rio shouts, and does lead, but on Saturday he was more bothered about his own performance because of what was happening wide of him.
We can’t change the “natural leader” dilemma for a couple of months at least. It’s been a concern for me for a couple of years, and especially with the increased injury problems for Rio and Vidic. Rooney would be the one inside of the squad, yet he would probably have to move back into midfield to become the kind of leader we’d need. I’m not sure that anything will be enough to sort Evra’s positioning out though; on Saturday, Evans was playing the ball from a left back position more than the Frenchman, who seemed too pre-occupied with being within ten yards of Ryan Giggs at all times!
Giggs was another player to receive criticism; I’ve been vocal about the fact I am not keen on Scholes and Giggs starting at the same time, especially in away games or against opposition teams with an high energy midfield. We were overrun in midfield on Saturday which has been my worry since the start of the season – but while I can agree with some who are disappointed with the way they are playing, I don’t agree with the fact some are slagging them off and saying they should retire. Look at what they’ve done for the club. Sometimes you have to remember that, and I’m not sure people are. I’m loathe to criticise them because I don’t find it easy, but it’s natural that they find it more difficult in games at the highest level than they did 10 years ago. When I was at the club, Sir Bobby Charlton came to the end of his career and he played over 700 times for the club. Giggs now has to live with every pass, how far he runs, and percentages of everything being analysed, especially when they have poor games. When I played there was only one camera at a game, but Sky might have up to 21 cameras at a game, and you don’t get away with anything. All this calling for him to retire now is well, well over the top. He’s got a role to play this year, but used in a certain way. He’s got a contract for the rest of the year and he should be allowed to complete it.
Some of the players on Saturday were lucky it was only Ryan who came off at half time! I’ve played in games like that but the other way around; we were 2-0 up against Spurs once and lost 3-2. Some times you just need half time; and on Saturday it seemed like we needed half time after about 10 minutes! We were unlucky not to get anything out of it as I thought our second half was far better than their first, so I wouldn’t be too worried.
I didn’t agree with Giggs being used in central midfield but then the system we’re playing at the moment is unfamiliar. Tom Cleverley and Anderson could play in midfield to give energy, but even Phil Jones, when fit, would be a handful in midfield, particularly away in Europe as a holding player. Even with the new system, United are not playing with a holding player – Real Madrid play with two, and even Barcelona play with one. Fans – and I’m one of them – get carried away with us playing “the Manchester United way”, and I’m speaking as someone who played in one of the most attacking sides we’ve had, where none of our midfielders were defensively minded and even I was put in defence to start attacks! In the present game, we need to play with a holding player. It’s the way the game has evolved and the thing our system needs.
Tonight United take on Cluj; Fergie says he’ll not mess about with his team in Europe so I hope he picks the best back four he can and then finally makes his mind up who is best goalkeeper is. I think it’s De Gea, so I’d like to see him get a run – particularly behind a settled defence. I think Anderson and Cleverley might play to get a high tempo; and as long as the pitch is all right, I think United should be okay. With two games coming up against Braga – I think we’ll get a result, and if you offered Sir Alex a 1-1 right now I think he might take it.