Tactics Talk: Manchester United attack covers farcical defending… again

Jonny Boyle

Reading welcomed Manchester United to the Madejski stadium with both sides looking for three points to help their cause at either side of the Premier League table. Brian McDermott’s side have won just one game in the league as they languish second-bottom and only a strict tactical performance would give them any chance of beating the league leaders. United knew a win in the late Saturday kick-off would see them remain three points ahead at the top. This meeting brought together two sides notoriously poor in defence, but talented in attack so goals were expected…

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How the teams lined up (click to enlarge)


Anders Lindegaard continued in goal for United with Patrice Evra, Jonny Evans and Rafael starting their third straight game together and Rio Ferdinand after injury. Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick and Anderson are the in-form midfield which Sir Alex Ferguson seems to prefer this season and Wayne Rooney, starting to the right of the midfield, Ashley Young and Robin van Persie were the advanced three forwards.

Brian McDermott opted for the same starting eleven which narrowly lost 1-0 to Aston Villa last weekend. Adam Federici started between the sticks with Shaun Cummings, Adrian Mariappa, Sean Morrison and Nicky Shorey making up a back four which has shipped 27 goals in the league. The experience duo of Jay Tabb and Mikele Leigertwood lined up in the centre of a midfield offered width by captain Jobi McAnuff on the left and Hal Robson-Kanu on the right. Boldly, McDermott went with the little and large pairing of Jason Roberts and Adam Le Fondre, who have just four goals between them, up-front.

First-half – Defence goes AWOL in seven-goal thriller

The return of such an experienced player like Rio Ferdinand would usually be seen as a plus for the away side, but if this first-half was anything to go by it would take resources stronger than Fort Knox to help them defend properly.

It took Reading just eight minutes to go straight for the weakness of that defence. Rafael was unable to stop a McAnuff cross putting the centre-backs under pressure and Evans’ poor clearing header fell straight to the free Robson-Kanu in the box. The Welshman was afforded space after Evra found himself pushed too far in next to Evans and he made no mistake in punishing them.

United may have lined up with one extra man in midfield than Reading, but that doesn’t excuse Tabb and Leigertwood from picking up their men. On 13 minutes, both midfielders failed to press or mark any of the United midfield and a one-two between Anderson and Young led to the equaliser. Tabb was again to blame just three minutes later as his rash barge in to the back of Evans, who was going away from goal after taking the ball down from a corner, led to a successful Rooney penalty.

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Even the return of Rio Ferdinand was not enough to help United's defence

Crossed balls in to the box would be a recurring theme of the day as all but two goals came either directly or indirectly from a cross or corner. Reading equalised then went a goal up on 25 minutes courtesy of two outstanding Shorey corners. Arguably the smallest player on the park, Le Fondre, headed in from yards out after losing Fletcher and then two Evans errors gave Morrison space to head Reading in front. Ferguson won’t be happy at the indecision which led to the corner and then Evans’ poor marking for the third goal.

Young was having a huge effect on the game now with Evra overlapping in to a huge space between Cummings and Morrison in the Reading defence. The England international made 21 of his 24 attempted attacking third passes and Rooney’s equaliser on the half-hour mark came from another Young-Evra combination – they combined the second most of any two players.

The seventh and, surprisingly, final goal for United came after a Carrick pass flicked on by Rooney and finished by van Persie. Shorey failing to step up with the rest of his defence gave the Dutchman space to bend his run, staying onside, and take his time to put United 4-3 up. He should have added another when his shot was cleared behind the line by Cummins.

Second-half – Defence gets their act together

Ferguson made a controversial decision to substitute Rafael on the half-hour for Chris Smalling – a move you would imagine had more to do with improving at set-plays rather than a reflection of Rafael’s performance. Anderson also came off at half-time and, although he may have been injured, perhaps Ferguson saw Phil Jones as the ideal sub to help combat Reading’s aerial threat.

Regardless of his reasons, it paid off for United, as they dealt with four Reading corners far more capably than the two in the first-half. It might be harsh, but that was the extent of the home-side’s threat as Le Fondre and Roberts touched the ball just 24 times in the United defensive third. McAnuff and Robson-Kanu, then Gareth McCleary and Noel Hunt, were the only real dangers to the United defence who saw out the 4-3 win.

Conclusion – Attacking talent covers defensive

Defensively, it was a farcical performance from both sides. Evans and Ferdinand played like they were scared of heading the ball and Morrison and Mariappa weren’t much better as they won just three in the air all evening.

Ferguson knew exactly where the problems with his team lay post-match: “It was agony. I mean it was the worst defending of the season without doubt. To lose three goals in that manner…and we’re having to rescue the situation all the time.”

Luckily for United, Reading’s defending was worse and they had clinical attacking talent in Rooney, van Persie, Young and Anderson to cover their defensive frailties.

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