MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 23: General View as Dimitar Berbatov of Manchester United and Toby Alderweireld of Ajax compete during the UEFA Europa League Round of 32 second leg match between Manchester United and AFC Ajax at Old Trafford on February 23, 2012 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Just like last week, I won't be providing a detailed tactical review because the company that provides my cable doesn't carry the channel that showed Manchester United's match last night versus Ajax. Typically when I view a football match in-person or at a pub -- and if I am to do a tactical analysis of it -- I prefer to watch it again on DVR so that I can pay attention to it in more detail. United were quite rubbish anyway so I don't know how much of an appetite many of you have for a thorough review. As an alternative, I offer these five discussion points -- these are the thoughts that occurred to me during and after the match.
1. Ajax's pressing and high-line - The Dutch champions came into this latter leg with a two goal deficit. When combined with their preference to press high up the pitch at times anyway, it wasn't difficult to anticipate that Ajax would come out to play and apply pressure on United. They did this and they also compacted the lines by playing with a high line. It didn't take long for the home side to make them pay.
Park Ji-sung got a surprise start in central-midfield -- and Fergie surprised everyone by handing him the captain's armband (*) -- and in the 6th minute, the Korean cut out a passing lane when Ajax tried to transition into attack. Dimitar Berbatov picked up the ball when he dropped deep and from here, the silky striker sublimely split the defense when he picked out a Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) run through a channel. From here, the Mexican international used a clean first-touch to set up himself up for a clinical finish. If United could keep things calm behind their attackers, this seemed to be the obvious route for continual chances created. It wasn't to be.
* I'm not going to lie, my heart nearly exploded when I saw Park lead the team out as captain. I don't even think my heart pounded with that kind of intensity when I kissed a girl for the first time.
2. United were overrun in midfield - It was in the center of the park where United lost control of this match. However, I find it hard to fault Park and Tom Cleverley too much. Park is simply not a suitable in a midfield duo role as he looks lost at times positionally when he's forced to defend deeper (e.g. versus Arsenal last season at the Emirates). His gambling and aggressive style of defending is better suited higher up the pitch when deployed as a winger or at the tip of a midfield trio -- the latter is a role he's excelled in the past when he was tasked with nullifying the opposition's deep-lying playmaker (e.g. versus Milan in 2010 when he erased the great Andrea Pirlo over the two-legged UEFA Champions League tie).
To put it bluntly, the hype about Cleverley has been too much (I've been guilty of this as well). That's not to say he won't fulfill expectations but the attention on him is a lot for a youngster who has only played a handful of games at the club. He's rusty, he drifted out of the match at times, he's inexperienced, and he's working on his fitness -- but he'll be fine.
Without Wayne Rooney's industry, United were always likely to look vulnerable in their 4-4-2 shape versus Ajax's three-man central midfield. There's an old Jose Mourinho quote from his Chelsea days that does well to explain why a duo of Park and Cleverley were always likely to struggle competing against Ajax's trio in the middle -- especially without having Rooney provide support as an auxiliary midfielder:
"Look, if I have a triangle in midfield – Claude Makelele behind and two others just in front – I will always have an advantage against a pure 4-4-2 where the central midfielders are side by side. That’s because I will always have an extra man. It starts with Makelele, who is between the lines. If nobody comes to him he can see the whole pitch and has time. If he gets closed down it means one of the two other central midfielders is open. If they are closed down and the other team’s wingers come inside to help, it means there is space now for us on the flank, either for our own wingers or for our full-backs. There is nothing a pure 4-4-2 can do to stop things"
Our own great manager provided a brief explanation why Ajax weren't more dangerous with this advantage:
"You play Ajax and know that they can keep the ball all night. The problem is that they don’t really have a great deal of penetration."
"I accept responsibility myself [for United's lacklustre performance] because I picked a team with too many youngsters in the back four positions. They all have great potential but on European nights you need experience in the back positions and it just made it a nervy night for us."
I honestly don't have a problem with Fergie's selection choices for his back four -- and that's not just because it was my suggested back four choice for this particular match. Just as was the case for Cleverley, Nani, and Young -- players further up the pitch who failed to influence the match in a positive fashion -- the back four were all in need of games after recently recovering from injury. It's better to reintroduce them in a Europa League tie than it is in a Premier League match right now -- where every single point is vital now as we chase Manchester City in the title race. Fergie makes a good point about perhaps not having a more experienced defender alongside his talented youngsters -- the in-form Jonny Evans springs to mind (don't laugh, he's been our best defender this season) -- but more than anything, I think the experienced manager was trying to deflect the criticism off of his youngsters and he invited it onto himself instead. This is a man who knows how to play the media. However, although Jones and Smalling looked shaky at times, I was fine with the performances of the twins -- particularly Fabio.
4. United's set-piece defending - David de Gea is continually criticized for not commanding his box adequately enough (rightfully so... to an extent) but it was the defending of set-pieces that worried me more against Ajax. Since the season-ending injury to Nemanja Vidic, United have not defended set-pieces with the same ferocity -- nor have they been as big of a threat on the other end of the pitch during their own corners. Smalling is solid in aerial duels but Jones has shown vulnerabilities in this regard when deployed at center-back -- this position forces him to be one of the defenders that is tasked with marking the opposition's top aerial threats on set-pieces. de Gea made a world-class reflex save (*) at about the hour-mark after United poorly defended a corner. However, they continued to be vulnerable and finally conceded a second goal after once again poorly defending against a set-piece. The hopeful return of Rio Ferdinand and his presence alongside Evans at the weekend versus a physical Norwich City side should bring improvement in this regard. United will also need to better against Athletic Bilbao in the next round -- the La Liga side lead their domestic league in goals from set-pieces this season.
(*) It's been a hell of a run for de Gea as of late. Criticism comes quickly for the kid... so should the praise. We aren't through this tie without the youngster nor do we earn a point at Chelsea a few weekends ago without him. Let's hope this recent run of strong performances helps his confidence and helps launch a long and trophy-filled career at United.
5. We need more from Nani and Ashley Young - Although we received the encouraging news that winger Antonio Valencia may return sooner than expected, we still need either/both Nani or Young to show better than they did over this two-legged tie. Perhaps patience should be exhibited because of their recent returns but there is urgency because Valencia was such a key player as of late. Nani is more than capable of providing similar 'unplayable' qualities from the flanks but he clearly is searching for form at the moment. This urgency is exacerbated when one considers how dependent United is in attack on their wingers. One or both is likely to be deployed at Carrow Road and improvement from them is vital if we are to pick up all three points on Sunday. There is a good chance that Park is deployed on the left flank during the following weekend at White Hart Lane so that he can track Tottenham Hotspur's Kyle Walker. On the other flank though, we will need an incisive winger -- can a possibly returned Valencia, Nani, or Young be that man?
If I'm being honest, I wouldn't have been that gutted had Ajax scored a third goal. I only care about this competition right now because we have fun ties with the likes of Ajax and Athletic Bilbao -- the latter particularly excites me because of my fondness for manager Marcelo Bielsa and defender/holding-midfielder Javi Martinez. However, it can be a fun run because of these interesting opponents and the stakes could go up if we happen to meet City in the quarter-final, semi-final, or final. In regards to the squad, the past two weeks allowed us to rest some current first-choice players while it provided a competitive environment for Fergie to give a game to recently returned players who will obviously be important for the run-in. If we take a step back and view this from a macro perspective, rather than focusing on this performance from last night, then this past week was actually a good one.