Reading vs. Manchester United @ The Madejski
It was a tale of two halves at the Madejski, with the first half producing a stunning 7 goals and plenty of excellent attacking play from both teams, while the second half left casual fans longing for the action from the first 45 minutes.In a weekend full of surprise results, we’ll be taking a look at the one that almost was for this week’s Match of the Week Review. Lowly Reading, newly promoted and buried 2nd from the bottom of the BPL table, twice went ahead at home to league leaders Manchester United before succumbing to another United comeback. This season the Red Devils have won more matches when conceding first than those in which they have scored first.
Manchester United fans must have been concerned upon seeing the team sheets that neither of the recently fit Chris Smalling or Phil Jones were named to the starting XI, though both were given a place on the bench. Given the struggles of the back four containing Evans, Ferdinand, Rafael, and Evra this season and United’s general malaise to start games during the campaign, it was less than shocking to see Reading out on the front foot through the excellent Hal Robson-Kanu. In what would be a continuing theme throughout the first half, Reading fed the ball into a wide area, where Jobi McAnuff did enough to beat Rafael. His ball into the penalty area was a good one, but Evans did not do enough with his headed clearance and the ball dropped straight to the feet of Robson-Kanu who finished his chance superbly.
The fact that Manchester United have conceded the first goal in 10 of their first 15 fixtures this season and still sit atop the table is a testament to their attacking prowess. Shortly after the reading goal, Anderson became the 15th scorer in the league for United this season (of 37 total league goals) after he fired home a fine Ashley Young through-ball. Three minutes later Rooney put the Red Devils ahead with a penalty; However, Reading would strike back.
Jonny Evans was the culprit again and again he failed to deal with a cross played in from the wide area, this time off a corner kick. Within four minutes, Reading converted another corner and for the third time in the match, United were left looking at Evans after he failed to adequately mark his man in the box. Sir Alex Ferguson had seen enough from his frail back four and brought on Smalling for Rafael in the 31st minute, though United had leveled again through Rooney’s second. Reading wouldn’t seriously trouble the United goal again and Robin van Persie grabbed the points for the visitors with a goal in the 34th minute (he should have had another too).
The first 31 minutes of the match were a microcosm of why the starting back four named above have struggled so mightily for Manchester United this season and even for periods during last season as well. While Jonny Evans is a much improved player from a few seasons ago, he still lacks polish, especially on long balls from the opposing back line and crosses. He gets into the most trouble when deciding when to step out and when to drop in, often giving away silly free kicks in his own half or losing the striker he is supposed to be marking. The lack of positional awareness is evident on the first goal where he is caught in no man’s land while he should be doubling up with Evra marking Adam LeFondre. Instead, he is just a half yard out of position as the cross comes in and as a result makes a poor clearance that barely makes it out of the 6 yard box. The blunder on the 2nd goal seems to be more of a lack of communication on who should follow which runner, but the mistake on Reading’s 3rd goal is fairly similar to the first. Evans gets caught just a half step under the ball as it is crossed in and is made to pay as he isn’t close enough to Sean Morrison when Morrison makes the telling contact for the goal. Evans truly has cut down on these rather obvious slip-ups in 2012, but credit goes to Reading for making he and the Red Devils pay.
Despite preceding evidence, Evans is by no means the only defender amongst the starting back four culpable for their poor results. Both Rafael and Patrice Evra have been guilty far too many times of getting caught up the field and out of position when their team lose possession. Manchester United are for sure an exciting attacking team, when both players are bombing forward down the wings, but they also leave lots of space in behind. Rio Ferdinand, the 4th player on this defense used to be able to allow both fullbacks to attack simultaneously by making up for that space in the wide areas with his incredible pace, but at 34, he has clearly lost a few steps. As a result, Manchester United often try to find a tactical compromise (one that every almost every team must make) between sending both fullbacks up the field for attacking purposes and recovering to prevent counter attacks once the ball is lost. The typical tactic is to send just one fullback forward at a time with the other rotating in behind for cover, making for a nominal back 3. The problem that Manchester United have encountered while using this tactic is that both Rafael and Evra are short in stature and neither is very good in the air. Opposing teams can and do find success by counter attacking into the space created by the attacking Manchester United fullback roaming forward, then crossing the ball to the back post. This isolates the covering full back on the back post, often in a mismatch against a much bigger striker from the opposing team. While Reading didn’t score any goals in this exact manner, they exploited it several times with great success, leading to a number of corners from which they scored two of their three goals.
Sir Alex Ferguson must have seen that Reading were attacking the weakness of his back four because he made a rare substitution in the first half to correct the tactical problem. By sending on Smalling for Rafael (who had been booked earlier in the first half, but otherwise wasn’t having a horrible first half), Ferguson was attempting to neutralize the attacking threat posed by Reading skipper McAnuff down the Manchester United right, while also giving Evra freedom to attack down the left, with the much better in the air and less attack minded Smalling providing the defensive cover on the back post. While the change did stifle some of the Red Devils attacking threat, they didn’t concede again and went on to win the match 4-3.
Given the recent return to fitness of Smalling and Phil Jones, and the imminent return of Nemanja Vidic, it is unlikely that Ferguson will return to the starting back four from this match anytime soon.
Other thoughts from the match:
No matter how many times Ferguson attempts to deploy substitute Phil Jones in midfield, I still haven’t seen a match where he looks comfortable playing outside the backline. While he was deployed in a very advanced role today, in almost a straight swap with Anderson, Ferguson has often tried Jones out as the holding midfielder, where he doesn’t take up good positions on the pitch and struggles to find the right mix between getting forward into attack and shielding the back line.
Reading doesn’t have the look of a team that will be staying up at the end of the season. While they have shown that they can score goals, they have conceded far too many and giving away cheapies like the foul that led to the Rooney penalty are often the mark of a team doomed to the bottom three. In the past three premier league seasons, 8 of the 9 relegated teams have finished among the bottom five in goals conceded, which is where Reading currently languish, despite having scored 12th most goals.
(Statistics provided by whoscored.com)