Monday, October 4, 2010

Ferguson's Sundered Arms

It's hard to figure out what was going through Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson's mind when he made the starting lineup away to Sunderland last Saturday.

Away to a burgeoning, physical side, against a motivated protege, the legendary gaffer opted for two strikers up front, neither of whom really belong in the starting 11 of any Premier League side.

Both Federico Macheda and Michael Owen have profiles of an impact substitute, as neither display enough ability from open play to create flowing team football throughout a whole match. Not yet, at least, for one; not likely ever again for the other. 

Macheda too embryonic as top flight feature

Federico Macheda's greatest contribution to Man United was in his first appearance, when he netted heroically against Aston Villa in the late spring of 2009. It's a testament to a players' value when his first action a year-and-a-half ago remains his greatest display of striking intuition. Unfortunately, the 19-year-old has subsisted largely on reputation since that day.

Macheda simply isn't that good—yet. What are his assets? He's not especially fast. He's not tricky, doesn't drive at guys. His passing is, at best, average. His finishing is nothing to write home about. He's not particularly strong and doesn't contend greatly for headers.

His touch is too loose to inspire great hope. His style belies a footballing intelligence easily rivaled by better players who never made the grade at United. The evidence exists on video and we've all seen it; this is not merely cynicism.

Macheda's growth has seemed to stagnate already
Michael Regan/Getty Images 
Given time, he may grow into his body and become more useful. But now, at 19 years old, he is another of many starburst prospects at United that deserve to be on loan or playing for the reserves. 

Owen a super sub, not serious starter

Michael Owen does not belong for different reasons.

His fitness is not only historically suspect, but obviously mediocre on more present testimony. As simply as possible, he is far too poor from open play to be a marquee striker. He has the "experience" and enough guile to niggle in for a goal late in games, but not after already playing 85 minutes.

Owen has proven his worth on large occasions during his United tenure, netting very late against Man City last season and equalizing nicely on a precious header recently away to Bolton. Both came after being introduced late in each match (It bears mentioning that a hat-trick away to Wolfsburg last season is an exception to this norm).

Despite being a sympathetic figure that we'd all like to get behind, Owen has little business starting up front regularly, especially with an unproven striker like Macheda. From open play, he is positively horrible. He can't outrun anyone, he can't out-muscle anyone. He can't dribble past anyone. His pacing has never been his hallmark.

In other words, he's just a bloke you throw on late to sneak into the box and steal a late goal, not someone you'd want involved throughout a grinding match. Of the two players, at least Macheda is young and may possibly improve, while Owen's hayday is long past and was short-lived. 

Owen: More useful in a suit than a kit?
Pool/Getty Images

Ferguson's tactics bewilder again

Ferguson's decision to start either player—much less both—away in the top flight, as he did against Sunderland, was extremely curious. As United's best footballer this season, most assumed Dimitar Berbatov would be a shoe-in. Who'd partner him should have been an academic choice: Javier Hernandez.

The two form a complimentary pairing. Berbatov likes to drop between midfield and defense to harry play intelligently through the final third. Hernandez is inclined to make these vertical runs by utilizing his outstanding pace (The Mexican was the fastest player at the 2010 World Cup, clocking in at 20 MPH at full trot).

Furthermore, Hernandez finishes with both feet, something far underrated among top-tier players in England and abroad. He has scored against the Netherlands, Mexico, Argentina, and France in the last six months.

"Chicharito" had just scored epically away to Valencia in midweek, stealing two important points. He's shown better finishing instincts than Macheda, and more athletic ability to enforce them than Owen. He was primed for his second league start.

But against Sunderland—matching wits with his friend and former charge, Steve Bruce—Alex Ferguson seemed to take it easy, on some level. Bruce must have been elated when he saw United's teamsheet. Throughout the match, Ferguson uncertainly tarried between 4-4-2, with Anderson on the left, to 4-5-1, with either Macheda or Owen up front, at different times.

Hernandez scored awesomely against Valencia
Alex Livesey/Getty Images 
The result was domination, and it was United wearing the gag-ball, getting spanked, and screaming the safe word. Thankfully, Vidic and Ferdinand prevented an ultimate penetration the rest of their outfield players were so passive to enable. Berbatov and Hernandez both appeared in the second half as United feigned to compete, but Sunderland had long since established control.

With two weeks of international break ahead, there was no reason to rest Berbatov, and little reason to protect Hernandez. Berbatov has two weeks of nothing ahead of him. Hernandez was rested more than enough to deserve participation Saturday.

At least the Mexican's class is not suppressed on his national team. There he'll likely continue to perform like he did in the World Cup, and could have against Sunderland: A dynamic pistol of a striker with reasonable prospect to evolve into a world-class player.

It's important to remember that Alex Ferguson's reputation is built more on motivating men and spotting and weening talent than for being a celebrated tactician. He proved that again Saturday.

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