x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Back to basics for Ferguson

The Manchester United manager should stick to his trusted front pair while his side are struggling in front of goal.

Dimitar Berbatov was the missing weapon in United's attacking armoury, but already Sir Alex Ferguson has a problem in trying to fit him into a system that ran so smoothly last season.
Dimitar Berbatov was the missing weapon in United's attacking armoury, but already Sir Alex Ferguson has a problem in trying to fit him into a system that ran so smoothly last season.

It could well be two transfer moves on deadline day that decide this season's Premier League title race. One that was completed and one that was not. Everyone saluted Sir Alex Ferguson when he managed finally to lure Dimitar Berbatov to Old Trafford. He was the missing weapon in his attacking armoury.

But two games in a United shirt and already Ferguson has a problem in trying to fit him into a system that ran so smoothly last season. The Scot has an embarrassment of striking riches, but he must quickly find the balance of getting his team winning again and keeping Berbatov, Carlos Tevez, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney happy. Every team would love that sort of conundrum and it was the same in 1999 when Ferguson had Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

This time United can't afford to tinker as every point dropped now will make it harder for them to claw back once the champions resume normal service. Berbatov will unquestionably be a great asset and was involved in both United's goals in the defeat to Liverpool and Sunday's 1-1 draw at Chelsea. But having moped at Spurs all summer for his big move, he is short on fitness and his workrate leaves a lot to be desired so far. United don't have the same flair or fluidity of the last campaign, and while the return of Ronaldo will help, what role for Tevez or Rooney?

Just two months ago, Ferguson had vowed to help Rooney find his best form by playing him through the middle as the focal point of attack, admitting the England star had sacrificed himself for the team by often playing on the wing. At Stamford Bridge, he started up front, looked lively, but then found himself lost when Ronaldo came on and was shunted to the flank once more; a frustrated figure. Tevez didn't even make it off the bench and Ferguson may well be wise to go back to his old tried and trusted formula just to get United through this nervy time, which now sees them in 15th place in the table with just one win under their belt from four games.

He has never been afraid to make tough decisions in the past, dropping David Beckham and Ruud van Nistelrooy when he wanted, and Berbatov should be another to be dropped and gradually eased into the side as results improve. Rooney, ever the team player, has yet to moan publicly about his position and remains optimistic about the partnership with the big Bulgarian. "He's a new player and we had some good touches together," he said. "I'm sure the partnership will get better the more we play together and, of course, with Carlos Tevez to come in as well. Chelsea's record at Stamford Bridge is really good and, although we were leading for most of the game and it was disappointing to lose the goal, it's still a good point."

But United played like a fearful team who saw a draw as victory. Rather than seeing a win was theirs for the taking against a weakened Chelsea side, they were more agitated and reckless somewhat, as their seven bookings highlighted. Ferguson is not panicking, but he needs to do some minor repair work before it becomes major. "It's difficult to say where this 1-1 result places us, but what I do know is that come October we'll be fine," he said. "The players will have plenty of minutes on the clock, the level of our game will go up, Ronaldo and Berbatov will have games behind them. You'll see us at our best then."

Chelsea, on the other hand, ground out another result, but may well regret missing out on Robinho to Manchester City. How Luiz Felipe Scolari must have envied the backheels and bravado the Brazilian demonstrated in City's stunning 6-0 win over Portsmouth.Without Deco, who suffered a thigh injury in the warm up, Chelsea were crying out for a lift; some creativity and class. Salomon Kalou's headed equaliser was deserved for their huff and puff, but a lack of creativity could be their downfall this season.

Robinho could have provided some much-needed magic and it looks like Roman Abramovich might have to wait for his stylish successes as, without Deco and the return of the battering striking ram Didier Drogba, route one and direct football could be back on the menu. It's not pretty, but certainly effective, as Chelsea proved during their previous title wins under Jose Mourinho. Ultimately, isn't that what matters?

The point against United was crucial as Kalou admitted: "It can make a difference. Last season, we dropped two points in one game against Wigan and that made the difference. As long as we are in front of Manchester United, we have a chance for the title." But with Arsenal and Liverpool also up there at the top after solid starts, Scolari added: "There's not just the two of us [in the title race]. There are five or six teams."

akhan@thenational.ae