x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Fergie has lost sight of real issue problem

Each pronouncement from his pulpit is eagerly anticipated, widely reported and frequently repeated.

Manchester United's Michael Owen tumbles under a challenge from Liverpool's Jamie Carragher at Anfield on Sunday. Ferguson thought the referee, who waved play on, should have sent Carragher off.
Manchester United's Michael Owen tumbles under a challenge from Liverpool's Jamie Carragher at Anfield on Sunday. Ferguson thought the referee, who waved play on, should have sent Carragher off.

Each pronouncement from his pulpit is eagerly anticipated, widely reported and frequently repeated. Sir Alex Ferguson sits from a position of unrivalled power, which he uses to refuse to speak to people or to answer questions. And that only heightens the interest in the replies he does grant. Ferguson's fondness for blaming the referee, as he did after Manchester United's 2-0 loss at Liverpool, is headline news. It is also a diversionary tactic that is starting to become repetitive.

But listen to the United manager and such criticisms are proclaimed in a tone of absolute certainty. Ferguson does not hesitate, vacillate or prevaricate. And yet a man so sure of his own mind appears strangely undecided on one matter: Manchester United's best team. There are times when it matters not. United have sufficient strength in depth that Ferguson is often able to rotate with impunity and still prosper. Indeed, his squad players have attained some notable results. They won away against CSKA Moscow last week with John O'Shea a makeshift midfielder and Gary Neville and Fabio da Silva, men at either ends of their respective careers, as the full-backs.

And comparisons can have been drawn with their Anfield equivalents. Liverpool's strongest 11 may shade their United counterparts, but the footballers ranked between 12th and 30th at Old Trafford are far superior to Rafa Benitez's fringe players. That helps account for United's four-point advantage over the men from Merseyside in the Premier League table. But some games call for the strongest possible side. Liverpool versus United is one such match.

As it was, the only members of Ferguson's ever-changing team to elevate their reputations did so in absentia. While others erred, the unused pair of Jonny Evans and Anderson and the unfit Darren Fletcher emerged with their importance reinforced. The Scot and the Brazilian have the speed and stamina to go toe to toe with Javier Mascherano and Lucas Leiva, whereas Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes did not. The latter only misplaced one pass all afternoon, but mobility, not distribution, is his problem.

Evans might, unlike Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, have been able to deal with Fernando Torres. Ferguson has been more and more complimentary towards Evans while the injuries the two senior central defenders have sustained have meant he has figured increasingly often. Yet for the premier games, Ferdinand and Vidic have been the preferred pair. Whether that changes will be instructive. Because when the season began, Ferguson only appeared to have five automatic choices: Ferdinand, Vidic, Patrice Evra, Wayne Rooney and Edwin van der Sar. Fletcher has gravitated towards that group and Dimitar Berbatov, partly through the failings of Michael Owen, may have been admitted despite his meagre goal return.

Remove Ferdinand or Vidic from that core and Ferguson's decisions will attract still greater scrutiny. In each of United's three setbacks this season, his choices can be questioned. In the 1-0 defeat at Burnley, the selection of Anderson on the left wing was bemusing while on the opposite flank Ji-sung Park was as ineffective as Owen proved in attack. For the 2-2 draw with Sunderland, picking Nani and Danny Welbeck on the wings ahead of Ryan Giggs, who would get a two-week rest during the international break, and the in-form Antonio Valencia was similarly unsuccessful.

And at Anfield, the midfield lacked the balance and ballast required to combat Liverpool. The signings of Anderson and Owen Hargreaves two years ago appeared a recognition that the pairing of Scholes and Carrick lacked the required physicality, although Fletcher has since showed that the answer lay within all along. Yet a reversion to a one-paced combination handed Liverpool an advantage. It gives Ferguson plenty to ponder. He goes to Chelsea, possessors of perhaps the most forceful midfield in the division, in 12 days' time. Recalibrating a team deprived of Cristiano Ronaldo was never going to be a simple task. But losing the best player does not necessarily mean you should lose sight of the best team.

Just occasionally football provides moments to savour for even its most maligned performers. One occurred in the 96th minute at Anfield. Lucas Leiva released David Ngog to score the second goal against Manchester United, two players who are often told they lack the quality to play for Liverpool combining in the defining clash of their season so far. Ngog is raw but promising, but Lucas is becoming a seasoned scapegoat when things go wrong. There are plenty among the Liverpool support who would welcome the chance to examine the midfielder's passport to see if he really is Brazilian. Others accuse Rafa Benitez of favouritism for selecting him. Sunday showed the teacher's pet can play, overrunning and overcoming United.

If the defensive display of the weekend came from a typically defiant Jamie Carragher, he had an unlikely rival for that accolade. In other circumstances, Stoke's 1-0 triumph at Tottenham would have also been the outstanding result. It was earned in part by centre-forward James Beattie, who managed two goal-line clearances, one sufficiently acrobatic to have snapped the hamstrings of less agile performers. A case of attack proving the best form of defence?

Richard Jolly is an authority on the English game, having written for, among others, The Sunday Telegraph and The Guardian @Email:rjolly@thenational.ae