x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

The age old issue for Sir Alex Ferguson

The reliance on the elder statesmen at Old Trafford is starting to show the problems at the heart of Manchester United, writes Richard Jolly .

Manchester United's Paul Scholes, left, had a game of two halves against Tottenham Hotspur.
Manchester United's Paul Scholes, left, had a game of two halves against Tottenham Hotspur.

It was obscured by the arguments about refereeing decisions, overshadowed by the sense of occasion and the actions of both those who behaved perfectly and those who certainly did not when Sir Alex Ferguson delivered his analysis of a precious victory.

Deep in the bowels of Anfield, in one of the cramped corridors of the historic stadium, the oldest manager in the business argued his past masters had been the key to the 2-1 win over Liverpool.

"It was the experience of [Paul] Scholes, [Michael] Carrick, and [Ryan] Giggs that got us through," the Manchester United manager said.

Perhaps they were persuasive performances. Six days later, the trio, combined age almost 108, started together against Tottenham Hotspur.

And watching Spurs overpower ageing legs in the first half was to be reminded that, more than four years earlier, after winning his second Champions League, Ferguson had talked about phasing out Giggs and Scholes. They were 34 and 33 then and are approaching their 39th and 38th birthdays respectively now, but sometimes there is the sense that they play a greater part in Ferguson's plans in their dotage.

For long, it seemed the Scot would start Giggs or Scholes, but not both. On Saturday, he reverted to two of the few players old enough to remember Spurs' previous victory at Old Trafford, 23 years before. It backfired.

The Welshman has tormented Tottenham in the past but for once, he looked his age. There was a cruelty in putting Giggs on the wing and in direct confrontation with Kyle Walker, a sprinter 17 years his junior, and a one-side battle was brought to an abrupt halt after a first half when the veteran was so anonymous that he only completed five passes.

Scholes, like United, had a game of two halves; supreme in the second, he was found fallible in the first. While neither goal was directly attributable to him, there was a common theme of driving, powerful runs straight through the heart of the home team.

Jan Vertonghen, for the opener, and then Mousa Dembele and Gareth Bale, when Spurs doubled their lead, exposed the soft underbelly of Ferguson's side.

Problems are compounded by the absence of two of United's most solid citizens, the injured Nemanja Vidic and Darren Fletcher, who is yet to regain match sharpness after a long lay-off, but the fundamental failing is a lack of pace and strength in the middle of midfield and defence.

It is not an issue when United have the ball, as they have shown in the second half of their last two league matches. They remain a fearsome proposition when they can play on their own terms, as they have illustrated in wildly different ways.

At Anfield, that involved Scholes slowing the game down against a Liverpool side left undermanned by Jonjo Shelvey's sending off. It gave United three central midfielders to their hosts' two and Scholes has the technical mastery to exploit a numerical advantage and exert control.

Against Tottenham, United sparked memories of a thousand comebacks with an all-out assault featuring a blend of high tempo and high quality. Ferguson overloaded his side with potential scorers, his full-backs masqueraded as wingers and Spurs were pinned back. It was reminiscent of a similar, but successful, fightback against Southampton four weeks earlier.

Robin van Persie scored a hat-trick that day but, while the signings of the Dutchman and Shinji Kagawa have added to a formidable attacking armoury, they have exacerbated the imbalance in a squad with rather fewer defensive performers at the peak of their powers. A raw reserve left-back, Alexander Buttner, was the only addition designed to stop goals, not score them.

Rarely dull, they are still more entertaining. It is no coincidence United have already won 3-2 twice this season. A famous inability to accept defeat, coupled with terrific forwards, has been their salvation before.

The concern should be that United need rescuing. They have trailed in five of their league games, recovering to win three of those.

Even Southampton came within five minutes of beating them. They attacked with the enthusiasm of innocents in the top flight, but the defeats were inflicted by the two most physically powerful teams United have encountered thus far, Everton and Tottenham.

Each contains a player without a United equivalent, in Marouane Fellaini and Dembele, a midfielder who allies force with class, highlighting the contrast with Ferguson's slower technicians.

In addition, Everton play a high-octane pressing game. Tottenham boast sheer speed. Each offers a lesson to future opponents, some of whom might otherwise be cowed by the reputations in the United ranks, that there is a reward to be gained for taking the game to Ferguson's team.

Anyone with the running power to brush aside the pensionable and the sluggish - a category that now appears to include Rio Ferdinand - has an incentive to attack.

And next up in the Premier League are Newcastle United. Seven months ago, Cheick Tiote, another muscular midfielder, destroyed Carrick and Giggs at the Sports Direct Arena. Ferguson's response then entailed bringing Scholes back from retirement.

It was a masterstroke, yet one which did not address the underlying issue. United still have no Tiote, no Dembele and no Fellaini.