Manchester United's woes lie in lack of pace in attack, writes Danny Higginbotham

TALKING TACTICS: No defence feels the need to drop those four yards against United

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The Independent Football

The first thing we need to deal with – and put out of the way – is the long-ball question, because it is a red herring and utterly irrelevant to any  conversation about Manchester United.

Sam Allardyce tried a few fun and games last week when he accused United of being a long-ball team but I was surprised that Louis van Gaal even responded by producing reams of charts at his press conference on Tuesday. All you are doing is legitimising what Allardyce is saying and looking like you need to justify yourself. Van Gaal didn’t.

The problem with Manchester United – and the reason they are underperforming – is more subtle and tactical than that and it all flows from a critical flaw in the team: the lack of either pace or height in the strike force.

I’m not kidding you when I say that pace kills you as a central defender. If you had given me the choice as a central defender of being up against skills or a forward who can run like a whippet, I’d take the skills every day of the week. You can always use your technique to deal with them. But pace through the middle of the pitch? That does things to defenders. It makes you drop back three or four yards because that’s the kind of head start you want to give yourself. And when the defence drops three or four yards, the midfield does because no side wants a gap between those two lines. It’s a cardinal sin and it will lose you the game.


And here we get to the nub of it. No defence feels the need to drop those three or four important yards with the strike partnership Van Gaal has been settling on: Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao. Both are very good strikers, but neither is going to stretch a defence with his pace and get in behind.

Both want to go short for the ball. Neither does that partnership provide the big man/small man combination that will also have defences worrying and playing deep. When there is a big target man in the partnership, central defenders will worry about him getting the knock-down for the smaller striker, who can get in behind. So back they go.

There are no such worries for the teams United have been up against. The centre-halves are following Van Persie and Falcao all the way out because they are not afraid of the second man in the partnership stretching them. The knock-on effect is that the midfield is able to play a high line, pressurising United’s midfielders and not allowing them the time to move the ball forward at pace. I’d say that 90 per cent of the time United pick up the ball in midfield their backs are to goal because someone is right up their arse – to describe it as we’d describe it when I was playing!

There has been a lot of talk about there being a lack of pace in this United team but you can’t tell me that players are going out lacking the intention or the instructions to do things at pace, the Manchester United way. Everything is about cause and effect in football. There is a reason why they are not shifting the ball quickly. It all stems from opponents not fearing that front line.

Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Radamel Falcao

Liverpool were having the same problem earlier this season, too. We talked about it in this column. But Brendan Rodgers put Raheem Sterling, with his pace, up front, and now has Daniel Sturridge back. Defences are going back and allowing Liverpool that time and space.

So United need a different combination at the top of that team. Either James Wilson, their striker with pace, and Van Persie. Or Wilson with Wayne Rooney. Or Van Persie with Marouane Fellaini – creating that big man/little man combination I’ve mentioned, with Van Persie picking up the knock-downs. You only had to see the chaos Burnley caused United on Wednesday, with Danny Ings’ pace stretching the defence continually and – as United retreated to deal with it – Michael Kightly, Ashley Barnes and George Boyd having so much time on the ball in the space created.

There have already been hints of what the kind of changes I’m talking about can do. Watch United’s 3-0 win over Liverpool again and you’ll see the way the threat of Wilson’s pace forced Liverpool to play deep last December, even though he hardly had a touch early on. Fellaini’s arrival at Upton Park in an advanced role also forced West Ham deeper. These are the equations which explain United’s problems. A long-ball reputation is the last thing Van Gaal should be preoccupied about.