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Saturday, July 11, 2009

United's Key Weakness Now: Set Pieces

Another BR article.

Enough has been said about how United will revert to the traditional 4-4-2, how Rooney won't be forced out of position, how United's strikers will start playing more centrally and be more direct.

So far, United have signed 3 players - a proven finisher in Owen, a raw talent in Obertan and a pacey traditional winger in Valencia. These signings were made to replenish the squad, after the loss of Ronaldo to Real Madrid and Tevez, most likely to Manchester City.

It is evident that the current United squad will not be as threatening at set pieces as they used to be.

The departures of Ronaldo and Tevez means that United have lost their proven direct free-kick takers.

I have always maintained that Ronaldo's free-kick have a similar conversion rate to Beckham's. True, Beckham's free-kicks look much more elegant, curling towards a corner, but they are often palmed away for a corner by goalkeepers.

Ronaldo's free-kick comprises of pure pace, power and venom. So what if it hits the wall half the time? Once it's on target, it will either be too powerful for the goalkeeper to save, or he will fist it into the path of one of United's lurking strikers.

Tevez is also a proven free-kick taker. Having taken a few for West Ham, before going down the pecking order after signing for United. He has scored some wonderful free-kicks over the years.

This threat from direct free-kicks will be sorely missed. Who are the other free-kick takers in United, you ask?

Hargreaves is a proven free-kick taker, but he is most effective when closer to goal. You won't see him taking free-kicks 40 yards away from goal. Also, his fitness is a very big question, and it's highly unlikely that he will feature in every match like Ronaldo did.

Giggs hasn't had a good free-kick in months, and with the amount of rotation that Ferguson will have for him, it is very unlikely that Giggs will always be there to take the free-kicks.

Wayne Rooney might be a good free-kick taker, as he did score a beautiful one on his debut against Fenerbache, but it's too early to tell.

I do know that Fabio has a great left foot and is also lethal from the dead ball situation as well, but he won't get to play much as Evra is such a complete left back.

In all, there are many contenders for Ronaldo's position as the free-kick taker, but only Rooney stands the greatest chance of being played every game, and hopefully his free-kick taking is up to par.

Another big loss would be Ronaldo's ability in the air. Without him, United's only proven goal threats from indirect free-kicks and corners are Vidic and Ferdinand.

Berbatov may be tall, at 1.88m, but he does not contain the aggression in the air that Vidic and Ronaldo bring. He does not have the spring in his legs that can elevate him sufficiently to head the ball cleanly. This is evident in his debut season, where Berbatov missed many clear headers and put them over the bar.

Ferdinand is hardly a dominant attacking force in the air. Having scored a paltry 6 goals in 208 games in the EPL for United, he definitely ranks below the likes of Hyypia, who has gotten 22 in 317 appearances for Liverpool.

Vidic is the only clear threat that is left in United from IFKs and corners. He is United's best chance of getting goals from these set pieces with the departure of Ronaldo.

Perhaps Manucho might be a possibility, but what chances does he have of starting ahead of Rooney, Berbatov and Owen?

What is clear to see is that the signings made will not be able to replace the set piece void that Ronaldo has left in the team.

Owen is a great finisher, but he does not have the height to compete in the air. Valencia is not known for his heading prowess, and Obertan may be 1 cm taller than Ronaldo, but he definitely does not look as athletic as Ronaldo is. Maybe, in time, Obertan can be groomed to be like Ronaldo. However, right now, its clear that there are no strong headers of the ball in the team.

Perhaps the mantra of the next season will be efficiency. Efficiency in putting away chances; efficiency in open play.

Because it is clear that United's current weakness is their strength at set pieces.