By Rob Stewart
Former Manchester United defender Paul Parker believes that the Premier League champions’ title drive is being undermined by their inability to go through the gears and thinks that that could see his old club virtually surrender their title to Manchester City this weekend.
United would effectively lose the title race on Sunday if City beat Newcastle and then Swansea City triumph at Old Trafford - and if the Red Devils do lose their Premier League crown, Parker argues that it will be down to a lack of cutting edge within Sir Alex Ferguson’s team.
“The great Man United sides of the past over the years have always had a change of gear but this season and last season they haven’t had that,” Parker told Goal.com.
“United have huffed and puffed and grinded their way throughout the season and then when it has really mattered in the games where they have dropped points.
“You’ve seen them be in control of games and always be vulnerable to be pegged back because they don’t seem to have something that United have always seemed to have in the past and that is a change of gear. It’s something they’ve lacked all season.”
For Parker, United’s shortcomings – and their lack of a cutting edge - were exposed in the 1-0 defeat by City at the Etihad Stadium on Monday that propelled Roberto Mancini’s side to the top of the Premier League table on goal difference.
“They just didn’t get going,” added the former England international. “The likes of Paul Scholes couldn’t get into the game even if they had wanted to. That is down to having another player with a cutting edge because they had a lot of the ball against City but there was no cutting edge.
“Wayne Rooney didn’t provide that cutting edge up front. Maybe Danny Welbeck should have been on from the start because the Rooney-Welbeck partnership has been good for United.
“Rooney was missing a Welbeck because of his energy up front and his ability to run behind the defence and his never-say-die attitude. Maybe there was too much emphasis around midfield rather than up front. That might have made a difference up front for a side who never looked as though they would score.”
Sir Alex, who will be without Welbeck against the Swans due to injury, has been criticised for his team selection against City and Parker agreed that his choice of players was risky.
“There were players who have not played a lot of football of late in Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, and Nani and Ji-Sung Park have hardly played at all,” he observed.
“To bring them all in together in what was effectively a cup final it was a hell of a gamble to play all those players who had lacked so-called match practice. It is very difficult to ask players to come in when they have been out for a long time.
“They might have been training all the time but it is about playing games. That showed with Park because his feet just weren’t quick enough when it mattered.
“His strength all the time has been his energy level and quick feet in tight areas but he just didn’t have that. It was one Premier League game too early and he just couldn’t get into it.”
Despite those factors, Parker - who helped United to their first Premier League title in 1993 - does not believe that it is fair to blame Sir Alex for the City loss.
“I don’t think it is ever fair to criticise someone who has done what he has done,” he insisted.
“He has to make decisions and that is why he is what he is. He has had to make decisions on who is going into to the team and who he will leave out in cup finals and major games. Sometimes you get it wrong.
“There are reasons why he went with that team and why he did it that way defensively because Jonny Evans was unfit. Could you trust Rafael Da Silva in a high-pressure game? No you couldn’t. He could have been caught out or sent off. Gael Clichy could have caused him more problems that what Jones had.
“At the moment, because United have just lost a big game to City everyone is going to be hurting, especially in and around Manchester, Sir Alex will look at himself and what he has done and maybe he will say to himself that he got it wrong but beforehand I am sure he thought he was making the right decision.
“For United only lost the game 1-0 by a goal in the 46th minute when Chris Smalling switched off and went to win a ball but he jumped too early and lost track of Kompany.
"If he’d won the header everyone would have said what a great jump and then there is every chance to result could have been different. But City scored at what everyone believes is a pivotal moment and that proved to be the case. It was a game-changer.”