The current Manchester United side doesn't hold a candle to the treble winning side of old, which would make trumping the money-men at Manchester City all the more impressive.
The end of yet another English Premier League season (up yours, Barclays) is upon us. Consequentially, the plethora of awards, honorable mentions, best team lists et al have been or will shortly be announced. Deservedly, some teams and players will receive praise of the highest order - Alan Pardew for Newcastle’s splendid run this season, Swansea for ably replacing last season’s entertainers-in-chief Blackpool with some beautiful football themselves, and of course, Robin van Persie for his goalscoring blitzkrieg.
The PFA Awards for instance, have been announced already. The above mentioned van Persie has quite rightly been adjudged as the PFA Player of the Year, while rather oddly, Tottenham’s flying right back Kyle Walker has been named the Young Player of the Year, ahead of much more deserving players such as the excellent Sergio Agüero.
What I’m looking forward to personally, is the League Managers’ Association Award for the 2011-12 season. Even on paper, there is no clear winner. As many as seven different managers could end up with the award - Martin O’Neill for dragging quagmired Sunderland away from possible relegation. Brendan Rodgers for Swansea’s pretty football. Paul Lambert for securing Norwich’s Premier League future. David Moyes, for once again out-performing everyone’s predictions and guiding Everton above Liverpool despite working on a shoestring budget and spending roughly £90 million less. Alan Pardew, for his excellent man-management skills and for bringing the best out of a moderately good team and keeping them in contention for a possible stint in Europe for the first time in a long while. Roberto Mancini for keeping the Manchester City juggernaut rolling despite all the hiccups, the bust ups and the lot. Or of course, Old Trafford’s very own Lord Purple Conk.
First of all, let me make it clear that I’m not saying Ferguson should receive the award outright. He doesn’t. This title, which in all probability depends upon the upcoming Manchester derby is far from his finest. The treble wins in ’99 and ’07 were far more convincing and far better earned. Personally, I think the award should be given to Pardew, for the revolution he has brought about at Tyneside - dismantling a team built on one player, selling him for far more than he’s worth, and for using the funds extremely sagaciously in bringing top quality talent at ludicrously underrated prices. I’m sure some of you would agree with this.
But put that aside and focus your attention on the canny Scot that is Ferguson. In some ways, he deserves the award just as much as the next candidate. What he has done so far, just as he has done in years past, is instill that sense of pride and belief in a distinctly average United side, especially one that has suffered the ignominy of being whipped mercilessly at home by their neighbours and title rivals.
“It's the worst result in my history,” said Ferguson. “It's a terrible result but the impact will come from the embarrassment of the defeat. There will be a response.”
As Ferguson had astutely pointed out, there was. The United side that had conceded 6 goals in a game at home then went unbeaten for the next eight games, conceding only 2 goals while scoring 21 goals, at a rate of 2.62 goals per game. The carefree attacking abandon that Old Trafford was treated to in the early days disappeared, as Ferguson’s men rebuilt their iron wall in defence once again, the defence that was the catalyst for their title winning runs in the 2007-08 and 08-09 seasons.
What he has done so far, just as he has done in years past, is instill that sense of pride and belief in a distinctly average United side, especially one that has suffered the ignominy of being whipped mercilessly at home by their neighbours and title rivals.
Not all of those wins were domineering performances. The majority of those were scrappy, tough, close games with United just about nicking the win. The games against Everton, Sunderland and Swansea in particular were hugely close calls for Ferguson’s team. The first and the last were both won by Hernàndez winners, while the Sunderland win came from a Wes Brown own goal.
“It's about time we won 1-0,” Ferguson said. “That was the aspect of the game that pleased me most, that and restricting Everton to very few chances.”
The emphasis clearly was on winning, not winning in style.
United’s successful run was in no way helped by the constant stream of injuries and erratic form the team was suffering, the latter particularly in Europe. At one point, United had seven first team players spending more time in Carrington than on the pitch - Javier Hernàndez, Tom Cleverley, Ashley Young, Darren Fletcher, Nemanja Vidić, Rio Ferdinand and the perpetually injured Michael Owen were all missed for long periods of time. Key players such as Fletcher and Vidic are out for the entire season, while the others, despite recovering, are still suffering from form issues.
Last season’s ace predator Hernàndez has no longer been the menace he was, after missing most of early season with a concussion. Promising talent Cleverley has been unable to build on his terrific displays in pre season and early August-September, while we’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly side of Ashley Young.
The emphasis clearly was on winning, not winning in style.
Ferguson’s conundrum was further multiplied by the bedding in troubles of David de Gea. It was always tough for the lanky Spaniard to cope with the brute physicality of the Premier League, and it was amply highlighted by some terrifying displays in goal - flapping at crosses, completely missing long balls and positioning himself poorly. With an unsettled defence and an even more unsettled goalkeeper behind them, its no small wonder that they’ve conceded only 32 goals so far - a feat bettered only by City.
But where the league campaign has been a success so far, the European one has been an almost unprecedented catastrophe. United’s uncalled-for arrogance in the group games against lowly opposition led to them being knocked out at the very first stage of the competition. Lethargic, often lackadaisical performances were a trademark of United’s European campaign, as Ferguson’s men failed to qualify from what was probably the easiest of all the UCL groups. FC Basel’s Xherdan Shaqiri whacked the proverbial nail on the head after United’s defeat against them in Switzerland.
“You could feel it in the tunnel before kick-off and even in the warm-up. They weren’t fully focused and I’m not even sure a United player made even one sprint. Afterwards you couldn’t even swap shirts — they were gone that quickly.”
United’s erstwhile Europa League adventure didn’t last very long either. A competition that Ferguson had claimed United were in “to win it” lasted exactly four games, two of which were an embarrassment to United and Ferguson. Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao threatened to run riot against the Red Devils, both home and away, winning the tie by an overall score of 5-3. United were humbled.
"We were well beaten. I have to say they were the better team," Ferguson told Channel Five after the 2-3 home defeat.
"I thought our defending wasn't very good and that kept us on the back foot all the time. Our attacking play was very good at times and it was an open, entertaining match. But Bilbao were the better side."
Was it all too obvious from the way United performed in Europe, especially in the Europa League that No. 20 was always going to take precedence over the a European trophy? Possibly.
“We can still win the tie. No question," added Ferguson. "We showed we can make chances against them, but obviously we have to defend better.”
In reality, what happened was almost too predictable. United damn nearly had their asses handed to them again in Spain, but luckily, ended up losing by just the solitary goal.
“I don't think we can complain about the result. I think that in the second half in particular Bilbao were the better team," Ferguson said.
"The disappointment for me is losing such a soft goal. I thought the first half was even, I thought we did play well. It was a fantastic end-to-end game, there was nothing in it, really. But the goal was a bad one for us to lose. You can't believe an English side could lose a goal like that – long ball [Llorente’s goal].”
"The second half, in the first 15 minutes, they could have scored two or three goals. I thought they started the second half very well and had us on the back foot for most of that first 20 minutes. The goal [from Rooney] was too late really to do anything about it. If it had been a bit earlier we might have made something of it."
Why was this expected? Was it all too obvious from the way United performed in Europe, especially in the Europa League that No. 20 was always going to take precedence over the a European trophy? Possibly. Exit from Europe, especially the latter competition has been a blessing in disguise for United. No more long, tiring trips to unheard of places and clubs in Europe, no more playing for pizza on thursday nights, leaving the players exhausted for the weekend PL games, and certainly no more split loyalties - there was one aim and that was going the next, historic title win.
Asked whether United's travails in Europe this season should just be put down to "a bad year", Ferguson replied: "I hope it is [that]. I think that there is a root [cause] in terms of some of the goals we have lost in these tournaments, they have been pretty poor, so it's something we need to analyze. It has been a disappointing year."
Old Trafford hasn’t been the bastion of terror it once was either. Teams, even relative minnows coming to Manchester have refused to become intimidated by the looming fortress. Instead, they have attacked with verve, defended with pride and have fought until the bitter end to earn results against the mighty United of Manchester. And it has worked. The United side that had won all but one of its home games last season has lost a staggering 5 games at home and drawn 4 in all competitions - including 2-3 losses against Athletic and Blackburn and high scoring draws against Basel and Everton - none of whom can be considered a genuine powerhouse.
However, the annoying thing about the goals conceded is the time when they are. Of the 32 goals that United have conceded so far, a stunning 24 (75 fricking percent) have come at the beginning or end of the half, which points to a lack of concentration in successfully seeing out the half. United have conceded 7 during the 40-45 minutes period, 7 during the 46-60 minute period and a jaw-dropping 10 during the last 10 minutes of the game - i.e. a sheer 1/3rd of all the goals United have conceded have come in the dying minutes of the match - essentially letting the opposition back into the game. United, the masters of scoring late on were damn nearly turning into the masters of conceding late on - an Arsenal side in disguise.
Old Trafford hasn’t been the bastion of terror it once was either. Teams, even relative minnows coming to Manchester have refused to become intimidated by the looming fortress.
The latest result against Everton highlighted this perfectly - United leading 3-1 and 4-2 successively conceded 2 late goals from the Toffees to finish the game at 4-4. At Old Trafford. A United side of the past would have smelled blood at 4-2 and would’ve gone after Everton like a pack of hunting dogs. The new United mucked about until they threw away the lead and the three points, once again letting City back into the title race. The Guardian’s Rob Smyth summed it up succinctly - “You know what they say, a 4-2 lead is a dangerous one.”
Yet, taking all of this in, it is simply astonishing that Ferguson has kept this United side on course for this long in the title race. City’s lead, which at one point was eight points, has been chased down, overtaken successfully, and it is now them doing all the chasing. What Ferguson has done with this motley crew of players is make them believe in themselves and the club, convince them that victory will always be yours and instilling them with a bit of his own sense of righteous indignation - a feeling that the Premier League trophy belongs to Manchester United, a feeling that the trophy belongs at Old Trafford, a feeling that the trophy is theirs for the taking.
Certainly, this has been no easy task. Yes, United spent in the summer, but it was nowhere near the amount that City have spent rebuilding their side. The purchases have come handy just as well, considering how ravaged the squad has been with injuries (cast your mind back to Berbatov and Carrick playing centre-back). The title has not been won yet, and may not be, even after the derby. It might as well go down to the bitter, barren end, on May the 13th, when United kick off at the Stadium of Light. But if it does end up at Old Trafford, then this will be Ferguson’s greatest achievement.
I’m a Man United supporter, but I can say with no hard feelings that City have deserved to win it just as much as United have, Mancini has been just as good a manager that Sir Alex has been, but there is a nagging feeling in my head that considering the money they’ve spent, they should be miles clear by now, because they have pound-for-pound the best squad in the world. But I understand, this is their first experience and they will only learn from it.
“Yes, definitely. Game on. We've given them the initiative, there is no doubt about that," Ferguson said. "It makes the game at the Etihad a really important game. A decider really.”
“We make it hard for ourselves as we normally do but we'll have to go there knowing we are capable of getting a result. We need to get a result at the Etihad, there is no question about that, we need to perform. There is no reason why we can't do that.”
"There has been an expectancy from City that it could be their decider, but it's our decider too. There will be a reaction, obviously, there is no question about that. The game on Monday would always be a derby game of highest proportions and this won't be any different."
A derby of the highest proportions. A reaction. A response. The last time that word was mentioned was on October 23. On next Monday, let’s hope there is.
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