Manchester United Half-Term Report
What's going right?
Quite a lot, it’s fair to say. The goals are flowing- 43 in the league already- and the recent win over City has given Manchester United some serious breathing space. United’s refusal to draw any games whatsoever has meant that losing three games has barely dented their dominance at the top (nearest rivals City having drawn a third of their matches). Clearly this comes from the open style of play that has seen United concede first on 13 occasions in all competitions (discounting the Champions League dead rubbers). Ridiculously, they have only lost three of these, coming back to win the remaining 10. It’s generally held as a pretty good achievement for any team to fight back for a draw after going down, so it’s a remarkable stat when you think about it in these terms. What’s really remarkable, perhaps, is just how unremarkable, how unsurprising, this feat is when accredited to Man United. To me that says something pretty powerful; there’s an unremitting assumption that United will ultimately win any given game.
Ferguson also made an important call in sending out his strongest possible teams to smash the Champions League group. Given, it was a group that looked like it had got lost from the Europa Cup, but although United probably would have qualified anyway by fielding slightly weaker teams, it would have ultimately taken up more time and effort that could otherwise be focused on the league.
It almost sounds ungrateful to talk of shortcomings when your team is sat six points clear at the top and have made it to the second round of the Champions League. But clearly things aren’t perfect.
The balance of the team is decidedly top-heavy. Van Persie’s signing has obviously done wonders for the goals balance, but it has also shifted the team’s homeostasis. Various tactical solutions have been tried and, I would argue, failed; most notably the 4-2-3-1 and diamond 4-1-2-1-2, both of which nullify United’s prowess in stretching games wide. (It actually looks like Ferguson’s decided to revert to what he knows for the moment, using Young and Valencia on the wings in a 4-4-2).
When Kagawa returns from injury it will be interesting to see how the midfield shapes up, now that Rooney is once again firing them in his preferred position upfront alongside Van Persie. The Japanese playmaker hadn’t really settled in before his injury, but this could also have had a lot to do with the frantic search for a functional formation taking place at the time. The hope remains that Kagawa does slot into a creative midfield role nicely, as otherwise, it’s fair to say the midfield lacks a creative leader. Carrick does his thing, which is useful but limited, Anderson bursts in and out of the team in a blaze of chaotic talent, Cleverley is getting there but remains decidedly absent in the big games, Scholes and Giggs are inevitably running out of gas while Fletcher looks to be in danger of becoming United’s Ledley King.
Got the right manager?
Well, it's early days but I think he’s probably the right man for the job. Let’s give him until January anyway to see if he can string some results together…
Seriously, though, how the hell are we going to replace him?! Spanish broadsheet El Pais reported that Mourinho’s agent Jorge Mendes- Lord Overseer of all football related transactions- has been promoting his main man for the Old Trafford vacancy. Whichever ‘super-manager’ takes over- Mourinho, Guardiola… Mourinho, Guradiola- things will inevitably never be the same again. This season, Ferguson has responded emphatically to the two main lessons from last year: ‘don’t lose the league on goal difference’ and ‘don’t take your Champions League group lightly’. One Van Persie and a 100% win record later (again, excluding the final two dead rubbers in the group), it’s clear who’s still boss.
Van Persie. It’s a boring answer I know, but probably because it’s obviously the right answer. He’s scored 12 in 17 games, but the really amazing stat is just how many points his winning goals have secured: 18; good enough for 13th in Premier League table as it stands. It was RVP’s strikes that beat Southampton, Liverpool, Cluj, West Ham, Reading and Man City. Fergie has this week spoken of Van Persie’s Cantona-esque impact on the team (as in he said “Yes, I think it’s happening” when Eurosport asked him if Van Persie’s presence is lifting the performance of the team in a similar way to Cantona).
Aside from Van Persie, it’s been a pleasure to watch Rafael develop into a classy right-back having added defensive solidity to his game. Evans has thrived with greater responsibility at the back in Vidic’s absence, Carrick has been in impressive metronomic form and Hernandez has shown he’s ready for action whenever called upon.
Who would you like to sell in January?
Well, Nani is looking the most likely to go, and regardless of what he may potentially still have to offer, Ferguson simply isn’t interested anymore, so once that’s been accepted, there’s little point in keeping him. I’m not really sure what the point of Macheda and Bebe is anymore, so they’re good to go.
Who do you want to sign?
I actually don’t think United need anyone in January. I hope the rumours surrounding Bergovic are just that, as I think it’s vital that De Gea is given a full run in the side this season; this would provide defensive stability and give him the confidence needed to sustain a long career as United’s no.1 (which I think he can achieve).
Next summer, if the midfield is still missing a spark, I would absolutely love to see Özil come to Old Trafford, who is reportedly interested in a move away from the Bernabeu. He’s only 24, clearly has world-class ability and could be just the man to oil the midfield cogs. Other than Özil, I would like to see another German, Mats Hummels, join the ranks. There is talk of a move as early as January for the prodigious defender, but I would actually rather see him join next summer, allowing Evans and Smalling the opportunity to cement a place in the team this year. The timing would dovetail nicely if Ferdinand- who, let’s face it, is running on empty- choses to move on next summer. As much as it saddens me, I also feel we have to accept that it’s highly unlikely a 31-year-old Vidic will manage to stay injury-free; the signs are pretty clear that it’s time to make final plans for defensive life post-Ferdinand/Vidic.
Oh, and obviously if Bale’s up for grabs, you’d never say no.
Best chant so far?
One look at City and he said f**k off”
Short but simple (Just like Berbatov…?)
Best opposition player / team you've seen this season?
Bale at Old Trafford was sublime for periods. He’s my favourite non-United player to watch in the Premier League, just pure class. He looked to pierce through United’s (admittedly shaky) defence that day whenever he received the ball. The speed at which he can run with the ball is remarkable, as his ability to deceive and change direction. Spurs that day were the best opposition United have faced this season, undoubtedly.
Biggest **** of the season
Obi Mikel, for making Clattenbourg’s life a living hell for weeks, based on evidence given to him from a non-English speaking team-mate standing many metres away. That was a horrible example of how not to take out your frustrations.
End of season prediction
I’m feeling very confident. Yes, City caught up with United last season after being apparently cast adrift, but if United can enter the new year with a half decent margin, the lessons learned from last season will hold the Reds in excellent stead. The young defenders- Smalling, Jones, Rafael and Evans- were probably most culpable for letting the league slip last season, but they are now a matured bunch who will not do likewise again.
As for the Champions League, I’m not so optimistic. If I’m brutally honest, I think United will win the domestic league despite a lack of balance in the side and inspiration from midfield, and when it comes to the crème of Europe, things will come unstuck. As soon as United come up against the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Juventus, Bayern Munich or even Shakhtar, I fear the wobbly midfield will get exposed beyond repair. I see a semi-final position being the best outcome. But you just never know… given how Chelsea stumbled their way to victory last year.
Follow Fabio on Twitter at @Fabzucci