So, the ‘luck’ ran out last Saturday at Carrow Road as Kevin Pilkington’s 60th minute header proved decisive. It ended up being a frustrating and lacklustre performance that just never got going. Norwich raised their game, defended and hassled, pressed an immobile United central midfield, and in truth could have won by more. Reflecting back on the game, a strange thing was happening inside my cranium: when Norwich scored, I was relieved! Finally United had a reason to attack and force the game, just like nearly every other game this season. So I settled back and waited to see who this week’s hero would be, until I realised about two minutes into injury time that, like at Goodison Park for the opening game of the season, it just wasn’t going to happen.
The previous Saturday evening I had planted myself on my deceptively comfortable leather sofa expecting to enjoy an in-form Manchester United decimate the worst Aston Villa side I have seen in my lifetime; a lifetime that includes Graham ‘Turnip’ Taylor’s brief return to the club. Aston Villa are a decent football club, but they really are deeply uninspiring at present, and that’s being charitable.
Once again, the first half of the match was fairly turgid, lacking any real penetration or incident as United were going through the motions. That said, Fergie’s men were in control and only occasionally lent the ball to their hit-and-hope opponents. Other than the tedium of the performance, the only thing that really bothered me during the first half was my wife arriving home with two of her friends expecting me to listen to tales of their Saturday afternoon shopping escapades. I ushered them into the kitchen and closed the door in a manner reminiscent of Villa striker Christian Benteke putting Chris Smalling on his backside at almost precisely the same time as Andreas Weimann put Villa ahead in the closing seconds of the half.
Being from Belfast it is pretty rare to meet an Aston Villa fan; most of my generation made the mistake of jumping on the Liverpool bandwagon right around the time that Graeme Souness took over the reins and brought in players of the calibre of Torben Piechnic and Stig Inge Bjornebye. However, two of my local cohorts are bouncing mad Villains and I was conversing with them on the ‘Whatsapp’ messenger service. I couldn’t help myself and had been perhaps a little over-critical of their team’s abilities during the half, so understandably they were revelling in Villa’s half-time lead. When Villa went two up I imagined they were dancing a merry jig of delight, and one of them sent me an emoticon which seemed to suggest I was a ‘shite hawk’.
Despite this, I was not in particularly bad spirits. Again, anyone who has watched United this season will know that, due to whatever unfortunate mental kink that has permeated the squad, they only seem to start attacking once they go behind. United have come from a losing position to win in 5 other Premier league games this season, as well as in 3 out of their first 4 Champions League games (we’ll put the Galatasaray result down to having already qualified). I also knew that Villa were more than capable of gifting an abundance of chances before the game’s conclusion. As I’m sure you all know, Chicharito saved the day and secured the Red Devils their victory with a late winner. A familiar story over the Ferguson era. In his own words: “The tenacity of our performance in the second half was really brilliant. I think the evidence of the second half is we never give in. We can come from behind against anyone as we’ve done eight times this season, and that is encouraging in that respect”.
As fans, we certainly cannot complain about a lack of entertainment from our team this season as they seem to revel in going all-out attack and chasing after games. That, however, doesn’t mean that giving mediocre opposition a one or two goal head start is not a frustration, with Sir Alex referring to it as their “Achilles heel” this season. It worries me that, unless corrected, United will continue to allow themselves to go behind through first half lethargy, and the more decent teams will not roll over and have their bellies tickled – the losses to Everton, Spurs and now Norwich spring to mind. If all Premier league games this season were ended at half time, we’d be battling clubs like Wigan, Southampton and Liverpool to steer clear of the relegation zone. What re-assures me is that Ferguson is also recently quoted as saying “It isn’t a severe worry for me. It will improve”.
The reason this re-assures me is that Ferguson is a first class psychologist. He doesn’t just know the character of his team, he creates it. He gets inside their heads. The late goals are not an accident, and the never-say-die attitude of the players is not automatic. It is instilled right through the club by this maniacal Scot’s unbelievable desire to win, to be the best, to be the King of the castle, the Lord of the Manor. In his excellent autobiography ‘Red’, Gary Neville writes about the gaffer’s influence on the attitude of the team:
“Our boss has a massive effect on the team whenever a match is on. You can feel him in your head. At the back of your mind – sometimes at the front too – you’ll be thinking ‘Christ, I’ve got to go and face him at half-time. I’d better start playing better or he might rip my skull out’… Don’t get me wrong, you aren’t living in a state of fear. Mostly you are concentrating on your game. But you know deep down that you are puppets at the end of his string. He’s in control”.
Ferguson is not, I think it’s fair to say, a tactical genius. Sometimes his team selections can be perplexing, and his persistence with a midfield pairing of Giggs and Carrick is testament to that. He has been tactically bested on numerous occasions over his career. Despite this, he has evolved with the times and created different teams with different, increasingly fluent systems. I would argue, though, that the greatest attribute he has as a manager is his ability to create a team in his own guise. They all buy into it. Neville continues “He’s got a squad of different nationalities, different ages, different characters, kids from Brazil and local lads like me, and he wants to make us all feel like we’re in it together. Part of a team”.
The amount of late goals scored by Manchester United has been a defining feature of the Ferguson era. The players change, the ethos doesn’t. Everyone knows that Ferguson’s side have a high proportion of late equalising or winning goals. Stats can be misleading, but as an example, since the 2005-06 season, Manchester United have gone into the final 10 minutes of Premier league matches level with their opponents 57 times. They have managed to win 22 of these matches. An average Premier League side would expect to win about 10 matches from this position (source thepowerofgoals.blogspot.co.uk). This is not luck or chance. It is the courageous spirit instilled in the squad; you keep playing until the death and another chance will come. A defeat is not tolerated, and a game that is level is a game that can be won.
It is this attitude and desire that has enabled United to retrieve so many games this season, and it has been a delight to watch these comebacks. Sir Alex Ferguson is the master of this. He makes bold attacking changes and ruthlessly pursues the victories his insatiable appetite for success demands. What he must now eradicate from the mind-set of his playing squad is the idea that they can afford to go behind and expect to outscore the opposition late on. There has too often been a lethargic feel in the performances against inferior teams this year. Confidence is one thing, but arrogance is a dangerous characteristic in a football team and tends to breed complacency. ‘Sterile domination’ has become a term synonymous with Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal teams over the past seven years or so, enjoying the lion’s share of possession but not hurting the opposition, expecting that somehow your control of the ball will convert to goals. Ferguson, the wily competitor that he is, will not tolerate this sort of continued naivety which unfortunately his team showed again, to their cost, at Carrow Road last Saturday.
Lessons to be learned? Absolutely. A time for panic? Hardly. There have been so many positives from the spirit shown by the team so far this season, and so much attacking flair when the incentive has been there to ruthlessly go after the opposition. The fans of Chelsea and Newcastle have experienced it first-hand. History dictates that the Norwich defeat should serve as a timely reminder that any victory must be earned, not expected. Excuses of international week hangovers and the like will not stand up, and I’m sure the dressing room after the game was an uncomfortable place to be.
With Queen’s Park Rangers visiting on Saturday, I would anticipate a reaction from the squad. The timing seems right for a statement of intent. Hopefully it will not be necessary to summon the calvary for another late rescue mission.