Back not all that long ago, when I went to school, I always got that line included by all my moronic teachers in my school reports: Fergus could do better. It didn’t matter if I worked my hardest or not at all, or if I was interested and alert or distressed and self-harming during class, every subject always included that line. In fairness, greater variety often followed. One especially sarcastic Geography teacher speculated that since my head was constantly in the clouds, I should be able to tell a cirrus from a cirrocumulus; although I went on to get a ‘B’ grade at A-level so that showed him. Also, someone kidnapped and shaved his cat around that time which was unconnected and terrible. But I digress…
We are comfortably into the New Year and the final straight of another Manchester United season is fast approaching, so it seems to me an appropriate time to sit back, take stock and consider how satisfactory the season so far has been for the rampaging Red Devils. So let’s start with the test results:
- Premier League – Position 1st;
Played 23, Won 18, Drawn 2, Lost 3. Goal Difference +27
- Champions League – Qualified 1st position from Group;
Played 6, Won 4, Lost 2. Knockout stage vs Real Madrid
- FA Cup – Qualified for 5th Round
- Capital One Cup – 4th Round elimination vs Chelsea
There isn’t a lot wrong with the results up to this point. They are top of the league, five points clear of their noisy neighbours Manchester City. In all of their years battling at the top of the Premier League, the Red Devils have never amassed a higher points total at this stage of the season. This impressive points haul includes successfully navigated away victories to Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool. The home form of Sir Alex’s men has been close to perfect, save a first half against Tottenham Hotspur where Jan Vertonghen was allowed to look like Zico, and the side only got going once they realised they were going to lose.
Again, especially after such poor results last term, qualification from the Champions League Group Stages was refreshingly straight-forward. Top position in the group was secured after four straight victories, and afforded the boss an opportunity to field experimental, albeit losing, teams for the final two games.
The FA Cup has been a competition that has been successful for the club over the years, so it has been disappointing not to have won it in almost ten years. It looked like another early knock out was on the cards entering into injury time at Upton Park, but the best goal of the team’s season so far from Robin Van Persie ensured a replay at Old Trafford, which was duly won (in drab fashion) to secure 4th Round qualification. The side have now reached the 5th round, dispatching a Fulham team Dimitar Berbatov looked ashamed to be associated with. If only they had kept calm and passed him the ball.
The Capital One Cup was a worthwhile exercise, but an inexperienced side was beaten in unfortunate circumstances by a strong Chelsea team.
Despite the pleasing results to date, my first comment would be that the team could do better. Granted, my opinion has evolved from around 23 years of watching Sir Alex’s teams winning over 30 major trophies in that time, so I’m a spoilt brat in terms of football fandom. A barren season like last year is not expected and it most definitely isn’t tolerated. Standards have been sky high for a long time, and players are scrutinised for their mistakes at Old Trafford like nowhere else on earth. Results so far this season have matched those lofty expectations, so how can I be so bold as to suggest the team could do better? Well, indulge me if you will and I’ll keep going with the school report theme. Let’s consider the key subjects:
David De Gea has established himself as the first choice after early season rotation with the solid but unspectacular Anders Lindegaard. De Gea has a problem with being bullied with high balls into his area, too often flapping when he should be catching or at least thumping. However, his level of performance has markedly improved these last few months and the vast majority of fans would agree that he is a very good goalkeeper who could become great. He is still very young at 22 and sometimes fragile, but his shot-stopping has unquestionably won United points over the season, and his distribution is an important asset to the team. He has been widely criticised again after the late Spurs equaliser at White Hart Lane, and with some justification. That is tempered with the fact that he was the very reason they were still ahead in that match with his earlier saves. I no longer feel nervous with him in the team, and firmly believe he is improving with each game he plays; th confidence of being first choice is essential for any goalkeeper. He gets a lot of unfair criticism – his ears must still be ringing from the bashing Gary Neville gave him on Sky Sports on Monday night. However, most rational fans have grown to see the young Spaniard as a pivotal figure in the club’s future.
By the standards of any team expecting to compete for the league title, United’s defensive record this season has been the definition of woeful. 30 goals conceded and just 5 clean sheets in the league. The club is on course to concede over 50 goals this season. The previous worst total for a Premier League season is 37. Has the defence failed to function? Is it the fault of one individual? Alarmingly I would argue that the defensive frailties may be partially attributed to complacency.
Individually, each defender has actually had a good season. Rio Ferdinand, aside from Gareth Bale making him look like an ugly mannequin when he flew past him at Old Trafford, has belied his advancing years and creaking body. He has adjusted his game and has been the backbone of this United side. Jonny Evans has developed into a fine defender who now has legitimate claim to being a first choice pick. The defence has coped without club captain Nemanja Vidic for most of the season, and in several games have undoubtedly missed his physical presence and drive. Since Vidic joined the club in 2006, United have conceded 0.71 goals per game with him in the side, and 0.99 goals per game without him – a significant difference. Rafael has made the right back position his own, and his defensive blips are becoming less and less frequent. Patrice Evra has rediscovered some of his old form now he has a measure of competition for his place.
The team has shown its ability to defend when it really matters this season, but conceding multiple goals against Reading, Newcastle, Stoke and Southampton smacks of a team expecting to win by right and reputation. Far too often this season the team has had to recover from allowing themselves to fall behind. This must not be a characteristic that permeates the season if it is to be successful. Sir Alex himself stated in December “If we keep defending like we did against Reading we’ll be in trouble”. Teams are increasingly learning that they can attack United and expect to get results. Individuals are not the problem; team mentality seems more to blame. I have never previously known any United team to believe they can win without matching the effort of the opposition from the start. I hope this one isn’t the first. As fans we can only hope that the high stakes matches coming up will have the defence at their mean best. A settled back four, with injury problems hopefully consigned to the first half of the season, should help.
Of course another contributory factor to the poor defensive record could be attributed to a lack of protection from the midfield. The attacking emphasis this term has seen Sir Alex opting for creative flair and attacking thrust over defensive discipline.
It is almost impossible to accurately predict who will play in the midfield, or in what formation. In different games we have seen a flat four, a diamond, three in the middle, and a midfield five with Rooney or Kagawa dropping deeper. The one constant in the middle of the pitch has been Michael Carrick. United’s number 16 is enjoying what may be the best form of his career, and generally if he is on song, so are his team. His passing game is immaculate, and his choice of pass has improved greatly.
The difficulty is who to play alongside him. Anderson has looked good in bursts and possesses the energy that compliments Carrick well, but he is never far from his next injury. Unfortunately Anderson scoring a goal is a sight about as frequent as Haley’s comet. Tom Cleverley seems to offer the best balance, he is developing more of an end product and he possesses the legs that Carrick lacks. Another option, though more of an attacking one, is Shinji Kagawa. To be honest, I’m still waiting to see why he was attracting the attention of Europe’s top clubs. He has shown a few lovely touches, but nothing consistent. Then of course there are the options of Scholes and Giggs. Both are legends, both can come on and change a game, but both need to be phased out of the side. They add depth and quality, but neither can regularly feature any longer in a side that aspires to win the Champions League.
The common fear amongst fans is that against the very best teams, there is not a sufficient shield in front of the back four. Phil Jones performed this role to good effect at White Hart Lane, and he could be an individual the boss uses more often to put the shackles on the bigger teams. There are plenty of options in the United engine room, but few would argue that it would be a relief to see another top class defensive midfielder arrive at the club.
The wingers this year have been a disappointment in truth. Antonio Valencia looks a shadow of his former self; tentative on the ball, reluctant to take people on, he is barely recognisable as the beastly assist machine of last season. Ashley Young has continued to prove that, despite having his uses, he is not United quality. Finally, I can’t be the only fan to have lost patience with Nani. It seems as though he is destined for the exit door, despite Ferguson’s recent assertions to the contrary. His performance in the opening game of the season away to Everton was reminiscent of the episode of Mr Bean where he plays five a side against a group of unruly teenagers. He is possibly the most talented player at the club when at his best, but without doubt the most infuriating. If there is a wrong option to take, 9 times out of 10 Nani will take it. He fires more shots up into the air than a military funeral. Hopefully Wilfried Zaha will be more Cristiano and less Bebe.
When I think of Robin Van Persie I smile. I’ve always thought he was a great player but I was worried I wouldn’t like him after all those wasted years he spent at Arsenal. Not only do I like him, I want to have a daughter so she can marry him and make him his dinner every night. He has been absolutely fantastic from the moment he arrived, and is in a nomination group of one for the Player of the Year awards. Get him the ball and he scores goals. The free kick winner against Manchester City was iconic. In terms of goals scored, it surprised me to learn that this side with Van Persie has only scored two goals more than at this point last season. Despite this, there is little doubt that without RVP, United would not be on track to secure yet another Premier League title. He is up there with the very best in the world, and has had a massive impact that may just push the team on to a level that was beyond them last season.
Disappointingly, RVP’s arrival has coincided with Wayne Rooney failing to hit the heights we would expect. He has performed well for short patches. His goal scoring record to games played this year is still decent, but overall his level of performance has been sub-standard. Recent games against Swansea and West Ham would be poor by Ali Dia’s standards (google him). He still looks to me sluggish and poorly conditioned. Hopefully with a few more matches under his belt he can recover that touch and vision that have made him a special player who is capable of performing consistently on a level with RVP.
Chicharito has managed to recover the form he showed when he first joined the club, and from the start or off the bench is a fantastic goal scorer. Danny Welbeck is a crucial member of the squad and his versatility has been vital, although it has limited his number of starts as a central striker. His goal ratio needs to improve, but his raw athleticism and technique make him an excellent all-round player who, at 22, could develop into a world class talent if he is allowed to flourish.
Manchester United have achieved a very healthy position in each of the major competitions. They are well placed and well equipped to win the Barclays Premier League title, especially given the disjointed form of Manchester City.
The proof of the pudding will be in Europe. A Real Madrid side with their own problems will have done their homework, and Mourinho will know the defensive frailties of this United side. The tactical approach of Ferguson will be fascinating, considering how he will adjust his tactics and selections as the big games come in thick and fast. There is no doubt it is a quality squad with a desire to win. However, to win the Champions League, United need to do a lot better. Scoring goals should not be a problem. Conceding goals may prove a significant one. I hope I’m wrong, but former pupil Cristiano Ronaldo may come back to haunt Old Trafford. If he does I plan to kidnap and shave his cat.
Overall Team Grade: B-
Predicted Results: Premier League – Winners
Champions League – Elimination by Real Madrid
FA Cup – Quarter Final