Call it the ‘business end’, ‘the run-in’ or, god forbid, ‘squeaky bum time’, but Manchester United are usually the last team standing when at the climax of a football season, not the first team sprinting off from the blocks in August. With a 100% record so far maintained into September, and an impressive haul of 18 goals in four games, Sir Alex Ferguson looks to be taking the initiative early this year with a new-look side playing ‘fantasy’ football.
I’ll be looking at some of the factors, features, players and performances that could yet make this the red’s best start to the season in twenty years. Follow on after the jump!
1. United turn up the volume to drown out the noisy neighbours
The charity shield is a funny old fixture: a nauseating source of hollow boasting for the victors, and one of immediate downplaying and dismissal by the dejected losers. Context, however, can be quite the inspiration and this year’s preseason semi-spectacle was an event of undeniable hunger.
Sugar-coated in the grand, narrative subplots and romantic intrigue of a relocated Manchester derby, the match was hyped up as something of a tone-setter for the much anticipated title fight to come. The relative poverty of the silverware on offer seemed largely irrelevant with the only real incentive for victory being the congenial pleasure of beating City.
Four weeks into the season proper, and the two combatants stand atop the Premier League table level on points, separated only by goal difference. Their fixtures so far have felt more like the skirmishes of a proxy war waged by two Mancunian football superpowers; each and every game feeling as though inextricably linked and immediately comparable regardless of the match day opposition. This breathless duel of one-upmanship now threatens to exclude any other championship fanciers from the title race this year, assuming this level of intensity can be maintained. For the moment though, it seems that anything City can do in laser blue, red can do better.
2. Finding substance in style
Manchester United have been utterly ruthless, but not brutish. Their free-scoring form has come from picking teams apart with intricate, intelligent passing and fluid movement, not physical power plays and sharpened elbows. The fundamentals of this reinvigorated artistry are rigorously functional. This isn’t some fluffy, aesthetic icing splurged over stale cake.
United have long been the masters of the heart stopping counter attack; ready and willing to rip teams to shreds with their pace, precision passing and a punishing, predatory instinct. Take the goals in video below for example.
These expertise in crisp, opportunistic football have injected a merciless rampancy into their newly proactive, possession-based approach. Turbo charging your game will of course cause the odd rushed pass and play, but in comparison to the form and style of last year’s side, a team often derided, correctly or not, as rigid, banal workhorses look like a completely different team (which, in some ways they are! Read on below…) imbued with a ravenous hunger and excellent ball playing abilities.
Vincente Del Bosque famously described Ferguson as ‘a tactical anarchist’, and his characterisation feels fitting for the manner in which the great Scot’s latest team carry themselves. In attack his players look self-sufficient and aware, not needing a centralised hub to direct their game. Instead, the team appear to take a shared responsibility for finding the correct pass for the situation they find themselves in.
As a contrast to the calm and collected Barcelona (a dreadful comparison to make, I know, but as the current high priests of the beautiful game, the balugrana are the benchmark with which to measure ‘good football), United are far more chaotic and raw. Instead of the sense of composed procedure and grand design that Xavi and co often emanate United’s approach is far are more impulsive and spontaneous. If Barcelona perform as a composed, virtuosic orchestra, fiddling away in deference to a few key conductors, Manchester United have so far been more like a free jazz ensemble, jamming on the transient actions of their team mates and improvising accordingly. That such an exquisite and successful brand of ‘free’, swashbuckling football uses the apparently obsolete 4-4-2 is testament to the contrary brilliance of that wily old ‘Anarchist’, Sir Alex Ferguson.
Rather than claiming the style of his latest vintage as ‘an intensely Anglicised tikka-takka’ or the like, it could be said that Manchester United have gone back to the future. There are echoing similarities to the Scot’s teams of the 90’s: open, end-to-end football, all-action two-man midfields and defense stretching width on the flanks, all remixed and refined for the tactical innovations and sophistications of the modern game. You may scoff at suggestions of United totaalvoetbal, but after watching Phil Jones at right back sprint and dribble the ball through the centre of midfield and into the opponent’s box, the idea of self-autonomous, adaptable tactical fluidity pumping through the heart of the retrofitted English champions doesn’t seem so far fetched.
3. A resilient West Brom exorcise the away day daemons early on
Last season, Manchester United did not travel well. If it weren’t for such a stellar home record, and a relatively low point scoring league season as a whole, the capture of title number 19 could well have postponed. United seemed strangely distracted and brittle away from home, dropping points with alarming frequency and, at times, fleeting incompetence.
Starting the season with a trip to West Brom was possibly the best medicine for a visiting record in such poor health. The Hawthorns has become a tricky venue for outsiders under the reign of Roy Hodgson, and a testing match ended 2-1.
Shane Long’s equaliser, a fortunate strike that De Gea should have saved, tested United’s resolve. Whilst the match was won thanks to a deflected cross from Ashley Young, the determination and reaction shown by the reds as they pushed on for all three points was a huge positive considering the fragility of last year’s confidence away from Old Trafford.
4. Cometh the hour, cometh De Gea.
Whilst he should have done better with Long’s debut goal at West Brom (and Dzecko’s first half strike in the Charity Shield) David De Gea has improved with each and every game. There is always going to be a period of transition and adaptation when a 20 year old goalkeeper emigrates to a foreign league and style of play alien to that of his home land yet even against West Brom, he showed flashes of his ability, not just potential.
Whilst his shot stopping and confidence in coming up to claim crosses and high balls improves, his distribution and kicking game have been excellent. Since his home debut against Tottenham, De Gea has been producing superb, clean deliveries into dangerous positions on the defensive flanks and further up the field, such as in the video below:
As much as the Barthez Mk. II narrative offers great copy, the only inconvenient truth uncovered by the English football media so is their obvious ignorance of the foreign leagues. Anyone who watched De Gea for Atletico could see his promise. Luckily for United fans, he’s already delivering on that potential, with undoubtedly his best work still to come. Watching Van Der Vaart believe the hype and take every touch of the ball as a chance to shoot was a comic joy. If teams continue to distract themselves with such urban myths when facing up against Manchester United, the team can only benefit.
With the next two league games against Chelsea and Stoke, hopefully De Gea can silence the cries of ‘light weight’ once and for all, but if he doesn’t, and errors persist as they will, United fans especially need to hold their nerve. David De Gea has all the tools required to become the world’s next, best sweeper-keeper and the perfect replacement to Edwin Van Der Sar. Bosnich he is not.
5. ‘The white Pele’
To say that Wayne Rooney is a divisive (and perhaps derisive) figure is something of an understatement. From his tabloid friendly infidelities through to an uncanny resemblance to a certain big green swamp monster, Rooney is something of a figure of fun for football fans the country over.
His ability on the pitch, however, is something that is either feared, respected or hated depending on your allegiances. Whilst currently leading the Premier League goal-scoring table with 8 strikes, Rooney has collected those goals over only four games, compiling two hat tricks in a row against Arsenal and Bolton respectively.
Its not just his ultimate end product either. Whilst only holding one assist to his name officially, Rooney has been in the midst of United’s best moves so far this season, finding two natural foils in Ashely Young and Nani, to swap positions and play off and on to. The addition of Tom Cleverley, and with him a new found consistency and dynamism from Anderson, has also aided Rooney, who can truly play between the opposition lines thanks to the quality of ball and support pushing up from the central midfield.
It was during his Everton youth days that the tag of England’s ‘white Pele’ was attached to the scouse powerhouse, and the talismanic aura that he exudes empowers and improves the teams he plays within. Wayne Rooney is a cutting edge, creative force and leader on the pitch, and whilst United may no longer rely solely on his genius to compete at the highest level, he is the ‘jewel in the crown’ of Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad, and if he can extend this early season form deep into the months to come, his team and club can only benefit.
Less than twelve months ago the unimaginable seemed to readying itself to crash through the walls of reality as Wayne Rooney announced he wanted out of Old Trafford. Whilst many fans may not yet fully forgive United’s number 10 for his indiscretions (or for keeping his agent, Paul Stretford on after the public contract wrangling), prolonged success via the boots of the boy from Croxteth will surely dilute such venom. For now at least, ‘the white Pele’ looks set to retake his place on the pantheon of the world’s best players.
6. Can you win everything with kids?
At 26, Ashley Young is a relative veteran campaigner compared to the other new signings brought into Old Trafford over the summer; the aforementioned 20-year-old David De Gea and Phil Jones, 19. Combine those names with Danny Welbeck (20), Chris Smalling (21), the Da Silva twins (both 21), Tom Cleverley (22), Anderson (23), Jonny Evans (23), Javier Hernandez (23) and not forgetting the still-young Nani (24) and 25-year-old Wayne Rooney, and yet more promising youth bubbling up through the ranks and it looks as if the future is now for Sir Alex Ferguson.
Whilst Chris Smalling played beyond his years last term as an able and confident deputy to Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, both of whom have continued to suffer with injury problems this season, Phil Jones is the defensive upstart story of the year so far. His last ditch heroics, surging runs forward and tidy defensive work and passing game have garnered the highest praise possible for a United player with Sir Bobby Charlton suggesting Jones’ presence and abilities on the pitch reminded him of the late, great Duncan Edwards, a colossal cult figure for the club and its supporters. Whilst no one is wanting or looking for direct comparisons of players over such extended periods, such compliments are a testament to the quick progress the former Blackburn defensive wonderkid has made already with United. Alongside De Gea, Smalling and Jonny Evans, the breakthrough act of two years ago who finally looks to have refound his form, not to mention Fabio and Rafael, the backline looks secure for the next decade.
In midfield, Tom Cleverley seems to be the solution many had hoped he would be to recover from the unnerving lack of dynamism and ideas felt over the last couple of seasons. His intelligent, thoughtful passing and decision making is both a joy to watch and a potent catalyst to those around him. Anderson’s current renaissance has come whilst playing alongside the newly debuted midfield gem. After a horrific challenge from Kevin Davies in the Bolton match, Cleverley currently finds himself sidelined. It will be telling over the next couple of matches against Chelsea and Stoke just how much of an effect his emergence has made for United, and how keenly his absence will be felt against harder opposition.
The arrival of Ashley Young has also been a major boon, and factor, towards the club’s new found fluency and penetration from the wings. From the flanks, dead ball situations and deeper infield, Young’s delivery, decision making and movement have been fantastic, and the player himself clearly enjoys his new surroundings. Playing for Manchester United seems to have already given Young the platform to raise his game to the next level, and over the coming season he looks likely to become a major asset for Sir Alex’s side, especially in the league.
Danny Welbeck is another player long touted for first team greatness at Old Trafford, who has arrived back from his loan at Sunderland to claim a regular starting birth as his own. His performances against Tottenham and Arsenal will do his case no end of good, showing off his athleticism, technique and ingenuity in leading the line. If a weekly starting role is currently out of reach or the young Mancunian striker, perhaps Welbeck can be a viable back up for when the workaholic Wayne Rooney needs a rest.
7. A game of two… teams
A Premier League season spreads across 36 games with a successful journey into the Champions League final adding at least 13 matches onto a team’s calendar. Runs into the later stages of the FA and League Cups will garner a further 12 to make the potential end total a whopping 51 games for Manchester United this year.
Such a congested, heavy going schedule relies on a club’s squad, and United have one of the deepest, most well rounded squads in the Premier League at least.
In goal, Andreas Lindegaard offers a solid backup to David De Gea with Ben Amos and Tomasz Kuszczak waiting in the wings in case the very worst happens, however unlikely. Petr Cech and Carlos Cudicini, however, wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss such an idea.
Matching up their four goalkeepers with the outfield personnel, Manchester United might feel that they can assemble a fully fledged team for at least three of them such is their strength in numbers at present. Defensively, the roster looks endlessly flexible and full of possible combinations whilst in terms of midfielders Sir Alex has plenty of options to chose from. Whilst Cleverley and Anderson can provide youthful energy and enthusiasm, the regularly maligned Michael Carrick can be brought in or on to suffocate a game’s temp, even if he appears rather negative at times compared to those around him. Ryan Giggs can still provide that touch of timeless class whilst Park is run all day, and maybe even pop up with a sucker-punch goal or two. Don’t forget Darren Fletcher either, whose top form performances have been sorely missed. Darron Gibson remains on staff, but who knows what his current status is at the club.
In attack, United have seven strikers on their books: Rooney, Hernandez, Berbatov, Owen, Welbeck, Diouf and Macheda, the last three of which can also play on the flanks. The reds aren’t short of wide-men either though with Nani, Young, Valencia (who also seems to be emerging as a decent right back too!) along with the aforementioned Giggs and Park.
An embarrassment of riches truly exists over at Old Trafford.
8. Sir Alex Ferguson
What can you say? Ever adapting his approach and showing no signs of slowing up or losing his love for the game. It is incredible that at the age of 69, the great Scot is reworking his own methods and eclipsing the reforms and ideas of at least one manager more than half his age. Undoubtedly the greatest manager of the Premier League era, and one of the all-time titans of football coaching the world over. Long my his reign continue at Old Trafford.