Right now Manchester United is precariously balanced between two philosophies – a desire to return to the free-flowing, attacking United of old versus the need to be effective, defensively solid and to control the game from start to finish.
Each manager has a particular brand of football that suits them best. Wenger has his mantra of beautiful football which shines through in brief moments even when Arsenal play 4-5-1 and leave Henry to meander morosely by himself in the opposition half. Mourinho is win first, flair second, and it shows in the way Chelsea have controlled games in the last 2 years.
Ferguson has always had a different approach to managing a football team, and while it is simplistic and ‘less technical’ compared to Wenger or Mourinho (IMO, at least), it is also invariably more effective when in full flow than either Arsenal’s or Chelsea’s play.
That is what is the worst part of not winning a title for the last 3 years. Not that we’ve made mistakes in the transfer market, or that we have a weaker squad, or that there’s something wrong with the management at Manchester United. And as much as it pains me to admit it, the sale of players such as David Beckham and Ruud van Nistelrooy has not automatically meant that United have lost their way.
Rob Smyth of the Guardian was right when he said that Manchester United had lost their spirit. Men like Keano and Cantona and Giggs and Neville and Beckham and Scholes have carried that United spirit perfectly for the last decade, and now there’s is no one left to hold that responsibility.
Under Ferguson, Manchester United have played in a wolf-pack mentality – a pack of hunting dogs attacking and defending in numbers, relying on speed, skill and most importantly, teamplay and sheer willpower to overpower their opponents. It is a simple philosophy – no elaborate 17-touch moves (United move faster along the pitch) or demoralising possession-play. It’s something that has created some of our most memorable come-backs and for me United have earned their reputation for being able to score right at the death to win games.
The game has changed in the last 6-7 years. You can’t just rely on winning the season by playing spectacularly well after Christmas. Cost-cutting at Manchester United has also meant that we have a light-weight squad, and a series of player-manager bustups plus a few poor transfer decisions have meant that we are short of quality players. The first-11 could hold its own against Chelsea, but the second-11 would find a tough time against free-falling Leeds, let alone Reading or Sheffield United.
Manchester United need to be in top shape and 110% motivated throughout the season. The group needs to shut out any mistakes and focus on doing the simple things right – get the ball, pass it to a red shirt, always keep moving.
Say what you want about Ferguson, but he got the preparations spot on for this season. To top it off, he also handled the ‘motivational’ factor, so that despite the absence of real leaders on the pitch (with only Giggs, Neville, Scholes, van der Sar and perhaps Rooney capable of laying claim to those roles) we are 5 out of 5 in league and cup competitions.
The going will get tougher, with Arsenal up on Sunday and Liverpool and Chelsea to come. And if Manchester United keep making the same defensive mistakes as they have made in their last three matches – Watford, Tottenham and Celtic – even the relegation-threatened Arsenal side could make us pay for our sloppiness.
Right now, there are only 3 things Manchester United and Ferguson will / should be worried about:
- Keeping Rooney and Ronaldo fit – we’ve lost two left-wingers (Giggs and Park) in two games. If Ronaldo or Rooney are injured, Manchester United will have lost 2 of their axis of 4 attackers (Saha, Rooney, Giggs, Ronaldo). We’re too stretched in resources to cope with such a loss.
- Creating leaders out of the rest of the squad – Of the young crop, only Rooney and O’Shea seem to be capable of playing in Ferguson’s system perfectly 10 times out of 10. Wes Brown is great as right-back and should be a permanent fixture there after Neville leaves, while Carrick needs more time to settle in. Ronaldo is volatile and prone to playing for himself and showboating, although this season has seen him raise his game to a whole new level.
Rooney, Ronaldo, Carrick, Brown and O’Shea are United’s future. If these 5 can fulfill their potential as well as Giggs, Scholes, Neville and van der Sar are expected to do (and Saha and Ferdinand will), United have the seeds for a all-conquering team again.
- Stop bleeding goals – Manchester United are badly missing Vidic. Both Ferdinand and Brown are having dodgy spells, and you couldn’t trust Silvestre to defend against top opposition. Ferdinand, van der Sar, Neville and Ferguson have to figure out a plan to get United’s defensive problems sorted out immediately.
Can Manchester United with the Premiership this year? Arsenal have even worse motivational problems than us, while Liverpool can’t score (again). Chelsea look vulnerable and poor early-season form could cost them (although if both Manchester United and Chelsea win their matches on Sunday we only have a 3 point lead on the champions).
We have the attacking and motivational aspects figured out, and if we can keep the key players fit, the only thing left to worry about is the defence. Otherwise, a trip to Stamford Bridge will be another 3-0 defeat and the Premiership will be out of our hands, again.