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As we prepare for Craven Cottage – the scene of one of most disastrous and so nearly detrimental performances last season – I feel it appropriate to reflect on the season so far and discuss how the side has changed from the side Fulham beat in March who consequently recovered brilliantly to win the third title in a row.
More so than any other season, there have been extremely obvious changes made at United. The very same team that excelled and prospered in 2007/2008 and 2008/2009 had been somewhat dismantled.
Change, as is often the case when you have a manager as wise and experienced as Sir Alex, is a good thing and something we should always be open to at United seeing as Ferguson has successfully rebuilt, restructured and redefined several Manchester United sides to triumphant effect.
However, this time, was there any need whatsoever to change our Championship winning formula? This time, has his decision making and complacency in the summer cost us?
Ronaldo’s absence – the main change to our side and consequently playing style – has been highly documented and is unfortunately still being discussed; nearly five months after his departure. The reasons for this? We have clearly failed to replace the pivotal player, instead handing over the much coveted number 7 shirt to an arguably past-it Scouser.
Owen, for the amount of money we spent for him – i.e. nothing – has undoubtedly been excellent value for money. With regards to comparing him to Tevez, whom he directly replaced as our third striker, Owen has done well.
Tevez cost City £25million more than Owen cost us, yet has managed only 1 more goal than him this season. However, as was apparent with the nonchalant impact he made on the fans when arriving at Old Trafford, as well as the general lack of excitement felt towards him on the pitch whenever he receives the ball; he couldn’t be any less Ronaldo-esque.
As the best player in the world and certainly one of the most prolific, eclectic and entertaining, Cristiano has left a deep, underlying void that is now severely felt whenever United are on the attack. Every time we are in an advanced position, there is a sudden, striking loss of pace and finality to our movement.
Of course I am not suggesting that we have struggled to finish – au contraire as we have in fact surprisingly scored more in the league than at this same point last season (although it’s worth remembering Ronnie was injured for the first few months of 2008/09) – however the flair and finesse in our play has gone.
The positive impact of his departure however, to largely contrast my previous statement, is apparent at the range of goalscorers who have netted already; not even halfway through the season. Goals have impressively come from all areas of the pitch, with 13 different scorers in total. It can be argued therefore that the freedom felt by players now has given them a new confidence; a lease of life that was previously absent as all our attacking moves and progressive play went through the direct and often selfish Ronaldo.
The range of names on the score-sheet is most encouraging and can, for now, answer those cynics who have continually wondered where United’s goals will come from this season. Rooney is enjoying his most prolific season at United; Darren Gibson has recently utilised his opportunity and in turn rewarded Sir Alex’s faith in him; and even Anderson, after 78 appearances, has grabbed a goal.
But is this diverse range of inconsistent scorers enough to rely on all season? Results wise, so far it has been; as after 17 games we are only 3 points behind leaders Chelsea.
However will this last? Should we be concerned that, other then Rooney on 12 goals, only Owen, Valencia and Berbatov have scored more than 3 this season? And, most pressingly, will we be alright to do without the creative impetus of Ronaldo, as well as his goals?
Just look at how we’ve faired against the ‘bigger’ teams this season: we’ve lost away to Chelsea and Liverpool and at home to Villa, and struggled at home to City, not to mention Sunderland who have had an impressive start. Apart from the Manc derby, where the inert distain and horror of drawing at home to ‘them’ was enough to see us through to the end, where has been the end product and extra gear we have needed to create and score?
Another huge positive that can be drawn from the season so far is that the other teams battling for the top spot have equally suffered from a lapse in form and general competence. Every time we feel at United that we are struggling and generally not as good anymore, a bad result goes against Chelsea or Arsenal to surprisingly keep us well within reach.
Our poor result at home to Villa was nowhere as detrimental as it would have been had Chelsea beat Everton earlier in the day; and Arsenal must have delighted at beating Liverpool on Sunday, as even after we beat Wolves 3-0 on Tuesday, a win in their next game away to Burnley the day after would have put them 3 points behind with a game in hand. Yet – as was probably to be expected – they dropped two points to remain out of touch.
Remember how people naively wrote the league off as Chelsea’s a few weeks ago after they destroyed Arsenal at the Emirates? In the 4 games subsequent to that game, they drew two and lost two.
So how can we conclude? Well, we ARE struggling without Ronaldo; not in terms of his goals, but his creativity, spark and overall attacking prowess that clearly separated us from other teams in the previous 3 seasons. We have not performed well against tougher opposition, although thankfully, everyone in the top half of the league has managed to appear equally unimpressive at times.
The main factor that has contributed to this slight downfall in quality of the top 4 – and in turn apparent improvement and confidence of the ‘other’ teams in the league – is the amount of goals conceded. The traditional top 4 have conceded 71 goals this season, with the top two Chelsea and United – who both conceded only 24 each last term – each conceding 14 so far. As for Liverpool, they conceded 27 last season; and 24 already this season.
This league is quite clearly anyone’s for the taking; however quality and attractiveness in style is no longer the difference between the title-ambitious teams.
With Ronaldo’s departure to Spain – as well as to a lesser extent Alonso’s from Liverpool – there seems to have been an overall drop in the standards that has, as mentioned, allowed those prospering teams below the top 4 an opportunity to capitalise.
The team who are able to withstand the pressure from the much improved second tier – the Tottenham’s, Villa’s and City’s – and maintain a superior defence will be the team that wins the league.
Skill, flair and beautiful football no longer seems to be the name of the game for the Premiership; as this has disappeared to sunnier (richer) climates to instead leave us relying on the basics and fundamentals of the game.
Hard work, possession and above all, firm defending dominate and override the game-plan of the league’s most wanting teams; and the ones who attempt to deviate from this will ultimately suffer.