Tag Archives: Tactics

Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are the perfect long term replacements for Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic


Phil who? This was the reaction of a lot of football fans when it emerged that the first major bidding war of the summer had broken out over a 19 year old Blackburn centre back. Liverpool looked as though they were wrapping up a deal for yet another promising youngster, as Kenny Dalglish looks to rebuild, but then Manchester United swooped in with Sir Alex Ferguson on his own reconstruction mission. A sizeable £16 million release clause in his contract was triggered and after a period of uncertainty, Fergie got his man.

Or should I say boy? Jones is currently with the England Under 21s for the European Championships. Against a Spain side much fancied to win the whole tournament, Jones won plaudits for his performance alongside another United youngster, Chris Smalling. Sir Alex bought him last summer and he has since proved himself as a top quality, capable defender, deputising for the increasingly injured Rio Ferdinand with composure beyond his years. The 21 year old was also praised universally by pundits and columnists and it was generally accepted that but for Jones and Smalling in central defence the Spanish would not have been held to a 1-1 draw.

It’s looking worryingly like the same old story for England fans, even at Under 21 level. On paper the squad of youngsters is stronger than most, bursting with names that have already gained considerable Premiership experience and demonstrated their skills on a tough stage. Some might even think it’s stronger than Fabio Capello’s first team and many players will be looking to break through. But following the promise of the hard fought draw with Spain, England drew 0-0 with Ukraine, with the only impressive performances coming once again from the defenders. Talented forwards with enormous potential simply didn’t deliver.

And literally as I write England have capitulated to a 2-1 defeat against the Czech Republic in a must win match. Danny Welbeck had headed them ahead with just twenty minutes or so to go, but then it all fell apart with an equaliser and a snatched winner as England poured forward in stoppage time. Their tournament is over. Stuart Pearce’s boys are no better at winning trophies than the men.

None of this will greatly concern Sir Alex Ferguson. He is used to watching England internationals as accomplished as Paul Scholes, David Beckham or Wayne Rooney go off to tournaments and return dejected and defeated. It did not stop them becoming phenomenally successful Old Trafford legends. He will set about the task of moulding Phil Jones and Chris Smalling into the perfect readymade pairing to replace the ageing Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand.

In an interview this week Smalling said that he liked to think both he and Jones had a mixture of Ferdinand’s passing ability and football brain, as well as Vidic’s hard as nails tackling prowess. This might be true because certainly Smalling has proved that he is no physical lightweight and Jones is versatile enough to play in midfield, so he can presumably pass a ball reasonably well. But there’s no doubt that Jones appears to be the tough tackling long term replacement for Vidic and Smalling the smoother operator to step into Ferdinand’s shoes. I mean he even looks a bit like Rio.

Jones proved his Vidic-esque credentials by almost singlehandedly taking United’s title challenge to the last day of the season. In the end a penalty earned the Reds a 1-1 draw at Ewood Park but Blackburn almost gave Chelsea hope thanks largely to Jones’ one man brick wall. Even on his Blackburn debut against Chelsea in March 2010, not long after his 18th birthday, Jones made his presence felt with some stinging but legal challenges on the likes of Frank Lampard.

Smalling meanwhile, as I said, has had a surprisingly key role over the last season at Old Trafford. I’m not sure even Fergie would have anticipated his rapid rise through the ranks, leaving the veteran manager contemplating selling the likes of Jonny Evans, John O’Shea and Wes Brown with not too much concern. Ferdinand’s fitness is unlikely to ever reach the heights of reliability and effectiveness again, meaning that Smalling will be called upon more and more often until eventually Rio is relegated to experienced squad member. The former Fulham man will grow in confidence the more he plays, so that he’ll be bringing the ball out of defence and looking for a killer pass as Ferdinand did in his prime, as well as covering superbly.

Jones and Smalling then have the potential to become a durable, formidable and complimentary partnership at the heart of one of the best teams in the land. Any understanding the two develop could also be transplanted beneficially into future England teams. But before such a partnership forms, they are going to have to compete against one another to play alongside Vidic for perhaps the next couple of seasons.

This time will test, trial and prove the individual ability of each player but will give them little chance to play together. If they have both been useful and their talents have passed the tests of high quality football on a regular basis at the Theatre of Dreams at the end of this period, then Sir Alex (or his successor) will have relatively cheap, and English, replacements for two of the best defenders the Premiership has ever known.

Capello continues to cling to the wrong experienced players


It was only last year that I was championing Fabio Capello as an intelligent and adaptable manager capable of improving considerably on England’s tournament record. Then disastrous preparation for the World Cup in South Africa and the handling of the captaincy fiasco transformed him from hero to zero for the whole nation. Yesterday’s draw with Switzerland, in a game England should have won at Wembley, was further evidence that Capello should have gone after the failure of the World Cup.

Capello’s main failing at the moment, above his poor communication skills and shoddy organisation, is his refusal to move on from ageing stars. Frank Lampard started as part of a three man midfield yesterday but England improved dramatically after the break when Capello brought on Young in his place, who should have started the game. Young scored a smart goal.

England have real pace and youthful pentration available on the flanks. The likes of Young, Downing, Johnson, Lennon and Walcott ought to be utilised more often. It’s taken Capello too long to give them international playing experience. The best teams at the big tournaments are units of quality players that have played together for a number of years, since the promise of their youth. Look at the German and Spanish sides.

In the centre of midfield, Jack Wilshere is the future. Capello has finally decided to give him a key role. But he continually plays alongside Parker and Lampard. Lampard is past his best and should be a squad member, not an integral part of the team for the long term. Parker was exposed yesterday; he is not the solution to England’s midfield woes. Capello needs to look to younger options for a holding midfield partner for Wilshere. Tom Huddlestone perhaps?

On the other hand, Capello consistently neglects experienced international players that could still play a vital role in his squad. His new found fetish for Darren Bent as a lone striker has alienated Peter Crouch, with rumours swirling today that he’s ruled himself out of international duty whilst Capello remains in charge. Michael Owen would have scored the chance Bent had to win the game, undeservedly, for England against Switzerland. Michael Carrick has been superb for Manchester United and would compliment Wilshere well. His passing ability is well suited to internationals.

A year ago I thought one of Capello’s key attributes was decisiveness. He dealt excellently with the John Terry crisis at first, only to divide the dressing room with his terribly handled reinstatement. However the defining aspect of his tenure looks set to be indecision. Extraordinarily Capello didn’t know his best eleven before the 2010 World Cup. He still won’t know his best eleven before Euro 2012, if England get there. He appears torn between entrusting the team’s hopes to youth or tried and tested experience. And when he tries to balance the two, he picks the wrong ingredients.

Macho Antidotes to the Royal Wedding – Part 2: United on BBC iplayer


My second suggestion of anti-Royal Wedding medication for the ordinary man, following the sensational spectacle of Thor, is a single strong dose of BBC drama United, shown on Sunday and now available on iplayer. If Thor was grounded in fun fantasy then United is rooted firmly in poignant and period storytelling, of the sort the Beeb does so well. In fact with budget cuts beginning to bite, our national broadcaster has made it clear that quality dramas like United and The Crimson Petal and the White are the future of BBC2 in particular. If future projects are as good as these then it’s a wise as well as an economical decision.

United is the story of the tragic Munich air crash that killed most of Manchester United football club’s first team, as well as reporters and staff, after a successful European cup match in Belgrade. The squad’s flight was stopping over in a snowy Munich to refuel and the players and coaching staff were keen to return in time for their league game that weekend, and thus avoid a points deduction. For most football fans the catastrophe that cruelly cut short the life of so many of “Busby’s Babes” is the stuff of familiar legend. I have been a Manchester United fan since the age of 6 and was raised on the fairytales of pure footballers from both before the disaster and after it. The men directly touched by such devastating events forged the foundations for Manchester United to become the world famous and successful club it is today.

Rest assured though, United is a good drama and an absorbing watch, pure and simple. For those without the background in football heritage or even those that can’t tolerate the game, this is a captivating human story of careers, celebrity and comebacks. Most importantly this is an extremely British tale and the perfect anaesthetic for ears bleeding profusely because of the hypocritical and imbecilic and meaningless whining of Americans pleasuring themselves over the blandest, most lifeless 24 hour coverage of the exterior of Bucking-HAM palace.

Despite the subject matter United is not all doom and gloom. For over half an hour from the start we are welcomed into the heart of a football club going from strength to strength. But it’s not about the football; it’s about the characters at the club. We are treated to finely honed BBC costume drama detail, from the 1950s fashions, to the dressing room, to Old Trafford, the Theatre of Dreams itself, rendered lifelike with impressively unnoticeable CGI. Most pleasing of all is the delicious double act formed between David Tennant’s Welsh coach Jimmy Murphy and Dougray Scott’s understated but charismatic portrayal of United’s most celebrated manager, Matt Busby.

Most of the time, Tennant steals the show, as he does in almost everything he’s in. It is by no means one of the more important judges of an actor, but Tennant continually succeeds at accent after accent, this time believably carrying off the musical Welsh tongue. This role also allows him to show off other more vital aspects of his talent too though. He has tremendous fun motivating the players as a coach with vision and then more than copes with the emotional side to the story when the drama hits. The majority of Doctor Who fans may now be fully warming to Matt Smith but Tennant remains a class act and it’s actually refreshing to see him embracing parts as diverse and interesting as this one.

It’s fitting that United is mostly told from the perspective of a young Bobby Charlton. He’s now a Sir and a national treasure, but then he was just a lad that wanted to play football. And he ended up living through a harrowing and traumatic experience. Yet he came out the other side of it and was lucky enough to have been part of the great team before the crash, and the even greater side built from the ashes. Jack O’Connell, who plays the young Charlton here, does a really good job whether he’s stumbling through the plane’s ripped ruins and grimacing at explosions, practicing on the pitch or gazing up in awe at the stadium.

As a production United really does ooze quality. The acting is top notch, the music is touching and the directing beautiful, particularly at the snowy crash site itself and in the dressing rooms. It also deals sensitively with an immensely emotive issue. The question of blame is delicately raised and wisely the film does not nail its opinion to any specific interpretation. Some will blame those who were desperate to play abroad and then make it back home in time for the league match, and indeed Busby blamed himself. Some will blame the league officials who refused to grant a postponement to the fixture after United’s European trip. Some will insist the officials at the airport and the mechanics and the pilots should have taken more care. But the sensible will just accept the terrible tragedy of it all. The enormous grief.

Of course the overwhelming and important cost of the crash was the human one, with so many young men dead. Their families and girlfriends and mates were robbed of their lives prematurely. As a drama United undoubtedly tells that tale. It often seems callous, stupid and emotionally ignorant to talk of the cost to the game of football. I call myself a football fan but much of the time the game leaves me unmoved. I do not live and breathe the game, I no longer care greatly as I used to as a child when one of my favoured teams does poorly. It takes a great occasion or an unusually interesting story, or an exciting match with beautiful passages of play, to truly ignite my interest these days. But there certainly was a significant cost to the game of football after the Munich crash, and it was a cost that mattered almost as much as the loss of their lives. United tells that story too.

It mattered that such a great and talented team was almost completely wiped out, because it mattered to them. It would have mattered to those that died and it mattered to those left behind. It mattered to the fans that mourned them and even the people that knew them. It’s too easy to talk with nostalgia of how football used to be, with starting elevens as opposed to giant squads and meagre salaries and basic training pitches; the modern game is too often ignorantly slated as excessive junk. Watching United though you can see the appeal of that nostalgia, of an old school approach brimming with romance, you can understand those who knew it firsthand ranting and raving at the money making machine that’s replaced it.

Nowadays you wouldn’t get Tennant’s character, a first team coach, ringing round top flight clubs begging for players in the aftermath of a disaster so that the locals could see a game and to maintain the winning philosophy of a club. It just wouldn’t be possible. Or necessary. You wouldn’t get a fairytale quite as magical as the one that swept a ramshackle team, comprised of youngsters and amateur unknowns, to the F.A. Cup Final at Wembley just months after the crash.

I’m not ashamed to admit I cried watching United. I might have been predisposed to an outpouring of emotion because United stirred up a long since cooled love in me for the beautiful game. But I defy anyone not to be moved by such excellent acting, such accurate portrayals of grief and commitment and passion. I have been reminded by United that anything, be it art, table tennis or cartoons, that takes you out of yourself and absorbs you, helping you to forget pain and grief completely just for a moment, is a worthwhile and admirable activity. Something worth fighting for.

The Royal Wedding is more likely to make me vomit than get teary but I know it would be more acceptable to sob down the pub over the achievements of football greats than the nuptials of a posh Prince. So when the women are welling up at the sight of a dress or a bouquet, tell them you’re not dead inside you’d just rather save your sympathy and admiration for real royalty.

King Kenny: Outdated monarch or timeless leader?


Fernando who? With a certain £50 million Spaniard well and truly nullified on his Chelsea debut and a fourth consecutive win for Liverpool, things are finally on the up on Merseyside. On Monday Anfield veteran Jamie Carragher spearheaded calls for the apparent architect of the revival, the messianic Kenny Dalglish, to be given the managerial job full-time. At the moment his clean-up as caretaker seems to be unstoppably accelerating, but is he really the right man to orchestrate Liverpool’s return to the top four in the long run and perhaps in the future once again push for the Premier League title?

What’s fairly certain is that you won’t get an argument based on pure reason from a Liverpool fan. King Kenny rules the Kop and as far as they’re concerned current results are mere confirmation of his status as a divine saviour. Incidentally it was reassuring to hear Liverpool’s American owner champion the atmosphere of the Kop as something unrivalled and irreplaceable last week, as he announced he would reconsider the club’s plans for a new stadium in favour of an expansion of Anfield. One thing Dalglish’s rebirth as manager undoubtedly proves is the galvanising power of tradition and distant American owners would do well not to disregard the heritage that could still play a pivotal rule in luring the talent needed for Liverpool to get back to the heights they once scaled.

Carragher was wise on Monday not to tear into the methods and tactical nous of previous manager Roy Hodgson. In my opinion Hodgson remains a shrewd manager capable of great success, who was given an unfair hearing from the start at Anfield and not enough time to turn a dire inheritance around. Substantial blame for Liverpool’s failings this season must rest both with the players and disruptive behind the scenes shenanigans. But Carragher was also spot-on when he said Dalglish had got everyone “onside”. Will the problems come however, when unity and renewed hope cease to be enough?

Looking on as Dalglish took over there appeared to be some worrying signs. After a better performance against Manchester United in the FA Cup, which nevertheless lacked attacking punch, they succumbed to a loss against Blackpool. But then Blackpool almost outplayed and defeated United not long ago at home. It would definitely have been unfair to judge Dalglish so prematurely.

However then there was the captivating comings and goings in the transfer market on the final day of the deadline. Endless column inches have lambasted the out of control decadence and excess of football today, but ultimately there is no way back to the “good old days”. The best the fans and the public can hope for is that the big money filters through to the grass roots and puts something back.

 Talking of the “good old days” though, I couldn’t help but think of the time Dalglish has spent out of football and then look at his key new signings to fill the hole left by the outgoing Torres. Despite the new dimension of crazy money, Dalglish appeared to be paying over the odds, unavoidably due to the rush, for a traditional target man in Andy Carroll. And Uruguayan Luis Suarez from Ajax seemed to be the tricky little goal-scorer to partner him. In the past Dalglish created and subsequently relied upon classic strike partnerships like Sutton and Shearer at Blackburn to propel his teams to success. Clubs no longer seem to have these attacking pairings. Has the age of the target man, of the little and large partnership, passed for a reason? Does it no longer work? Or would a new back to basics focus on team chemistry and complimentary traits work wonders for Liverpool?

Obviously until the unproven talents of Suarez and Carroll play together, the jury is still out. Undeniably both players have potential, but they were also overpriced. But then Liverpool simply had to gamble and replace the disaffected Torres because their season needs saving right now. They couldn’t wait till the summer and watch their prestige diminish still further. Ultimately there are more immediate concerns surrounding the possible appointment of Dalglish as permanent boss.

Mike Ashley tried it at Newcastle with Kevin Keegan. Times are hard so let’s bring in the one man the fans can’t possibly criticise me for, even when things go wrong. With a bit of luck his sheer presence will energise the players and gee up the fans. Are Liverpool simply experiencing the short-term Kenny Dalglish effect right now? When it disperses, does he have the vision and modern coaching ability to lead Liverpool into the future?

Despite the worries, overall the outlook is good. Alan Shearer is forever praising Dalglish’s “man management” abilities on Match of the Day and I’d have to agree, simply from the evidence, that he seems to have the difficult knack of motivation and inspiration nailed. Dalglish tried to insist no mention of Torres’ treachery was made in the dressing room prior to Sunday’s Stamford Bridge clash, but my word somehow he kicked some urgency into his players, instilled some fire and passion in  their bellies. Chelsea rarely forced Reina into action.

More importantly perhaps, Dalglish got the game against Chelsea tactically perfect. Three central defenders, lead by a reborn Carragher, coped almost effortlessly with the hopelessly narrow attack of Chelsea. Dirk Kuyt was given the chance to play as a striker for a change, and relished the opportunity to apply his phenomenal work rate on his own down the middle, a constant nuisance to the Chelsea defence. If Dalglish can continue to raise the confidence of his squad, in tandem with the excellent coaching of number two Steve Clarke, Liverpool should end this season strongly and start the next with a far better platform for success.

Javier Hernandez: United’s missing link


Switching on the TV last night after a few days away for a much needed football fix, I was hoping to see a rampant Manchester United. I’d heard about their 5-0 demolition of Birmingham at the weekend and was gutted to have missed it. Like other supporters I was hoping it was the result, or more importantly the performance, that helped the team turn a corner. It’s time the Red Devils hit top gear and started playing irresistible, impressive attacking football again. Time to begin a characteristic surge towards the title.

But being the pessimistic fan that I am my heart sank to see Blackpool 2-0 up. Typical, I thought. It’s probably only fair, given the lacklustre way the team’s been playing, that we lose to a team like Blackpool that’s consistently showed no restraint or lack of effort and ambition in the top league. Once the unbeaten run is punctured the air will hiss out of the lead at the top and the steady, but uninspiring, form will completely crumble.

The way the game eventually ended summed up why I’m a fan of Manchester United. Why I never succumbed to either the methodical success of Chelsea or the dazzling unreliable brilliance of Arsenal. United keep you on your toes but always pull it, stylishly and entertainingly, out of the bag. They’re the comeback kings. Whilst this wasn’t quite in the same league as the 5-3 reversal of Spurs at White Hart Lane some years ago, given Blackpool’s first half dominance and how crucial this result seems to be in the race for the Premiership, it’s undoubtedly momentous and captivating.

And what do we learn from the outcome, apart from the fact that it really does feel as if United have found properly unstoppable form? Well Fergie remains the master tactician, bold enough to remove a redundant Wayne Rooney. Perhaps most importantly, despite the team’s failure to truly ignite as yet this season, the late displays of class in the second half showed that United still have a quality squad. Some criticisms of the side, my own included, have been too strong and premature. That’s not to say there are not grounds for concern but you don’t find yourselves top of the league and unbeaten with a shoddy, unfinished set of players. Giggs and Fletcher showed immense quality for the two equalising goals.

What then is the difference with last season? Many fans will probably feel that by this stage last season Fergie’s men had played better football. And yet this time round they’re unbeaten and in a commanding position, despite looking frequently vulnerable. Part of the turnaround has to be Chelsea’s transformation from invincible to a side that, when attacked, will concede goals and lose games. They too have an ageing squad with gaps and weaknesses, which was disguised and glossed over by both title success and a strong start to this season. Arsenal have improved but not yet to the levels to be pushing past an inconsistent United.

For me and countless commentators and pundits, the difference is little Mexican Javier Hernandez. I was flabbergasted at Fergie’s casual lack of summer investment but his purchase of such a gifted little forward has proved pivotal in numerous games. Not only have his goals turned games, much as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s super-sub appearances used to, but the very presence of an in form and scoring striker in the ranks has liberated the other attacking players. Most notably and crucially, Dimitar Berbatov, who reached 19 league goals so far this season last night.

Berbatov has always been world class; few would dispute this. But last season he never properly came to life and when the prolific Rooney disappeared due to injury or suspension, Berbatov would collapse under the burden. This season he knows he has alongside him a fearless Mexican with natural finishing ability and pace to stretch defences. He’s not the only one relied upon for goals and he can even set up his new young teammate, pulling the creative strings. They’ll create space for each other. And when Rooney is misfiring, as he has done all season, United’s march towards trophy glory doesn’t grind to a halt. In fact the pressure paralysing Rooney has liberated his teammates and proved United to be more than a one man show. When Rooney’s senses do reawaken, rival teams have even more reason to be wary of a Hernandez, Berbatov and Rooney trio.

Kettled to boiling point but real message deserves to shine through


http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/nov/25/student-protests-tuition-fees-schoolgirls-definace

I urge you to click on the link above. It showcases a picture that on its own speaks louder and more persuasively than words, as is often the case with the most poignant, the most real, of images. I was protesting again at the Coalition’s planned education cuts and tuition fee proposals on Wednesday, two weeks on from the mass protest in London. This time, marching again towards Parliament Square, police embarassed by scenes at Millbank last time, swiftly penned in an estimated 5,000 or so students and others. This time round a sizeable proportion of the imprisoned were youthful further education students or even younger children anxious about the withdrawal of the EMA payment. I could rant for ages and ages about the feeling of panic within the zone of “containment”, the occassional scares and the immorality of a tactic that bottles up the peaceful with the volatile and violent with nothing in the way of protection or shelter. I could try and articulate reasoned arguments against the cuts as I have done before. I have desperately strived to pierce the media bubble trying to obscure the reality of peaceful, promising and clever youngsters banding together with photos of smashed glass and police vans daubed with vulgar graffiti. But click on the link above and the image, combined with Jonathan Jones’ concise explanation, will smash the contrived mood of violence and put forward a compelling argument. It shows, as Jones points out, school girls with an understanding of the media and the world beyond their years, with a sense of history, a peaceful nature and a passion for politics that will be stifled along with their intellectual promise by the cuts proposed. Click on the link. Send it to your friends. It’s the single most powerful argument against the cuts I am yet to see. Look I’ve even put it again at the bottom to make it quicker and easier for you if you foolishly have yet to click on it. Go on clickety click click.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/nov/25/student-protests-tuition-fees-schoolgirls-definace

The curse of an unbeaten run: Do United need to lose?


In Westminster a Conservative and Liberal coalition sits in power. But the mood, as shown by recent policies and events, is unquestionably one of cold conservatism. And so it is too in Manchester, a city that at the start of the Premier League season may have had lofty but not unattainable ambitions of displacing London as the country’s capital of football. The nil-nil clash between the city’s red and blue halves this week has been widely condemned as the dreariest fixture of this campaign. The disappointing lack of incident, entertainment and thrills can be traced back to the currently cautious philosophies of both managers.

Now Roberto Mancini’s preference for restrained, grey tactics is well known. He is, after all, following a long, accepted tradition of the defensive minded Italian coach. Many have criticised him for pursuing such a continental style of football in the action-packed, fast-paced Premiership and it would seem results are now proving these critics correct. It beggars belief that a squad bursting with creativity and forwards can be so dependent on Carlos Tevez for a cutting edge. The starting line-up Mancini decided upon for the mid-week derby looked as if it were struggling to accommodate all his holding midfield players, as opposed to the usual dilemma of squeezing every last ounce of creativity from the team sheet. My jaw actually dropped when I discovered that Yaya Toure, the man once courted by the red side of town as the solution to their weak defensive spine, was selected to play “in the hole” behind Tevez. Certainly Toure was capable of surging runs on the ball but he was and is primarily a defensive rock to be positioned in front of the defence, giving other more gifted attacking players the freedom to roam. Even if Mancini refuses to play a second striker, and a degree of caution was more understandable against such able rivals, he ought to at least deploy his midfield cast in the right roles to support the increasingly isolated Tevez.

Anyway Mancini’s shortcomings are predictable. He has openly said that he would be happy with fourth place for his Manchester City side and is seemingly happy to progress in small steps towards the oil rich owners’ dream of global domination. Certainly his side has enough quality to achieve this goal, ahead of an overstretched Tottenham and dazed Liverpool, even though I happen to agree with Tony Cascarino in The Times that the title is up for grabs this season should any team have the willpower and resources to seize it. City clearly have the resources and an opportunity afforded them by a league in which teams continuously take points off each other, including the big teams. If Mancini took a risk and let some of his fiercer dogs off the lead the oil barons’ dream could be accelerated. The more interesting aspect of the mid-week duel however was Sir Alex Ferguson’s conservative style.

What conservative style? I hear you cry. His team just stormed back from two nil down against Aston Villa to snatch a point and remain unbeaten, and the defence has hardly been watertight, so if anything they need to sharpen up the concentration and caution. The real problem is that United just aren’t good enough anymore. All of this may be true. There’s certainly no doubt that the Reds have eased off the gas too early, conceding damaging late equalisers in games they should have easily won, despite below par performances. There’s also no doubt that another type of conservatism, that of caution in the transfer market, has led to a United squad that no longer matched Chelsea’s and in some cases City’s. The last time I saw the Red Devils play they were decked out in white kit at Villa Park, as they were yesterday. Rooney was also absent for most of the game, coming on late as a right-winger. Ronaldo tore Villa to shreds down the left, the defence was impenetrable, Scholes scored a wonder goal. Yesterday the squad could not cope so well, despite an almost identical backline. But a team of United’s stature having more draws than wins at this stage of the season must suggest something more.

As do Sir Alex’s comments after the Villa game yesterday. He had just watched two vital substitutions prove crucial to his team’s revival, with the first goal an excellent, thumping top corner finish from Federico Macheda, and the equaliser a diving header from the always commanding Nemanja Vidic. Before that though Villa had nearly deservedly runaway with it and the defending had been dire. Fergie insisted that another five minutes, and such was the swing of momentum, United would have won it. All I could think though was, like most fans: why had they not played with such incisiveness and urgency for the whole 90 minutes or at least from the off? Why the need for the near fatal catalyst?

Without Rooney, Manchester United look timid, shy and inexperienced going forward. They are also crucially devoid of leaders in the final third of the pitch. Vidic is superb, but good teams need someone to lead by example from the front, and Berbatov’s languid style can only do so sporadically. During Rooney’s injury spell, despite his poor form and bad attitude preceding it, an air of hope rather than expectation has ruled before United’s games. Fans seem to be praying a promising youngster like Hernandez can step up to grab a winner, whilst consciously lowering their expectations, knowing they aren’t ready to do so consistently.

By remaining unbeaten for the longest spell at the start of a season during Fergie’s considerable tenure, United remain within touching distance of Chelsea, just. But only just. And coasting so inconsistently will not wrest the title back from London. Given the promise shown lately by the likes of Hernandez, Obertan and Macheda, perhaps it’s time Sir Alex let his own young pups off the lead to go truly wild in pursuit of glory. It might lead to recklessness and the end of the immaculate record and it may already be too late, but they have little to lose. All of the big hitters seem to be plodding this season, with even Chelsea’s march slowing, so it’s about time someone erupted into a sprint for silverware. A return to the attack minded, high tempo, youthful United of days gone by may provide the key to unlocking a championship increasingly shackled by the scarves of caution donned by European coaches. And if not, at the very least it will be gripping entertainment.

Ah, but Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal are all about the free-flowing, thrilling stuff aren’t they? And where has it got them for the last few seasons? There are two key differences between United and the Gunners though. One is the strength of the defence: Ferdinand, Vidic and co have it in them to be immovable, they just need to get their act together, whereas Arsenal’s last resort is more questionable, particularly the goalkeeper. The other difference is the styles in which the teams attack: Arsenal attack in an arty, pretty, more continental style whereas United are direct, to the point, going for goal in wave after wave of red surges. It’s these imposing surges United must find the confidence to unleash away from home, as well as at the fortress of Old Trafford, if they are to reverse their stagnant fortunes on their travels, which have hampered their season so far. It will certainly do them little good carrying on as they are. At the moment United look easy to intimidate away; a fact they must reverse by becoming the aggressor, not through Mancini’s technical intricacies.