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.
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.
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