Observers will point to an uninspiring 1-0 home win over Reading last Saturday as proof of the weakest Manchester United side since that other time they were just as dire. It’s almost an extension of last year’s criticisms: why watch, analyse and conclude when there’s a way to do none of that? Good point. Leave it at that.
15 (fifteen) points suggests something else entirely. But, then again, maybe not. United should have won the title last year and this new lead might just be like the other. There are no assurances. But how much does that matter right now? Sir Alex Ferguson did not want to dwell so much on the Reading game, saying “it wasn’t a great performance but where we are now is not down to today, but the last six months.”
And, for now, where United end up in May is less relevant. There’s no good predicting — though it should happen — when United’s present situation gives the best indication of where this team is. Do they deserve to have such a lead? Almost certainly.
A long time ago, a good side was exactly that and few would argue otherwise — partialities rarely ever clouded judgement, it was that easy to see. This season, public enemy or not, some have found it difficult to acknowledge just how good this team is, or can be. The truth is they’re harder than you think.
- To hell with some, though. On closer inspection, you’d be able to see why this team are at the top. In an interview with Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs admitted that the 3-2 aggregate defeat to Real Madrid left him “disappointed”, and plainly said that he hadn’t felt that way for a “long, long time.” Disappointed because of a referee’s game-changing call? Perhaps, partly. Disappointed because United just didn’t match Madrid over 180 minutes, because they fell to defeat in much the same way they did to another Spanish side, a mid-table one, in Europe the year previous? Not close. “But … there are so many positives as well,” Giggs said. “Because I think that we performed so well, we made Real Madrid look ordinary at times. And it was a proper European performance.” It might have promised more than it actually did, but United’s very admirable 180 minutes told us what we needed to know.
- What of football’s fascination with The Paper? Teams that look stronger ‘on paper’ are among the best ones, but don’t necessarily have to be the best one. The Paper states that there are countless sides United’s superior — but top-tier football is not Top Trumps. It might have been enough for Manchester City last year, it might even be this year (just because, you know) but it isn’t fair on players that have the misfortune to remain unappreciated, or on managers that value team chemistry as much as anything else. Those such as Rafael da Silva or Jonny Evans would not have to worry so much about what’s being said if a round piece of silver for the summer was promised, but it’d still be nice if they could have it their way. (As an aside, those two may just be examples, but very fine ones at that. It almost feels like an extension of last year’s crit-oh, see how that works.)
- It is possible for a good United side and a weaker league to co-exist. Even – even – if the Premier League is no longer in line with the very best in Europe, 15 points between last year’s runners-up and champions remains an incredible lead, and 29 games is an appropriate enough scope to say such a thing. If you weigh these two arguments up against each other, the lead surely says more — being a fact — than a theory about the state of the league, no matter how obvious it may be. It’s also worth noting the leads Barcelona and Bayern Munich boast at this moment; if these two teams are so far ahead in their leagues, does that give anyone justification to dismiss the rest? Not when the rest include Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund. That’s not equating them, but there are clear parallels to be had that might say more than a typically Anglo-centric view about the best-suddenly-not-so-great league. Agree for agreement’s sake that the quality has waned, and 15 points is still very good.
(As a further aside, it could be argued that the nature of knockout football means this year’s Champions League doesn’t actually say anything about where English football is right now; certainly, all eight of those teams, of course, are not the best eight in Europe.)
- The Real Madrid game is worth going back to. Here’s a rough list of players whose performances in either leg were well-received: Danny Welbeck, Rio Ferdinand, David de Gea, Phil Jones, Michael Carrick and Evans. Throw in Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra, Giggs, Welbeck again, Ferdinand again and even Rafael for a much-improved 2nd leg. Some of these players don’t play every game. Where United have been particularly successful, above everyone else, is their level of depth. Ferguson went as far to say that the treble-winning squad of ’99 was “not nearly as strong as the squad I have got today.” The 1999 squad was complete: but complete in terms of the level of its core players, and where they had gone and where they could go. Literally, not so much. “When we went to the Champions League final in 1999, Roy Keane and Paul Scholes were suspended, but Henning Berg was the only injury,” Ferguson said. “I had to pull in a player, Jonathan Greening, who had only played once or twice in the first team. He got a medal for being on the bench. That gives you an idea of the strength of the squad. Now I could change a whole team.”
Depth is a tricky one. Having depth is what some mistook Arsenal for having when they fielded a weakened side against Blackburn Rovers in an FA Cup game. A bench featuring Santi Cazorla, Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere is pretty useful, except it’s simply not an indication of anything. Leaving your first-team players on the bench is not a sign of good depth, regardless of whether Arsenal have it or not. A better example, conveniently, would be United’s 18 against Madrid. The big games are the best sign of depth. On the bench, even if you discount Rooney from the second leg as he’s a proper starter, they had Evans, Shinji Kagawa and Javier Hernandez. That’s depth.
- The team’s one big problem, central midfield, has not even been that this season. While Paul Pogba continues to be the subject of envy over at Juventus, the truth is that United are not missing him so much (in the same way they don’t have to miss someone like Gerard Pique). Michael Carrick continues to be magnificent and the side look most comfortable with his presence, Tom Cleverley has had a good season while Phil Jones could feature more regularly in that position in the future. But even when it hasn’t worked so well, which it has a few times (especially with Anderson), United have managed. Lately, less goals are being conceded while goals are still being scored. Whether the theory that improvements at the back since the turn of the year have hindered Van Persie lately hold up or not, the team still remain a threat. Again, United have so far been able to manage with the squad they have.
- March saw United’s first defeat of the year, but that was to Madrid, where United, as cheesy as it sounds, lost with pride intact. There was also the near-collapse at Chelsea, where the hosts squandered a 2-0 lead in the FA Cup, but a dismal 45 might not prove anything at all, especially when Manchester United could relate to their renascent opposition It was almost inevitable that Chelsea would lead a second half charge, as most good teams in that position do. United’s biggest regrets was their failure to keep possession or to kill off the game, but those “six months” that Ferguson spoke of means it is dangerous to dwell on, and then to make conclusions from, just from that (though, at the same time, it is worth remembering). As Sean Ingle wrote, “we forget that the 1998-99 treble-winners, arguably Ferguson’s greatest side, had their struggles.” Nostalgia certainly obscures things — United won that title by just a single point (though, amusingly, the next one by 18). Hindsight, if all goes to plan by May, would inevitably alter perceptions on this team somewhat.
- The 2-0 win over Everton in early February is a good example of when United get it absolutely right. Even with the biggest game of the season to date not far away, the Reds managed to assert their dominance, and, in the process, prevented Everton from getting a goal, with a satisfying and efficient performance. United’s control of the game meant they could have scored more, but what was impressive was that when they eased off, with Madrid in mind, they still didn’t look like conceding. Above luck and refereeing decisions, they have won games through their own hard graft.
- The remaining nine games could possibly see that 15 point lead cut with City, Arsenal and Chelsea to come. At the start of the season, United would have been second favourites against City; but an away win in the winter perhaps hints at yet another shift in power. Indeed, one great indication of a much-improved United is how they have played against the biggest teams. So far this season, they’ve beaten Arsenal once, Chelsea (and City, as mentioned) as visitors and Liverpool, so often a difficult game, twice. No prediction for what’ll come, but it’s not false that United are better placed to win those games now than they were in 2011/12 or even at the start of this campaign.
If you’re one of the two to have noticed, apologies for the lack of posts. If you think about it, this is like three pieces in one.
Greed: Wanting to have more than Dante.
Law vs. Busby, 1966
If a tenner a week were to ensure a generous flow of goals for the next few seasons, any football manager in the world would — without a second thought — rummage through his jeans and pay it up himself. This, however, was 1966, and Matt Busby usually wore tracksuits. Denis Law made a mistake in asking for an extra £10-a-week, finding that his manager’s response was not to offer his hand, rather to deal Law a slap on the wrist. Law was transfer listed as a result with Busby telling Law, in the latter’s own words, that “he wouldn’t be held to ransom.” It didn’t stop there: “He gave me a prepared statement of apology to sign and he presented it to the press.”
“He might have looked like a cuddly grandfather, but step out of line and he had an iron fist,” Law told Champions in 2012.
Kanchelskis, bloody hell, 1995
There exists a few Manchester United fans, even now, that are reluctant to forgive Andrei Kanchelskis for the way in which he left the club in 1995, but the general lack of animosity can be easily identified through the simple fact that football was a different game then, and the whole saga caused far too much confusion that it probably wasn’t worth bothering with anyway.
When you look at United’s recent history for things that may constitute greed — Roy Keane’s contract wrangle in 1999 (“I am not naive enough to settle for anything less than a reasonable valuation of my worth”), Wayne Rooney in 2010 and others — few are on a par with this. It’s just that this one is better suited to the ‘oddball’ section of the news.
In ‘Football – Bloody Hell!’, a biography of Sir Alex Ferguson, Patrick Barclay writes that the United boss would have liked to have kept the winger, but the “Ukrainian had manifested a restlessness which Ferguson ascribed to a clause in his contract … guaranteeing the player a slice of any profit if he were sold.” It did not help that Ferguson was not initially wise to the clause, but, regardless, he had to be moved on. “I was fully aware that the removal of Kanchelskis … would leave us short in the wide right position but his attitude was so bad that there was nothing to be gained from keeping him,” Ferguson wrote in Managing My Life.
Kanchelskis’ agent caused further complications. Grigori Essaoulenko had rewarded Ferguson with £40,000 that Barclay writes was “inside a samovar … why the money had been put in United’s safe and not reported to the Premier League inquiry into ‘bungs’ which followed [George] Graham’s punishment was to become a pertinent question when the affair came to light in Ferguson’s autobiography. But it was returned eventually, when Kanchelskis finally went to Everton, after another colourful episode when, according to Ferguson, Essaoulenko threatened [Martin] Edwards and the United board decided to hurry the deal through.”
The threat, apparently, was Essaoulenko saying to Edwards, the then-chairman of United: “If you don’t sell him now, you will not be around much longer.” The Independent‘s Steve Boggan, a week after Ferguson’s autobiography release in August 1999, wrote that Edwards perceived Essaoulenko’s words to be a genuine threat to his life.
There could be no hesitation about Kanchelskis. “His pace and strength on the wing had been huge assets for us while he showing real enthusiasm for our cause,” Ferguson wrote. “But, given the transformation that had occurred in his behaviour, Merseyside was welcome to him.”
Ferguson responds to Rooney’s ‘other’ demands, 2006:
When Wayne Rooney has a bad game, the usual response is that he’s carrying a bit of holiday weight. Sir Alex Ferguson is just as blunt it seems. Beating Celtic in a Champions League group stage game in 2006/07 was a must if Manchester United wanted to progress sooner, but instead they contrived to lose 1-0. A below-par Rooney, in the middle of contract negotiations, was one of the players singled out by an angry Ferguson according to the player himself in his autobiography My Decade: “Players wanting more money from the club and new deals – you don’t deserve anything after that performance!” And his manager came down hard; Rooney had to make do with a feeble £100,000-a-week, and another four years — at least — at Manchester United.
Manchester United players enjoy burgers, 2008
In Alex Ferguson’s earlier years as a football manager, he held the belief that what his players ate before a game was “as important as what happens during the game.” Now, thanks to “advances in sports science and the expert nutritionists we have here at Carrington,” he told The Sun in 2012, he no longer has to worry about any of that. All very good. Except, perhaps those experts aren’t entirely devoid of any flaws, and are maybe prone to the odd oversight.
Gerard Pique has a lot of nice things to say about Manchester United but, for him, the diet was ‘outrageous’. “Everyone ate whatever they wanted to eat and when you think about the typical English diet, you can imagine what I am talking about,” Pique would say in 2008 as a Barcelona player, probably stick-thin by then. “Every fifteen days they would put us on what we dubbed the ‘spare-tyre machine’ to measure our body fat. You would be amazed at how many top players practically broke the machine because their diet was based on beer and burgers.”
‘Amazed’ would be an interesting choice of word for some.
Not just Ruud, but selfish, 2001-06
There is an idea that Ruud van Nistelrooy was moved on because the game had changed, and Manchester United needed a player with all-round capabilities. Nonsense! It soon became clear that he didn’t just stop being good when he later played for Real Madrid. He was injured for a lot of his time there, of course, but still scored goals at much the same rate he did in a red shirt. Sir Alex Ferguson wasn’t stupid, even if he did go on record once to say that Van Nistelrooy could do more to improve his game. He left because of who he was, what he did and what he said. He was unhappy and had to leave; the belief, tedious but true, that no player is bigger than the club perhaps ruled here, just like it had done with a discontent Roy Keane a year previous, in 2005.
Before anything, the player we know. He was a goalscorer, above everything else. Like others fortunate enough to have been called the same, to score was Van Nistelrooy’s primary concern; he appeared not to be preoccupied with much else on the field if he was one of the names to feature on the score-sheet. Few wanted it any other way. Louis Saha, his former strike partner and one-time enemy, put it best in his autobiography: “Ruud was the most selfish goalscorer. But a goalscorer needs to be selfish, to be obsessed by scoring. Ruud was a killer. Like [Filippo] Inzaghi or [David] Trezeguet. Obsessed.” Ferguson agreed with the idea of man ‘obsessed’ with adding to goal tally; when the striker was going through a difficult spell during the 2004/05 season, he would become “angry with himself,” according to his manager, that by not scoring, he thinks “he is not contributing.” It’s accepted on the whole, however, that a selfish Van Nistelrooy was a good Van Nistelrooy.
Nobody talks about it now, or had ever really talked about it, but one of Van Nistelrooy’s great, actually-selfless performances came at Old Trafford against Real Madrid in 2003 in a game that had essentially been a lost cause when the world’s best forward player, the Brazilian Ronaldo, had been in the form that he was. In the first leg at the Bernabeu, Van Nistelrooy scored a typical poacher’s goal; and then again in the second. But where the first game, a 3-1 defeat, saw Van Nistelrooy largely isolated due to United’s cold feet, the second saw the Dutchman in his element, all a result of the desperate situation that had presented itself.
United could not waste time, and badly needed their key man to be involved. Indeed, Van Nistelrooy was ever-present, except it was mostly outside the box where a lot of his good work had been done. It was a night where he was able to liberate himself and banish the poacher tag — temporarily, but still — constantly harassing, tackling, passing, creating; basically, what the coaches from far-away lands call “getting stuck in”. There was a moment where he picked up the ball on the right-hand side, feigned a kick to cruise past a dumbfounded Ivan Helguera, shifted away from Roberto Carlos and then hit the ball hard at Iker Casillas who could only bat it away. It was a sequence that suggested Van Nistelrooy still believed the tie was winnable, all the weight on his droopy shoulders as he tried to lead the team. From a Manchester United perspective, David Beckham’s cameo in that game is most remembered, and that’s expected. Van Nistelrooy would always receive less credit than he had deserved for some of the other things he could do, but to play like had here, to this extent, was rare. This was a great one-off.
There was another kind of selfishness, an altogether uglier one, that possibly contributed to the Dutchman’s eventual departure. It’s funny, but considerably more tragic, to think that what had ultimately finished off Van Nistelrooy was his mistake in thinking aloud when he had that training ground bust-up with Cristiano Ronaldo (as discussed in Envy), the day before the final game in his final season against Charlton Athletic. There, the story goes, egos clashed and Van Nistelrooy apparently asked him why he seldom passed, especially when he’s the striker. Ronaldo’s own selfishness was noted but celebrated by this time; and celebrated enough for Sir Alex to pick his favourite.
Months earlier, Van Nistelrooy was left out of the Carling Cup final. United had beaten Wigan Athletic 4-0 and Saha, the man that had taken his place, would score the all-important second goal. Ferguson reasoned that Saha deserved to start because of form, but how Van Nistelrooy felt about this we can only guess. Those body language experts deduced that he wasn’t taking it very well, and Daniel Taylor wrote in the immediate aftermath for The Guardian that the winners’ medal he received was, in no time, “stuffed into his pocket.”
“In Eamon Dunphy’s Only A Game he recalls being made a substitute at Millwall and sitting on the bench wishing bitter misfortune on his replacement, secretly hoping that his own team would be thrashed,” wrote Taylor. “Even if he would never admit it, Van Nistelrooy has made a career out of that kind of selfishness. How must he have felt as Saha bundled in Gary Neville’s cross to continue his goal-a-round record: euphoria or resentment? Only the naïve would presume it was the former. Footballers, or the vast majority of them anyway, think of themselves first and the team a distant second.”
This is not presented as fact; yet it’s not at all out of place in what (though little) we know about Van Nistelrooy. If he really did tell Ronaldo to “go running to your dad” (Carlos Queiroz), does this suggest that here was a man that realised he was no longer the team’s most important player as his goal record probably demanded and, crucially, no longer as indispensable as he suspected? To drive home three hours before a game, the season’s last, suggested that all illusions had finally been shattered.
Manchester United 2-3 Real Madrid (agg: 2-3), 19.04.2000
The best goals are typically those that can be looked back on fondly; naturally, then, they have to be in a winning context. This one isn’t that. It’s an exception to the rule — my rule – that goals have to mean something.
It could be argued that it wasn’t a completely meaningless goal, even it did happen with Manchester United 3-0 down (at home in a game they were expected to win). Indeed, David Beckham’s strike had appeared to reinvigorate United at the time, and was perhaps one that would inspire the side to another late, famous rally. But, then again, they needed three more because of the away goal rule. And they managed just the one, a Paul Scholes penalty just before the clock struck ninety.
In isolating the goal, regardless of the result, it is clearly a very good one. But again, a goal needs something around it for it to resonate; just look at what placed 40th on an ITV show on the greatest Champions League goals: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s ’99 final winner against Bayern Munich. That one was going to be special before it was even scored, no matter how it was scored. What does this mean for Beckham’s goal, then? No context, no nothing. Not important.
Except, maybe not. “The thing that was always said about David Beckham was that he couldn’t beat a man,” said Clive Tyldesley, as he introduced the show’s number 47. “Well, he beat a couple there.” It was a goal that was so unconventional, so surprising that it was oddly amusing, because it had come from Beckham, a player often accused of being fairly one-dimensional. George Best probably agreed with that, in typically Best-like fashion: “Beckham can’t kick with his left foot, doesn’t score many goals, can’t head a ball and can’t tackle. Apart from that, he’s all right.”
A proper, damning criticism of Beckham came weeks before the Old Trafford game, in the aftermath of the 0-0 draw in Real Madrid’s home leg, where the defending champions no longer looked a team to be feared. Roberto Carlos was most disappointed by United, calling them “just another team”. He didn’t see much in Beckham, either. “Against Real Sociedad, I had to face [Ricardo] Sa Pinto, who came at me one-on-one and put crosses in,” Carlos started. “But against Manchester United I had Beckham, who comes from centre-field and tries to cross, but he is not a player with speed or real ability and you seldom have to face him in one-on-one situations.” It would have been wonderful for United to have won that game and Beckham to score the goal that he did. It’s funny, but could have been infinitely funnier had the reds turned up, to think Carlos had been made to look most pathetic by the player he seldom faced in one-on-one situations.
Picking up a Scholes pass, Beckham looked up, saw a charging Carlos — and just eased past him. Beckham didn’t take a breather; he glided past Carlos’ Brazilian counterpart Savio, moved away from the approaching Aitor Karanka and smashed the ball hard into the top right-hand corner past Iker Casillas, who, for 154 minutes of the tie, looked nothing like what an 18-year-old goalkeeper should do. The finish would have made a fine goal in itself.
Carlos’ poked tongue at Beckham was nothing new around this time, especially with all the post-France ’98 revisionism, even though this moment fell not long after Beckham had the boast of being the world’s second best player, after Rivaldo, as those that voted in 1999′s Ballon d’Or agreed. Indeed, Carlos was quick to change his tune when Beckham joined his club a few years later, describing him as an “excellent player” that would soon “end all the rumours saying he is only an advertisement boy.” For the initial jibe, read: mind games. And as much a nothing concept as ‘mind games’ is, Carlos must have believed it, because he was unfortunately right. For over an hour with United trailing 3-0, Beckham could barely impose himself in the game. But, even still, that goal. It was pretty good (and one that surely would not have been scored had the game not gone from the hosts).
All of this, and it could just be that Beckham’s great moment wasn’t even the game’s best. Raul’s second, Madrid’s third, hasn’t even been mentioned yet. But everyone knows of Fernando Redondo’s 40 yard run, nonchalant flick through Henning Berg’s legs, then the manner in which he accelerated to the byline with a pass to Raul to seal it off.
It seems strange to say so now, but what Beckham did was surprising even in a game where Redondo did that; at the time, there seemed to be something romantic about Argentine and Brazilian players in Europe — they had an altogether fresh approach, and those that played for the top clubs played with an air of superiority and Redondo was one of them. He was one of those players we see these days as cool to like because, why not? Everything Redondo did seemed natural (far more expressive than your typical ‘defensive-midfielder’), while Beckham’s was just — not very Beckham.
The Redondo-Raul goal will forever be remembered, but Beckham’s own effort at least warrants a passing mention.
“Everyone’s quite fond of the trier,” says the handsome hero in that film. “But, in the end, they prefer the guy that finds success … the one that actually gets there. I mean, look at me. I’m the handsome hero in this film.” This is an actual quote from a film with a handsome guy. “People forget,” he continues. “They forget. Not you, not what you did but how you did.” And these words ring true even in contrived film scripts or introductions.
Nothing’s changed #1: Danny Welbeck might never be the hero. He’s handsome, of course, but not the other thing. Welbeck’s place in the squad is secure, at least for now — indeed, it would be when he’s playing well — but he might be another addition to an unfortunate, and unfortunately existing, group of Manchester United players who have to do extraordinary amounts to change perceptions. Rafael da Silva and Jonny Evans have tried to break free with considerable success; but, even still, one remains, to some, a liability that cannot do the impossible task of balancing defence and attack, and the other, despite being described as perhaps “the best defender in the country” by his own manager, is still deemed a weaker alternative to many others. It shouldn’t matter what people think, except it doesn’t feel right when obvious talent isn’t complemented by reputation. And the reason why it matters more in Welbeck’s case than Evans or Rafael is that, actually, there is a small chance of not enough obvious movement in a bid to change what is perceived.
What’s stopping Welbeck is the thing that will at one point worry every forward that’s ever existed — a lack of goals. For Welbeck, it might go further than that: sometimes his decision-making isn’t great, and that means that the wrong pass is found, or that he’s too selfish, or selfless. Making decisions might even determine how many goals he has scored, or hasn’t scored. This is arguably too elaborate a criticism, but Welbeck constantly finds the ball in some glorious positions, or with others in glorious positions, and so it feels as if more can be done.
But that’s only sometimes. And those are the bad things. When Welbeck plays, it is reassuring that even if he were to do the bad things, he can do plenty good, too. He creates relationships; last season it was with Wayne Rooney, and now there’s potential with Robin van Persie as we’ve seen in United’s last two games against Liverpool and Tottenham. His Man of the Match performance against Liverpool (ask Gary Neville) was enough to keep Rooney on the bench for the visit to White Hart Lane, and he was able to have a similar impact in this game. However, players’ worth is weighed by the things that are naturally visible to us; so it is Cleverley — though not wrongly — who will be credited for setting up Van Persie’s opener, and not Welbeck, who showed great initiative to hold up the ball, run a few yards to find Cleverley that changed the direction of the attack in United’s favour.
To briefly re-visit the point about being in ‘glorious positions’: whilst he might not always make full use of where he is, to get there in the first place is surely impressive. He’s ubiquitous, night-shift relief for those that need it because he’s so energetic and because his talents transcend. And then there’s more: he is nifty, and the ball stays with him like a magnet smothered with kisses of pritt-stick. He has power and batters his way through small gaps and big bodies with the ease of a man simply typing words, all at great speed. If he’s not a hero, he’s hero material.
Invariably, all Welbeck apologia goes back to the fact that he is still young enough to refine his game, and that there is still time; this is all, importantly, very true no matter how many times it’s said. Welbeck is still young enough to refine his game. And there is still time. Welbeck is still young enough to refine his game and … repeat.
But, pause. He’s also extremely useful right now.
Nothing’s changed #2: Robin van Persie. He’s still very good.
Nothing’s changed #3: There is probably no coincidence that United have conceded less goals of late with the return of defensive golem Nemanja Vidic. Like Rio Ferdinand, he might be going grey, but, for at least 89 minutes on Sunday, the pairing evoked memories of a time not-so-long-ago where the idea of “they’ll score, but we’ll score more” would likely be met with thick and fierce growly growls. Both were difficult to get past, as demonstrated by Ferdinand’s excellent last-ditch tackle to prevent Jermain Defoe from scoring an equaliser at 1-0. Behind the scenes, United are building a Ferdinand and Vidic for the future in the shape of Evans and Chris Smalling, and though both are good enough now, the originals can’t do much wrong until then. If fit, expect Sir Alex Ferguson to retain them as first choice.
Nothing’s changed #4: What is perhaps the best thing about Tom Cleverley doing so well in a Manchester United shirt is the fact that he picked up an injury last season at a time where he was performing just as well. He has not been perfect, but then again he doesn’t have to be — as it stands, for a second year running, he has met and exceeded all expectations. (It probably should be said that it was Cleverley that crossed for the goal, delivering something of a Beckham ball.) To play well, a central midfielder needs a good partner. In 2011/12, just briefly, it was Anderson. Now it’s Michael Carrick. The remarkable thing about Cleverley is that he seems to work with just about any partner. Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs and whoever he’s played alongside for England. Carrick, meanwhile, appears to enjoy working with him, too. In an interview with the Sunday Times, Carrick says Cleverley is “different to me, but we complement each other well.” The two, one the would-be hero, the other a belated hero, had welcomed a third midfield player for Spurs: Phil Jones.
One thing the midfield has undoubtedly lacked this season is defensive security, as well as some good old gurns, and Jones gave it to them. It was a shame, then, that Dempsey had scored and it came in the manner that it did, with a multitude of errors in the box. A Tottenham fightback was inevitable, but United had done well, until stoppage time, to keep them out.
Nothing’s changed #5: There are always two very vocal groups whenever David de Gea is in the news; the ones that staunchly defend him and are willing to give him a free pass in just about anything, and those that take joy in pointing out his flaws when the opportunity presents itself, but ignore all the good bits (bit like Welbeck, then), even when they’re more frequent. The truth, at least what appears to be the truth, is that De Gea needed a stronger punch in the lead up to Clint Dempsey’s 90th minute leveller and is therefore partly culpable. But, when ignoring that rather big blemish, the Spaniard was superb yet again. But good luck finding a consensus on it.
Robin van Persie’s first act as a Manchester United player was to take a corner-kick in the season’s first game at Everton; it almost didn’t matter that the set-piece amounted to nothing, because it was an outcome most were familiar with. It was also Van Persie. And his job was to score goals.
Months on, he’s scoring goals, but doing more. Not that Van Persie was not ever such an all-round player, of course he was*, but United’s aim this season was to learn the lessons of the last; that meant finishing off games, that meant turning one point into three and ensuring that there was no repeat of what ultimately consigned United to a runners-up spot: 2011/12, as Sir Alex Ferguson said in August, was “the first time anyone has beaten us on goal difference.”
*This should be made clear. What justified the signing of Van Persie was the promise of another 30-goal season and that meant that United, already in possession of an accomplished group of strikers, could pay plenty for a 29-year-old.
After scoring two against Wigan Athletic in Tuesday’s 4-0 win, Van Persie observed that “everybody’s helping each other and everybody wants to share the goals.” In the previous campaign, United would play Danny Welbeck at the risk of leaving goals on the bench (Javier Hernandez and Dimitar Berbatov), with the idea that the young English striker could complement United’s chief goal-getter, Wayne Rooney, best. That generally worked — only this year, by signing Van Persie, they’ve made this super-effective, especially when partnered with Rooney. It’s also worth noting, though at times it feels like an illusion, Hernandez’s added efforts outside the box.
The Wigan game was changed, after 20 minutes of very little, because United had stumbled onto a new way of creating pressure and building momentum. This season, from corners — corners! — they’ve looked decidedly dangerous, as Jonny Evans and Patrice Evra would no doubt agree, and even if they don’t score directly from one, they are able to put the opposition team on the back foot. Ferguson seemed to agree, with much of the same words: “We took a bit of time to get going but, once we started to get those corner-kicks, with Robin [van Persie] whipping them in, it was keeping them under pressure.”
Fans feel confident when United have corners; gone, for now, are the days when United would take them short to counter their own inability to make them work. When writing about corner-kicks a few years ago, Rob Bagchi noted that they fail because they end up “as a simple equation of being outnumbered and unless an extraordinary cross or slackness opens up an avenue to score it becomes a routine defending exercise.” United do not have to follow by this rule any more; sure, there will remain those that are cleared by the first man, but considerably less of it, especially with new personnel (Rooney has been productive from it, too) who can deliver those extraordinary crosses.
The manager was also pleased with United’s willingness to go for a second, scored, unsurprisingly, by Van Persie. It was a goal that’s importance could not be downplayed, hitting the home side again just before half-time. This one was all Van Persie, as he took his time to weigh up an opportunity before turning the ball onto his right foot and placing it in with such precision that Ali Al-Habsi could offer no resistance. And there’s another claim to the striker becoming an all-round player; as he showed for Arsenal in his final season, he is remarkably capable with both feet. Goalscorers must strive to ambidexterity; this particular one has six goals with his less-favourable foot out of 16 (in addition to his 13 out of 30 last year).
With Hernandez’s good form put into consideration (with two more goals at the DW), some are tempted to forget about Wayne Rooney altogether. It shouldn’t be like that; since returning from the gash injury suffered in a game against Fulham in August all the way until United’s draw with Swansea in December, Rooney had performed very well, especially in tandem with his new partner. Still, when Van Persie had signed, many had hoped it would mean that the team no longer relies so heavily on Rooney. They’ve just about achieved that. Now, they’re only reliant on Robin.
Sloth: Wanting to sleep at Dante’s house.
Di Canio outsmarts Barthez, 2001
Back when ‘mind games’ as a footballing concept was underground and credible, Fabien Barthez could call himself the undisputed King of the Games. He had virtually won 2002’s free-for-all when his famed eccentricities, history has it, saw him prevent a spot-kick and, with it, a Manchester United defeat. With Fulham’s Steed Malbranque set to take a penalty, Barthez thought it funny – it was, in fairness – and practical – that too – to scrape the soles of his boot on either post, importantly getting rid of some mud that might contrive to bite him back later on, and catch up with his thoughts, perhaps to contemplate the nature of Beppe di Marco’s relationship with Lynne Slater. This colourful Barthez moment, though the Loftus Road crowd saw it differently, delayed Malbranque from taking the penalty despite the referee’s approval by whistle. Duly booked, Malbranque could take his kick, but could not convert.
A BBC writer described this as “unsporting” and taking “gamesmanship to the limit”, which, isolated, makes the event sound like a one-off. Barthez had in fact done something similar thirteen months earlier, this time with Muzzy Izzet and Leicester City. Izzet, having initially put the ball into the empty net only to have it disallowed, saw his second attempt saved by Barthez. Of course it was.
Like another of United’s Frenchmen, Fabien Barthez quite enjoyed the attention he invariably got in his football career. Like Eric Cantona, this attention was the result of two things: performances and everything else, which covered all the interesting bits that made the characters. Unlike Cantona, the attention that came from ‘performances’ was largely unwelcome, perhaps somewhat unfairly. Goalkeepers are the lonely men of football, thrust into an unforgiving world, where only a small percentage, disproportionate to players of any other position, are ever held in high regard. Mistakes, those that can be comprehended, are magnified. Bad mistakes, those that can’t, even more. And then there’s instances like Barthez’s with Paolo Di Canio in 2001′s FA Cup. At the time, Barthez had not yet mastered his psychological manoeuvres.
Di Canio, through on goal having gleefully collected a Frederic Kanoute pass, struck the ball past Barthez, who, mostly in hope, put his right arm up in search of a flag. What Barthez had in this instance was time and the kindness of angles, and decided to use neither: rather deception. That failed and West Ham led 1-0; and not unjustly, either. Replays showed that Denis Irwin had played Di Canio onside, and there went Barthez’s defence. There was little time for United to recover, and Barthez, so desperate to atone, played the last minute as an outfield player.
On behalf of the Izzets and Malbranques of the world, and those opposition forwards unlucky enough to have been rounded and nutmegged by the crazed ‘keeper, Paolo Di Canio saw past the smokescreen those before and after him couldn’t see. “He tried to stop me. He tried to make my brain a little bit confused,” Di Canio would say post-match. “But I have played 15 years at the top level and have a little bit of experience in these situations.”
Barthez later conceded to trying to put Di Canio off: “It’s all part of the game!” There was no flag signalling offside, but there was, clear to everyone including Di Canio, a big white one in the goalkeeper’s right hand.
United’s grey area, 1996
An invisibility cloak has its uses in the fictional world, but, as Alex Ferguson and his team realised, not in the real one. Trailing 3-0 to Southampton at half-time, Ferguson had told his players to “get that kit off, you’re getting changed.” They had worn a grey strip for the first half, but came back out in blue-and-white. “The players don’t like the grey strip. They find it difficult to pick each other out,” Ferguson explained. It was only after the kit change had they realised the bad guys were the ones in the red-and-white, and scored a consolation goal through Ryan Giggs.
“The shirt is probably a collector’s item now, for all the wrong reasons,” said Lee Sharpe a decade later, a ‘two birds’ purchase for any Manchester United fan who enjoys J.K. Rowling.
George Best is sick of it, 1972
It happens even to the Best. In the 1971/72 season, with Manchester United’s challenge waning, George Best declared to a journalist that he was “sick of United”. The author of Sod This, I’m Off to Marbella, John Roberts, revealed that Best’s motives for leaving was the team: “It’s just not good enough. It’s just not going anywhere,” he would say off the record. “I could go right through the team and find things wrong. People knock me when I’m no doing it, but when I’m not doing it who is?”
1972 was not Best’s year. The problems that had existed in the first half — the bottled-up anger, absences from training, premature retirement for good measure — had worsened into the second. In December, he had enough. United were in the wrong half of the table, and Best, presumably in search of some joy, was spotted in a London nightclub when he was supposed to be up north. He was transfer listed (5th) the next day. On the 6th, the writer Eric Todd sided with the club: “He has shown a complete disregard for discipline, and several times he has been suspended and fined by his club for missing training sessions.” Eight days later, a u-turn, apt as it’s just one of the many to concern Best in his career, and the club no longer had him up for sale. Still, the damage was done. On the 16th, United were on the end of a 5-0 thrashing to Crystal Palace. On the 19th, manager Frank O’Farrell was sacked and Best had announced another retirement by letter. “I’ve had as much football as I can take,” he was reported to have written, citing United’s position in the table — last — as the reason for his decision.
George Best would play again in a red shirt. It remained that way for another two years, perhaps to everyone’s surprise.
“I lie in bed the night before the game and visualise myself scoring goals or doing well,” Wayne Rooney once said in an interview, presumably in full-kit before a non-stop 24-hour training session with himself. When Dimitar Berbatov played for Manchester United and scored goals or done well, he presumably visualised himself elsewhere, lay in bed.
Rooney and Berbatov were largely successful as a pairing, perhaps because, as they say, opposites attract. Rooney has the enviable attitude — on the pitch — of a footballer; in addition to his most obvious qualities, he is persistent in trying to win the ball, he takes the opposition on and tracks back to help out his defence, face hydrated and everything. Berbatov not so much, or so was the popular opinion. He cut a figure that didn’t seem to care most of the time, earning an unfortunate, though oddly cool, reputation of being the game’s most languorous player. Unlike Rooney, Berbatov seemed to expect the ball to come to him. There was no other way.
He best showed this in a 2-0 win over Manchester City in 2009 when Darren Fletcher sent a searching ball up field from the back and he just picked it out of the air, without relying on a bounce or five. He then turned away from his man and played a simple pass to Carlos Tevez, who struck it sweetly past the ‘keeper; it was a goal ordered by the Gods, at least as far as the man who would provide the assist. Some magicians can create the illusion of catching a bullet with their mouths. Perhaps Berbatov has the same sort of subtle trickery; indeed, West Ham’s James Collins found out as much when he was at the end of Berbatov’s infamous, audacious pirouette on the goal-line. There would be no excess body movement and he was better that way, doing special things his own half-arsed way. In this instance, he once again played a simple pass, this time to Cristiano Ronaldo. Statistical records will say nothing of either Berbatov moment, and that seems just right. He is exclusive to the eyes, and sounds better when spoken about. And yet people are still split over him. He is football’s Nessie.
Berbatov’s agent explained that the reason he left United was that he didn’t have what the competition offered. “The only thing … those players have more of than Mitko is speed.” In Bulgaria, where the Dimitar Berbatov Appreciation Society has more members than its populace, ‘Mitko’ is what they affectionately call their most prized export, at least when we’re not talking about Stoichkov or Stilyan Petrov. What finally ended Berbatov’s prolonged stay at Old Trafford it turned out, far longer than he had deserved in the end, was his perceived weakness. However, it was this perceived weakness that made the man, to maintain the vague comparison, the myth.
If Berbatov was a sloth, then we must ask ourselves why we don’t instead have six deadly sins, and eight heavenly virtues.
Keane vs Schmeichel, 1990s
A popular character of the small screen once bluntly remarked that “‘remember when …’ is the lowest form of conversation,” then immediately got up and left. He had a point: there’s a feeling of pathetic longing when you reminisce, an inclination to hyperbole and, when in company, a further feeling of desperation to keep the dialogue going. Those are the bad things. What can’t be said about the revisiting of the past is that it’s not interesting. All the best things happened in the past, of course.
Manchester United demonstrate this truth well. Were you to look in the right places, you’d find some of the best ‘remember when …’ tales from ex-United players who have too much to share. After a while, you’ll find common themes, subjects and you can start to narrow it down. Those that played in the 1990s, especially those lucky enough to have been involved in the treble-winning side, barely talk about anyone other than Alex Ferguson, Roy Keane and Eric Cantona. And then they start talking about things off the pitch.
Keane, the man some have dared compare to the very same television character named above, holds the unique honour of being even more interesting than Cantona away from football. Take this one: “It was 1997 and I was on tour with Manchester United when I heard the banging in the corridor,” Andy Cole told The National in 2011. “I went to investigate and saw that Roy Keane was rolling around fighting with Peter Schmeichel, the giant goalkeeper. They weren’t playing. ‘Typical Roy,’ I thought, and went back to bed smiling. The next day, Schmeichel was wearing sunglasses. There had only been one winner.” (Then there’s the story of when a drunken Keane took on a group of Liverpool players in Gluttony.)
The relationship between Schmeichel and Keane was well-documented. Dwight Yorke revealed in his autobiography Born To Score that in the dressing room at half-time with United level with Sheffield Wednesday, a game they would go on to lose 3-1, Keane “was having a go at Peter for having given away a soft goal. [They] had to be separated before coming to blows.”
Those that live in fear of committing the cardinal sins will tell you that to be unable to develop spiritually, to apply yourself, leads to the downfall of man, and that these people are sloths. In his own words, Schmeichel was not Keane’s “cup of tea”, and though he recognised the Dane’s talents, he would surely regard him as a sloth. On one evening in front of the television cameras, at the request of fellow-pundit Lee Dixon, Keane opened up about Peter Schmeichel, and told him what we had already sort of known. “When he did become cocky, that’s when he made mistakes. If you speak to the goalkeeping coaches, they say Peter wasn’t that technically brilliant but stopped the ball going into the back of the net. I felt there were times when he got a bit carried away and thought he was the bees-knees.”
Like Fabien Barthez then? Many were certain that he was the perfect successor to Schmeichel, a view that was reinforced by his impressive début season. The Frenchman, however, could not quite maintain the level of performance into the next campaign. The Independent‘s Matt Lawton wrote at the time that “some pros feel that his current difficulties stem from the degree of his success last season.”
“There’s a big difference between cocky and confident,” Keane would add, and let that be a lesson to sloths — not just those with gloves — everywhere.
Manchester United have, at times, looked a team without an identity. They still win games — they win plenty — but it sometimes feels like they’ve forgotten how they used to do things. Nerves have replaced verve, and it has generally been less entertaining to watch as a result. Still; while they no longer dissect teams like they had done in the latter part of the ’00s, United are still home to a talented set of players who can play. When Jackie Chan remarked that “I may have amnesia, but I’m not stupid!” in his good-but-not-his-best, surely-a-metaphor-for-this-United-team film Who Am I?, he recognised his own capabilities, despite essentially being a changed man. Manchester United seemed to have realised that as they beat Manchester City 3-2 on Sunday.
In many ways, this was the opposite of the corresponding fixture last season where City won 1-0. Three of The Guardian‘s five talking points in the aftermath of that game, points 2, 3 and 4, would cover the following: Sir Alex Ferguson’s ultimately futile decision to go against type and play with caution; United’s defeat in midfield; and a significantly quiet game for Wayne Rooney, whose highlights included “nearly being booked by Andre Marriner for giving the referee too much ear-ache.” Lessons learned this time around.
Since Cristiano Ronaldo left, and it’s a bit sad we’re still on that, United have scrabbled around for a system that works — they’ve been fairly successful post-Ronaldo, but less convincing. What made United so good back in 2007/08 was that there never a reason to change. They performed well, they got the results. This season, there are factors; we’ve seen Ferguson bring out his inner-hipster with a diamond most probably to cater for either all of his forwards or lack of wide players. But, above all, the most telling reason for constant change is that is not clear which of width or no width has been better, with the scores tied at 1-1, 40-40.
Width will always prevail in the end, as anyone would suspect. The diamond has always felt like it has an expiry date, while Ferguson wouldn’t seriously think of turning away from something that has brought so much joy to those sides he has assembled. What helped United beat City was that Ferguson had clearly learned from the embarrassment of their previous meeting, where they played three thirty-somethings in midfield and just the one forward. Other sides might be comfortable in lining up in such a way, but United are not. They beat City at the weekend with the two central midfielders, two wingers and two forwards: this time they played to their strengths.
With Antonio Valencia and the majestic Rafael on the right-hand side and Ashley Young, in confusing form, with the renascent Patrice Evra on the left, United played, from minutes 15 to 45, the sort of football that fans had longed for; and though perhaps someone like Valencia didn’t play necessarily well, others around him clearly benefitted from the way United were set up.
The midfield battle was more or less won by the visitors by default, on a moral victory, because they came a long way from the horror show at Eastlands last April. Michael Carrick was impressive and enjoyed Tom Cleverley’s presence, and there was a sense that it was because this was something they felt more comfortable in. The midfield that had lost out to City back then felt contrived, unnecessary and quite simply a pale imitation: a bit like Simon Webbe’s rap verses.
Up field, Wayne Rooney was excellent along with Robin van Persie, and though it seems like one of those things that are only really realised on simulation games, last season’s two top scorers have forged a good partnership. United’s dependence on Rooney is arguably greater than that of the Dutchman, however; the Englishman acts as the spare wheel both on the channels and in midfield — and this season, he might just create as many as he scores.
The United that had beaten City were far from perfect, and probably were only as good as their opposition (who were superb in the first quarter of an hour, and, to their credit, stayed in the game) but they set up with a clear game-plan this time and had done things the right way. They approached the game with a mind to three points, not one. There was not a single problem with selection, either. Even the decision to bring on Danny Welbeck instead of Javier Hernandez was vindicated; it was Welbeck’s quick thinking to win the ball off Gael Clichy with the game into its nineties, and allowed United to have one last attack which would eventually lead to the winning free-kick.
Things people were wrong about: Well, wrong is harsh. Ashley Young might still be the “thespian shithouse” Rob Smyth thinks he is, but he does have his uses, especially in a simple 4-4-2 built to get goals. He is football’s no.1 ‘On His Day’ player.
Things people weren’t wrong about: David de Gea; some great saves, yes, but more importantly, he continues to show that he has indeed grown more assured in the air. Soon you’ll see, people. Soon. Meanwhile, Rafael’s hair, as it turns out, doesn’t give him magical powers. He’s just always been very good.