Manchester United have a brand new bag
Like James Brown and his brand new bag, Manchester United have rediscovered their “groove”. For a team supposedly in crisis, this win – and indeed, the general response post-Basel – serves as an emphatic reminder to the critics that they are very much still a force. Ryan Giggs perfectly summed up what was so good about Manchester United’s performance against Fulham last night: “When you have so many options on the ball – people running in behind, people dropping in the hole – we’re a very difficult team to play,” Giggs eulogised after the impressive 5-0 win. “The performance was really pleasing.”
Granted, the opposition since that fateful night in Switzerland have been teams that United are expected to beat, but you’ve got to start somewhere – and United’s rehabilitation has gone fairly smoothly so far, brushing aside stubborn mid-table teams with much verve and conviction; and the only time they’ve been caught with a narcotic is when Dimitar Berbatov metaphorically puffed on one after scoring that audacious backheel for the fifth at Craven Cottage. That said, away ties against QPR and Fulham should always be regarded as tricky, anyway. Seven goals – with not a single goal conceded – is no mean feat, either.
In the previous campaign, many had cited United’s emphasis on a ‘collective’ ; where, it was difficult to distinguish an outstanding individual, because, as a unit, they were all equally good. Here it appeared as if there were many outstanding individuals. Ryan Giggs, for one. At 38, he continues to amaze and his central midfield partnership with Michael Carrick gives United a surprising dynamic. By design, they shouldn’t work together but it inconceivably does. Unfortunately for Fulham, a team that usually displays great presence in the centre of midfield, Dixen Etuhu and Danny Murphy both crumbled into anonymity from the very start.
Sir Alex may take comfort from another impressive display in the middle of the park given that United still lack incredible depth in that position – and with Phil Jones now out injured and Darron Gibson being Darron Gibson, there remains a lot to be addressed there. Still, there’s a possibility that United may get lucky even with so few numbers if they continue to play like this, and you’d imagine the manager is likely to take this risk and decide not to buy in the January window. It isn’t recommended – at all – but Sir Alex’s stubbornness works in many amazing ways and he’ll probably end up having the last laugh and, come May, cheerfully drinking red wine as expensive as Athletic Bilbao’s Javi Martinez. Anyway, back to the Fulham game.
Manchester United hadn’t played this well in a game since September; and usually, they need both Nani and Wayne Rooney to tick. As frustrating as Nani can be, there can be no disputing that he is United’s most productive player. According to the number nerds, he creates a chance every 29 minutes, the same as David Silva. Pretty good, that. For the first goal, his dazzling run was extraordinary; with so little space, he managed not only to sprint and hold it down the line, but find Danny Welbeck with a beautifully executed and pinpoint cross. His second was an uncharacteristic header, suggesting that Nani is indeed adept to any situation.
Rooney is in fine form, too; always making himself useful when dropping deep and so outnumbering the opposition in the process. Moreover, the fact that he finds himself in such a withdrawn position creates a problem for the defence, and helps Welbeck to prosper, too. While Welbeck isn’t as prolific as Javier Hernandez, he arguably does more for the team. There have been countless occasions where Hernandez has drifted out – even in those in which he scores in – while Welbeck goes in always searching, always wanting. His positioning is an asset, too and his goal was reward for a good, solid past fortnight in a red shirt.
And praise is in order for others too; Anders Lindegaard managed yet another clean sheet. His inclusion is of course debatable; because it arguably ruins David de Gea’s rhythm and that of the defence, but that claim has so far been unfounded. Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling were solid again, while Patrice Evra responded well after a shoddy performance at Loftus Road on Sunday. It was a great shame, however, to see both Jones and Ashley Young leave the field of play with injuries.
The only criticism of United yesterday was the manner in which they approached the start of the second half. Perhaps, they allowed for arrogance and complacency to seep in at 3-0, but United should have learnt from the Chelsea game earlier this season; they led at half time with the same scoreline, and ended up 3-1 victors but only thanks to Fernando Torres’ horror miss which, if scored, would have certainly made for a nervy finish. They did improve as the night went on and bore two more goals out of their efforts towards the end; both gorgeous, but contrasting, takes by Rooney and Berbatov. It ended 5-0; who saw that one coming?