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Today’s Manchester United: Some notes

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. 


Nothing’s changed: United’s heroes and would-be heroes

“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 has helped United turn a corner

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.

United play to their strengths – and win

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.

David de Gea: The people’s choice

Diplomatic and idiosyncratic, Anders Lindegaard has a lot to be liked for. He is popular enough amongst fans: he’ll remind you that he’s not at Manchester United to “pick his nose”, and that his career has developed in the way of a “fairytale”, that he’s got “calmfidence” and plenty of it, and that he’ll love to have even “one seat” named after him (in response to Sir Alex Ferguson’s very own stand and statue). But what’ll ultimately pull him down is that he’s not the most popular. And it’s not that he’s not good enough, it’s just that he’s not as good as …

The people want David de Gea.

Sir Alex Ferguson, September 2012: “I am happy alternating them. That’s the policy I am adopting and I am happy with that situation.”
Sir Alex Ferguson, November 2012: “I am not happy to rotate [the goalkeepers] all the time — I don’t think that creates consistency.”

People change their mind all the time. And there’s nothing wrong with it, largely. When Sir Alex first told of his desire to rotate his goalkeepers, and then went ahead and put it into practice, United fans hoped he would see the apparent danger of it all sooner. His recent decision to put this rotation on hold would have been welcomed but for one thing: he’s chosen the wrong number one. Or so the consensus believe.

What has swayed things in Lindegaard’s favour, other than De Gea’s fitness, is that, according to Ferguson, there is no “actual reason to leave Anders out in terms of form.” But it is easy to object to ‘form’. How important is form? And just how in-form is Lindegaard? The answer to the latter is not very — he’s played a handful of games, for one, and probably not near enough to either justify even his temporary security nor a starting place ahead of the superior De Gea. Additionally, the goalkeeper’s efforts in the four games he’s played since De Gea’s last (excluding the Reading visit because the manager’s comments preceded it; more of which, of course, later) are simply not noteworthy enough, except in the defeat suffered at Galatasaray, where Lindegaard showed himself to be confident and competent — a good number two, in other words. The other three looked like this: another 1-0 defeat, this time at Norwich and two comfortable wins over QPR and West Ham where Lindegaard only had to make a single save in each.

This is barely an indication of an in-form player but that’s not to act as criticism, though it might seem to some (some) that the real reason the Dane is playing is because he just happened to be the last one in goal when it was decided that there would be no more rotating. Which brings us on to the first question on the importance of (good) form; you generally play the one who is performing better, even if the other is held in higher regard. However, it isn’t one of those situations. Which then means that De Gea should start if both are available. And if we’re going by form this season, also just a handful as if happens, De Gea edges it on those he’s played.

“I am going with Anders at the moment because he has not let me down,” Ferguson would say a day before Saturday’s 4-3 win over Reading, tempting fate as if on purpose. Lindegaard looked troubled and barely touched the ball inside the first half hour — except for when he had to trudge back into the net and pick the ball up. Three times. He was not culpable for all, nor was he fully responsible for any particular goal if we were to consider what could have been contributed defensively. Still. “He’s in a position where he can collect the ball,” said a blunt Gary Neville on Monday Night Football, analysing Reading’s second and third that started from Nicky Shorey’s corners — Nicky Shorey! — and ended up in the back of the net. Neville pointed out how crucial it was for Lindegaard to “dominate the box”, mostly because it would reassure his team-mates that he had control.

There is a certain irony in Lindegaard failing at what has lazily been presented as his main selling point — that is, being able to do what his Spanish counterpart cannot. De Gea would have instead rushed out for at least one, if not both, and punched the ball to safety, shortly before being chided by a typically disgruntled co-commentator for not catching it.

Whether the rotation policy itself really affects goalkeepers could never be proved outright, but logic would suggest it doesn’t. “It keeps us both sharp,” Lindegaard told MUTV last year, on this precise subject. “It makes us both better.” Two immediate responses to that would be, well, he has to say that and, second, he would still prefer to be the indisputable number one. It also made sense to rotate back then. United had two new goalkeepers and both were settling in. Once that time had passed, a clear winner emerged. Post-Christmas, De Gea was near-flawless and had what was justifiably his.

All of this, you might suggest, is simply a fuss over nothing, and a fuss too soon. That may well be right, but this is a problem beyond what the manager might say, beyond who plays tomorrow, or next week or next month. United need to settle on one goalkeeper because, above whether rotating is a hindrance or quite the opposite, it is clear who their best goalkeeper is. And it isn’t Lindegaard; but, in his defence, and get this, the man who he’s up against is pretty damn good.

Rafael da Silva, the best of the second bests

If it has been established that the ‘second best bed’ for Anne Hathaway (the other one) was not an insult nor an example of a fractious relationship, then surely we’ve got it all wrong. ‘Second best’ is a good thing — or, at least, it should be. Certainly, being second best at Manchester United is. Robin van Persie has been so good this season that he is the outstanding candidate for all of the awards; and so good that, in imagining a ranking, those that follow him in second, third, fourth would not feel inclined to be aggrieved by his superior position.

Who, then, would place second? Tom Cleverley perhaps; but, right now, it’s only been satisfactory going on good going on very good. There hasn’t been a distinguishable level of performances and, as if it hasn’t been said already, United must persevere in being patient — not that it’s necessarily a bad thing. Just look at Rafael da Silva.

Now, football, as a a general rule, is too slippery and erratic to form premature opinions: when Manchester United started 2011/12 beating all of Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Chelsea, scoring three, eight and three goals respectively, few stopped short in hailing a return to the attacking football the club had practically deserted the year before, and foresaw a dominance that season that would never really materialise. In September, with Arsenal the only of the 92 league teams to have not conceded, Amy Lawrence of The Guardian wrote that Steve Bould’s presence in the dugout has “had a remarkable effect on Arsenal’s approach to defending,” which not only made sense at the time, but was such a widely-held view that it is unfair to make an example out of that particular one. Still — swiftly moving on — this could be Rafael’s season. Or not. No, it definitely could be. Maybe.

Resisting the late charges of Javier Hernandez, Wayne Rooney and the renascent Patrice Evra, Rafael places second in the Imaginary But Definitely Important Rankings. But it is worth wondering how many others see that to be the case; Carl Jenkinson was preferred to Rafael when a couple of BBC pundits — the best of the judges — sat down to devise a Team of the Season So Far. It isn’t so much a case of Jenkinson not deserving it all, but Rafael perhaps deserving it more. Thankfully, this is easy to shrug off; this was just one instance, after all, and an instance in which the alternative view isn’t one exclusive to Robbie Savage: Jenkinson has been good enough to be in contention. The problem here is not what’s not been said in the present, but what has in the past and what might in the future. It would be predictable of badly behaved football to change its tune and for Rafael’s form to taper; but, in imaging some twisted sort of football utopia, where things reassuringly remain the same, what would be said of him then at season’s end? (Hint! Say good things!)

Rafael is a full-back and he’s Brazilian. Godspeed. He may never truly be appreciated in this regard because the notion of an accomplished, flawless Brazilian full-back is almost an impossibility; as if this is limited to just Brazil. It is true that there is an extra emphasis on what could be offered going forward, the reason, according to Brazil-based Tim Vickery, why Rafael and his twin brother Fabio left for Manchester United so early in their careers. “Taking them across the Atlantic before they had ever played a senior game for Fluminense followed a simple logic — left in Brazil, it wasn’t likely they’d have much chance to refine the defensive side of their game,” Vickery wrote. But not everyone has fallen into the trap. Indeed, the two prime examples are among their greats: Roberto Carlos and Cafu. The two were so good in going forward that it was assumed that their weakness was in defending: but, at the risk of sounding revisionist, it only compared unfavourably. Carlos, impressively enough, was twice UEFA’s Defender of the Year.

The world, however, dislikes full-backs just as much as they do goalkeepers, because so many of them cannot find a balance between defence and attack … well, obviously. The full-back is, in general terms, the only player tasked with two jobs. And that’s never going to end well.

Rafael, though, after four years of enthusiastic bouncing around ‘There’ and ‘Not Quite There’, has finally made firm his place in the starting eleven. He has even been able to show up others; while Nani and Antonio Valencia have been floundering, Rafael continues to respond to situations such that he’s a part of the United attack that has played so well this season, and for whom most credit goes to for the club’s league position. Against Aston Villa, he was refreshingly insistent and was rewarded when his cross had set up the second. The hotheaded Rafael is still there, but is often suppressed, and with an improved head, sees his defensive game, his tackling, his willingness to compete and get at the other player, go up a level.

“Maybe he had rashness and the impetuosity of a young boy but somewhere along the line that maturity comes along and the rashness disappears,” said Sir Alex, suggesting that Rafael could emulate Gary Neville. “His form this season has been brilliant.”

Injuries elsewhere have helped and, forced away from tinkering, Sir Alex Ferguson has managed to get the best out of the right-back, his self-belief burgeoned. He has played regularly, often twice in a week, and has not yet suffered from burnout or a loss of form — not to jinx it, but the lack of any of that so far is a sign of wonderful progress. Of course, fitness will always be a worry; as are all the things that have happened before.

But to find evidence of actual progress, you can point to Arsenal’s Andre Santos — if you’re not doing that already. A decent left-back until now, once on par with team-mate Kieran Gibbs, Santos is now apparently miserable and hopeless. In Rafael and in Santos, you have players of contrasting fortunes. One has been exceptional, the other an exception. If that makes sense. For a full-back, a bad case of defending is usually shown as not being there at all, an exploited space. That problem is barely ever their problem; a team should be able to cover. What Santos has done wrong, not Rafael, is his inability to do something when posed against it. Match of the Day, though admittedly not at the forefront of football analysis, showed several examples of Santos’ failure to deal with the opposition threat at Old Trafford a fortnight ago, where he would show reluctance in doing anything about it. He would let play as well as an out-of-form Antonio Valencia to bypass him. What constitutes a bad full-back, or one out of form, or one learning, is surely one that makes the same mistake over and over. Rafael has not done that. Not this season, anyway.

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