United’s humiliating defeat at Burnley on Wednesday night is not the beginning of a crisis for the club. Early in the season, with a rash of defensive injuries, shocks are unsurprising. Even defeats such as United’s to Burnley Wednesday night. Save for another defeat this coming weekend, the word crisis can be placed firmly on the shelf. But the Turf Moor game confirmed the suspicions of pre-season that United without Ronaldo lack creativity and penetration in attack. Indeed, if the team needs around 114 goals to match last season’s achievements, it seems unlikely to achieve it with the current personnel.
Worryingly, newly promoted Burnley, with barely a player worthy of United’s reserve team, didn’t even have to ‘park the bus’ in order to beat Sir Alex Ferguson’s side. Despite the away team’s superior possession, Burnley took the attack to United on the break and looked consistently dangerous. All credit to them. For all United’s territorial advantage against the Turf Moor outfit, the team managed just four shots on target all night. One of those was Michael Carrick’s unsuccessful penalty.
Ferguson may be right in his assessment that United created enough chances to win the game but the team’s profligacy is a now recurring theme. Frankly, the chances created weren’t all that good anyway. Fans must hope that the 100 goals Ronaldo either scored or assisted in the past two seasons are not the difference between success and mediocrity.
But inherently Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov, Nani and Antonio Valencia are top class creative players; the goals should be flowing by now. Ferguson is right to say that the club has “a great group of players.” But the concern is that the team isn’t gelling in the way Sir Alex would have hoped. Shorn of Ronaldo, and tactically more predictable, United is a undeniably blunter force this season.
Could it also be that the club’s forwards simply can’t work together? At international level Rooney and Michael Owen rarely clicked. At club level the evidence suggests that Rooney and Berbatov have failed to strike up a profitable relationship either. Meanwhile, it would be unfair on Valencia or Nani, talented though each is, to pretend that either can be the new Ronaldo.
Ferguson must also be concerned with Michael Owen’s likely success this season. Three competitive and seven pre-season matches on and Owen has scored only against the semi-professional teams on the Asian tour. Play him and the goals will come they say. The fans are still waiting.
Perhaps – most realistically – United is likely this season to be the ‘rigid’ team predicted by Darren Fletcher. Safety in defence is the team’s route to success this season. It’s a strategy that is being undermined by injuries, with Rio Ferdinand out for the next month, Johnny Evens in desperate need of an ankle operation and Nemanja Vidic only just returning to fitness. The Serb, who will play against Wigan at the weekend has no pre-season matches behind him. For the sake of a morale boosting victory against the Latics, fans will hope Vidic picks up the pace instantly.