Manchester United fans can be forgiven if they are unconvinced by the Red Devils, despite two impressive wins – at least on paper – over Wigan and Arsenal. They say it’s great to win when not at your best, especially when beating a Gunners side that is playing some of the best football on the planet right now. But is it asking too much for good football and three points to go hand-in-hand?
Maybe United fans have become spoilt; too used to injury-time winners and breathtaking goals that we are underwhelmed when beating Arsenal with a penalty and a ridiculous own goal.
But part of the problem is with United’s playing staff. The team still lacks a midfielder that can dictate play. Ryan Giggs is not that player and neither is Michael Carrick, who for all his Hollywood passes is still unable to take the game by the scruff of the neck.
Why Sir Alex Ferguson failed to show interest in Wesley Sneijder is baffling. The Dutchman, who left the Real Madrid circus for Inter Milan for a measly €15 million, was an absolute bargain in today’s transfer market. Anyone watching the Milan derby last weekend would surely have been impressed by the difference Sneijder made to Jose Mourinho’s side, despite the Dutchman having arrived in the city just 24 hours earlier.
On a brighter note, the Arsenal match sealed Darren Fletcher’s status as United’s leading midfielder. The Scot has come a long way since the time when his inclusion in the team was largely due to being Sir Alex’ love-child (as yet unproven). Against Arsenal, Fletcher ran his socks off, covered every blade of grass, and made decisive interceptions that kept the Gunners midfield trio of Diaby, Denilson and Alex Song busy, and stifled their creativity. Fletcher is no longer the headless chicken of his youth.
Granted, Cesc Fabregas was missing from the Arsenal team but recalling last season’s Champions League semi-final encounter, Fletcher was just as influential and successful against the Spaniard. The Scot’s passing has also improved leaps and bounds to the point where Carrick’s effectiveness within the team has been reduced.
But Ferguson’s decision to start with Giggs floating behind Wayne Rooney against Arsenal was frustrating. Why spend £30 million on Dimitar Berbatov – whose ability to hold up of the ball is second to none – only to leave him on the bench for the big games? United should have been more positive – a problem of tactical negativy that was the main reason the team had such a poor record against Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool last season.
Rooney is more than capable of playing ‘in the hole’ – the role that he fulfils for England – dropping deep and threading balls through to the striker. Instead, Giggs – a legend no doubt – but no longer in possession of his once blistering speed, lost the ball far too often in the final third. Far too much was also expected of Antonio Valencia, who looked out his depth on such a big occasion.
Over the course of the season, this type of performance will gain United many points against lower ranked sides. But will it be good enough for a 19th top flight title and a third successive Champions League final appearance? It seems unlikely.
United must keep on par with the other top sides in Europe but after this summer’s comings and goings, fans might be right to think that United is further adrift of Barcelona than on that fateful night in Rome.
The Champions League will be the real litmus test of strength and character for Sir Alex’ fledglings this season. The group stage draw handed Fergie’s side some tricky encounters, from the icy conditions in Moscow, to the hellish atmosphere generated by Turkish fanatics, to the impregnable home record of the German champions. It should bring out the best of United’s top players and the worst from those who just can’t cut it at the highest level.
United has ridden its luck at times in the past, supplemented by great performances on the pitch. The team may depend more on the former this season, than the latter. Have faith in Wayne Rooney and company, but this is the first season in a long time where fans will follow without full confidence that the team in red is the better side.