There have been times in Sir Alex Ferguson’s management of Manchester United over the past 25 years that the Scot’s side has been forced ‘back to basics'; when the necessity to grind out results overcomes the need to entertain. Think back to United’s campaign in 1996, for example, when Ferguson’s side chased down Newcastle United with seven single goal victories in the league post New Year. That the Scot’s outfit had lost 4-1 to Tottenham Hotspur on New Year’s Day underlined the gritty nature of the club’s campaign during the run-in.
Few of those times have come so early in the new season though, with United’s 1-0 victory at Swansea City on Saturday the third such result since Manchester City’s heavy victory at Old Trafford in October. Indeed, five clean sheets in a row since that derby day loss point to a renewed determination to grind out results through defensive security. In truth, Ferguson’s side has rarely, in that period, played the brand of attractive attacking football that is expected by Old Trafford regulars.
Not that any criticism of United’s style will bother Ferguson while his team is maintaining clean sheets and winning games. Keeping in touch with rivals City at the top of the Premier League is the priority, and United are doing that. Just about. Whether fans will accept the change in approach is another matter altogether.
“Keeping clean sheets has been an integral part of our success and we have been careless with our defending,” admitted Ferguson after United’s win in Wales.
“A few weeks ago there was genuine criticism about the defending and the chances opponents were getting. Swansea didn’t really make any chances apart from the miss they had in the first half. It was a solid performance and we never looked like losing the game. We were comfortable and had good possession. And when you win these games 1-0 it brings the concentration back to a good level which has been lacking. The concentration we showed today is exactly the concentration we need back in the team.
“We’ve tightened things up and there were some good performances by our defenders. And Michael Carrick was outstanding. I thought he did really well – it was a big performance from him. To get Michael back to that form and have the likes of Ryan [Giggs] available gives us good options. We also brought on Fabio, Fletcher and Valencia which shows you the strength of the squad – they were good changes at important times in the game.
“The squad we’ve got now is strong and I can make changes with confidence and that’s very important at this stage of the season.”
At the other end of the pitch United rarely sparkled in Wales this weekend, with Wayne Rooney again dropping deep as United sought to compete in midfield with a fluid Swansea team. And while Ferguson was fulsome in his praise of Michael Carrick it says much for the Scot’s options that the Geordie was the only natural central midfielder chosen in a team that contained three wingers.
When Ferguson needs discipline he turns to Ryan Giggs and Park Ji-Sung. And while the Korean ostensibly started wide-left, with Giggs partnering Carrick in the middle, United was never going to be outfought in the centre ground. ‘They shall not pass’ has become a mantra these past four weeks, and Park provided an additional defensive shield when required.
Yet, with Javier Hernández in the side, even a far-from-fluid United retains a threat if Ferguson’s side can create enough chances. Indeed, the Scot’s outfit created few chances at the Liberty Stadium, but the Mexican’s goal was taken with the kind of ease that has become familiar, even if it took a momentary lapse of concentration from Swansea right-back Angel Rangel to gift United an 11th minute lead.
“We’ve gone back to basics and defended really well since City,” Giggs told MUTV.
“It wasn’t just the goals against City, it was also the chances that were being created against us in the other games. Our opponents were getting too many chances and our new goalkeeper David De Gea was having far too many shots to save. Solidity is something we have always prided ourselves on, at the back and throughout the team really.
“Swansea played some great football against us and kept the ball well, but they didn’t really hurt us. It was a tough game for our midfielders and forwards but at the back we defended well and they didn’t have many chances. When Chicharito’s on the pitch, you know that if you put a ball in a certain area, you know he’s going to be there and more often than not he’s going to put it away.”
The challenge for United now is to turn results into performances, with City winning not only frequently, but with genuine style this season. Roberto Mancini’s men have now dropped just two points in the Premier League, scoring 42 goals in the process. That’s 13 more than United in the same number of fixtures.
Yet, it has certainly been an easier task for United to tighten up at the back post-derby, with Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic both fit and restored the centre of Ferguson’s defence, than achieving a more fluid is could be. After all, while United has the attacking talent to match almost any in Europe, experience has shown that sacrificing central midfield solidity – read numbers – for attacking fluidity results in the opposition creating more chances.
“You always want to score more goals, of course, but I don’t think it’s a concern,” adds Carrick.
“It’s about winning games and it’s a good sign that we can win games like that. We haven’t been at our best but there’ll be a point in the season when everything will come easily. We’ll score some more goals because of the talent in our team. We believe we can do that, but at this time it is about grafting, sticking together and showing a lot of character.
“We are happy, we weren’t at our best but three points is nice. The football wasn’t as fluent or easy on the eye as it could have been but 1-0 is a win and we’ll take that. At this stage of the season it is about picking up points and wins – judge where we are by Christmas and we’ll kick on from there.”
It’s a message that supporters want to believe: that United can combine both the attacking football of the late summer, with the defensive nous of the past month. Yet, with Ferguson still reliant on numbers to compete in central midfield, it is a goal to be achieved in hope, rather than expectation. For the time being United fans must accept winning football that is not necessarily achieved the ‘United way’.