That Manchester United lies second, undefeated in all competitions, is remarkable in that Sir Alex Ferguson’s side has barely performed to typical standards all season. Indeed, United should probably have lost four games by now but for the overwhelming determination of the Scot’s players to grind out results.
Saturday’s match against Wigan Athletic was a case in point. United’s lacklustre performance against nine man Wigan was uninspired to the point of being insipid. As the Reds had been against West Bromwich Albion, Sunderland, Rangers, Manchester City and many others this season, in a campaign notable only for its overwhelming mediocrity.
Indeed, such is United’s creative paucity at times – or its failure to shine in the case of Wayne Rooney – that the side is fast becoming a mirror image of the dark days of the 2004/5 season. The major difference being the Reds’ ability to not lose this campaign; it will serve Ferguson’s side well come more important fixtures in the spring.
Ferguson sees it differently, arguing – perhaps with a hint of disingenuity - that the Premier League is now stronger than ever.
“This league is without doubt a high-quality league now,” said Ferguson this past weekend.
“All the games you play are very difficult. You saw that last week when a young Aston Villa team came out and set about us.
“I think we know ourselves that come the second half of the season we’ll definitely get better.
“At this moment in the time, we just need to be in that bit at the top of the league. We’re joint top with Chelsea now.”
Still, Ferguson is likely to accelerate United’s transitional phase next summer if the Glazer family follows through on a reported promise to hand the Scot significant transfer funds. There is more deadwood in his squad than at any time since the aforementioned 2004/5 season.
Elsewhere the problems mount for Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea, which has now lost two Premier League games in a row and three in the past month. Ancelotti moved to deny his resignation – or sacking – is imminent prompting speculation that there is little smoke without Roman Abramovich’s flame having already been lit. After all, Jose Mourinho picked up his P45 for fewer sins than the Italian has already committed this season.
Much as in last season’s campaign, Chelsea really ought to walk away with the title race given United’s deep flaws and Arsenal’s inconsistency. That Ancelotti’s men are not is a factor of some bad fortune with injuries to key players such as John Terry and Frank Lampard but no more so than at Old Trafford.
More important still is owner Abramovich’s decision to let Chelsea’s squad deteriorate over the past three years. Such are the swings and arrows of living in a billionaire’s fantasy world when inevitable boredom takes hold.
Indeed, the once formidable midfield axis of Frank Lampard, Michael Essien and Claude Makalele has given way, at times this season, to the far less inspiring and not at all fearsome Ramires, Yuri Zurkov and John Obi Mikel triumvirate.
Meanwhile, Arsenal has seemingly overcome the propensity to be bullied out of games but gained little in consistency. Arsene Wenger has few to blame but himself after five years without a trophy and a idiotic refusal to buy a goalkeeper of any quality. The ironclad marriage to tika-taka is admired in many quarters but does not, and has never, extended to a plan b.
Elsewhere, Liverpool’s season is mired in mediocrity and internal conflict, Manchester City cannot challenge while its manager insists on tactics not deployed since catenaccio was in full swing, and Tottenham Hotspur is unable to cope with the Saturday – Wednesday axis of Champions League and domestic football.
It leads to a very realistic scenario in which United can win the Premier League come may despite – arguably – it being Sir Alex’ worst side in five years.
Of course, the true test of England’s strength in depth will come in the latter stages of the Champions League, where for the first time in several years, the country was unable to boast a semi-finalists last season. Many have predicted this could be Chelsea’s year though, although on current form that seems unlikely.
Meanwhile, few pundits think United will do well in Europe’s premier competition either. It’s hard to argue that United will win the competition but Ferguson’s ultra-cautious outlook away from home ensures the Reds will be no pushovers. Especially if the luck that deserted United in last season’s quarter-final returns come the knock-out rounds.
It adds up to a season in which standards have certainly slipped at Old Trafford. Fortunately they have elsewhere too. It should keep Ferguson’s side in the hunt right until the end.