Reds are certainly talking a good game this week, with Sir Alex Ferguson, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs each espousing the value of experience. Now star striker Wayne Rooney has joined the fold, positioning himself as one of the old heads in Ferguson’s squad.
Indeed, what Manchester United lacks in resources compared to Roberto Mancini’s Premier League title rivals across town, Ferguson’s side makes up for in title-winning nous. It will be testing once again in the coming few days as the Scot’s team travels south to face a Tottenham Hotspur side considered Premier League challengers until recent weeks. Last weekend’s drubbing against local rivals Arsenal may have ended Spurs’ last remaining hope of a first title since 1961, but Harry Redknapp’s outfit still has a key part to play in where the trophies end up this season.
United’s trip south comes amid a fine run of results for Sir Alex’ side at White Hart Lane. Seven victories in the last 10 matches at the north London venue will send United to the capital in fine spirits; even if the side’s recent form is a little patchy. But, as the season draws to a close, it is experience and not form that will be key to claiming a 20th domestic title says Rooney. It is a recurring theme in recent days as Ferguson and his players crank up the pressure on comparatively inexperienced rivals, Manchester City.
“When I was a young lad and first at the club we might have been losing a game 1-0 or 2-1 and I’d have been saying ‘just put the ball in the box’ and panicking a bit about losing the game,” he told Inside United.
“Now I’m older and more experienced you know to just keep playing your game because there’s always a chance you’ll get an opportunity to score. I think that comes from playing so many games and the experience you pick up along the way.”
United showed just that composure in beating Norwich City at the weekend when Giggs scored with almost the last kick of the game. Meanwhile, defeat last Thursday to Frank de Boer’s Ajax, followed by the scrappy victory over Norwich is unlikely to dent the confidence in Ferguson’s squad. Experience? Perhaps so.
Both City and United will, of course, drops points during the remaining dozen Premier League games, not least with both rivals also facing the rigours of Thursday night Europa League fixtures. Mancini chose to deploy a full-strength City side that overpowered Porto in the round of 32. Ferguson, meanwhile, used a side replete with players needing minutes or returning from injury against Ajax; the result a narrow, if highly unconvincing, 3-2 aggregate victory over a Dutch side most local pundits assumed was living in hope of avoiding a more severe beating.
But the Europa League does bring its own unique challenges. United’s Thursday-Sunday schedule will remain in place until the season ends, or Ferguson’s side is knocked out of the competition. The schedule can sometimes compress preparation time, although with training intensity winding down as the season reaches its dénouement this may be moot. The rigours are as much mental as physical though, with the Reds travelling to Bilbao to face Athletic in between fixtures against West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers in the Premier League. This is where experience plays a part, adds Rooney.
“It’s important to manage yourself and how your body feels, Training is less intense when there are lots of games and you might take things a bit easier one day because you’re managing how your legs are,” says the 26-year-old striker, who is in search of a fifth Premier League title in the past eight seasons.
“The training intensity probably goes down because the matches come thick and fast and you have to make sure you’re right for the games. You know you have to be strong mentally to play at your best. We just need to keep focused; keep working hard and hopefully we’ll get our rewards.”
Rooney will return to Ferguson’s side against Spurs, having missed the Reds’ games with Ajax, Norwich and England’s loss to Holland during the week. The striker’s sore throat has cleared, and the former Evertonian will seek a sixth goal in nine games against the north London side. The player has flourished since moving into a shadow striker’s role during the autumn, scoring 21 goals in all competitions this season.
And it is Rooney’s partnership with England forward Danny Welbeck that may prove decisive in the closing games. Welbeck, impressive as a lone forward against the Dutch on Wednesday night, still has room for improvement in his goalscoring, but has seemingly struck up a natural partnership with the Scouser.
Indeed, with Dimitar Berbatov out of the picture, and Michael Owen perennially injured, Rooney is United’s senior forward; Welbeck is seeking his first title, while Hernández has only last season’s medal to his name. It brings to mind that word again: experience. As veterans Scholes and Giggs demonstrated so ably last weekend, there’s little substitute for it.
Meanwhile, in midfield United lacks the guile of City’s David Silva and the destructive power of Yaya Touré, but there are subtle nuance’s to Ferguson’s preferred duo of Scholes and Michael Carrick. Scholes may well share duties with Tom Cleverley in the final three months of the campaign, but Carrick will surely be ever present, fitness permitting. The Geordie’s superb form this season comes as the 30-year-old enters a new phase of his career. Those asking whether the former Tottenham man could finally step into a leadership position at the club have received a resounding answer in the affirmative.
No wonder, then, that Ferguson called out Carrick’s value and professionalism this week, likening the midfielder to Scholes and Giggs.
“Michael’s form for quite a while has been absolutely superb,” concludes Ferguson.
“He is not one of the guys who seeks publicity. He’s a quiet lad and goes about his life in a similar way to [Giggs] and Scholes. That doesn’t mean to say he’s not recognised by us. He has a quiet personality and that can be misleading in the way that people think he has to be encouraged all the time. That’s not the case.”
And while the quality of Ferguson’s squad has, rightly, been called into question this season, few will doubt that the Scot’s men at least know how to get the job done. Rooney might agree.