It is a truism that Manchester United has rarely, if ever, hit top form this season. The Premier League’s top goal scorers may have entertained at times, finding the net 32 times in 13 Premier League games, but the unit has rarely, it seems, worked as a collective. Sir Alex Ferguson’s team is on course for 90 plus domestic league goals, but may well concede half as many at the other end. More worrying for the Scot is his team’s propensity to play only in bursts.
Saturday’s clash with Queens Park Rangers is a case in point, with United failing to keep a clean sheet for the 17th time in 20 games, while scoring three in a 15 minute second half spell to win the match.
It’s hard to argue with the results – United sits top of the Premier League and has comfortably qualified for the knock – out stages in Europe. Yet, there is a growing sense that Ferguson’s team cannot keep ceding goals if it is to succeed in the Spring, while there must equally be a step change in performance levels.
This is an observation that Saturday’s emotional goalscorer, Darren Fletcher, understands all too clearly, with the Scot demanding improved performances from the Reds after the weekend’s unconvincing victory over QPR.
“We’re very frustrated,” Fletcher told MUTV. “It shouldn’t take going a goal behind for us to start playing. The only positive thing we can take from it is that every time we do it we seem to respond. But we can’t keep making a habit of it.
“We want to go on a run of winning games now and not keep conceding first. After the defeat at Norwich and at Galatasaray it was important we got a win today. Hopefully now we can kick on and see an improvement in our performances.
“It’s great to be back and to score goals but it has to be in winning teams. That’s what made today special. It wasn’t great to go a goal down in my first league game back. I was thinking: ‘Here we go’. But the lads always respond and the most pleasing thing for me about my goal was that it put us 2-1 up.”
Fletcher’s call-to-action pays little credence to QPR performance. After all the west London outfit lived with United for all but a short spell in the second half. The Reds’ performance was at times lethargic, and far too often insipid, on a day when many supporters had expected something a little more dynamic.
Indeed, the question of United’s rejoinder to going a goal, or sometimes two, behind has been oft-debated this season, although Ferguson’s side was unable to respond at Everton and Norwich City, or against Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford. Despite the Reds’ lofty league position those defeats could yet haunt Ferguson’s men.
The warning is clear though: if the Scot’s side leaks goals at more than one per game, United will continue losing matches in the campaign.
“Conceding first is a bad habit but it’s good that we can turn it around,” added goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard, who was preferred to David de Gea on Saturday
“Last weekend against Norwich we were not able do it. I don’t think we should have conceded in this match, it is very disappointing. I asked one of my team-mates in the locker room about what would have happened if we hadn’t conceded a goal. It was like a wake-up call for us.”
In that Ferguson is surely troubled – he is seemingly unable to bolster a defensive unit that, despite intermittent changes, has contained five internationals in almost every match this season. This is a question unanswered in the campaign to date, with the Reds conceding first in 13 of 20 fixtures.
More concerning though is Lindegaard’s admission that his team-mates now require the spur of conceding to kick on. After all, talk is undoubtedly cheap when the Dane, Fletcher and company have been unable to right a listing ship, defensively at least, for much of the campaign. If motivation has now become such a problem that the team cannot find its optimum, without the pressure of potential defeat, then Ferguson has much work to do.
Yet, Manchester City’s draw with Chelsea on Sunday leaves the Reds heading the Premier League table with a third of the season now complete. The lesson, if any is to be drawn, from challengers’ inconsistency, is that Ferguson’s side need not be of his finest vintage to claim domestic league title 20 in May.
“We only played for 10 minutes,” admitted Ferguson of United’s performance against QPR. “We expected an improved performance from Queens Park Rangers. We saw that today, they fought very hard. But in terms of our own quality we only played for 10 minutes.”
“It’s always important to win. We want to challenge for the title this season and victories like this when we’re not playing at our best are important.”
Yet the question of what is now “United’s best” remains relevant. Ferguson’s United side may well contain a plethora of attacking talent, but it is undoubtedly hamstrung in other areas. On Saturday Javier Hernández once again rescued Ferguson’s men – a habit the young Mexican has invariably found in recent months. Hernández and his attacking cohort will not always do so.
Good for the United that the club’s rivals have similar weaknesses, amply demonstrated by English clubs’ poor performance in the Champions League group stages. City’s inability to convert draws to victories, especially away from home, has become costly. Meanwhile, Chelsea – with yet another manager – lacks as much direction as quality in central midfield.
In Europe, come the early-spring knock-out stages, none of this will be relevant to Ferguson’s side. But for now, domestically, performances such as that against QPR on Saturday may well be enough to see the Scot’s side home. In what could yet be Ferguson’s final campaign the Scot may want for little more.