It has a been a tough couple of weeks at Manchester United. First, that limp draw with Liverpool at Anfield, then the narrow but unsatisfying victory over Benfica, and finally that traumatic defeat at Huddersfield Town last weekend. Victory over Swansea City in the League Cup ensured that the wheels didn’t come off United’s season, but the positivity associated with the new campaign has rapidly dissipated. It is not a good sign ahead of Tottenham Hotspur’s visit to Old Trafford on Saturday.
After 118 years Tottenham Hotspur prepares to say goodbye to White Hart Lane. The century has not aged the old ground well, with Spurs’ facilities outdated and other clubs moving ahead. It is testament to Mauricio Pochettino’s talent as a manager that he has taken the Lillywhites to second on the Premier League’s sixth largest budget. José Mourinho might typically be out to spoil the party, but with the Manchester United manager has long since prioritised winning the Europa League. It might not be a scratch team on Sunday, but it is likely to be far from full strength.
At what point does, seemingly, appalling luck become par for the course? Since Manchester United last picked up maximum points in a Premier League game, a very familiar pattern has played out: dominant in possession, much of the play, very few chances taken. Three matches, three 1-1 draws. It has left the Reds 13 points off the Premier League leaders.
Once upon a time Manchester United’s fixtures against Tottenham Hotspur were settled before a ball was kicked. United’s record at White Hart Lane is excellent – and the side has not lost there since 2001. However, long gone are the days when Sir Alex Ferguson could construct Tottenham’s downfall with three simple words: “Lads… It’s Tottenham.” It doesn’t do the North London side justice; the balance of power is shifting in the Premier League.
As we head into Saturday’s match against Spurs, United are once again in pole position to take the Premiership title with Liverpool blowing their chance to beat a weakened Arsenal side at Anfield last Wednesday. Let’s be frank, Arsenal were woeful defensively and Liverpool not much better. While North London’s ‘finest’ helped themselves to four goals from four attempts on target, Liverpool simply bottled it. At this time of year, neves get to us all. Most of all the least experienced at winning titles. Now that’s a fact.
United meanwhile beat Portsmouth with a thoroughly professional but somewhat unsatisfying display on Wednesday night at Old Trafford. The visitors created little but as Sir Alex said in postmatch interviews, he “thought a goal was coming.” The match could easily have turned into a nightmare draw with a display that was muted at worst. Energy came mainly from the effervescent Wayne Rooney, until he was somewhat bizzarely shipped out to the left wing in the second period. But with just seven games to go, can United find the attacking fevour that will sweep them to the title and a possible quadruple?
This is no time of crisis. After all, the Reds have now won four and drawn two (penalties aside) of their last six matches in all competitions, despite the tabloid press’ best attempts to write off Sir Alex’ team. What we, the fans, would like to see now, of course, is the return of some trademark United fluency and flambouyance.
Spurs’ visit to Old Trafford this weekend could help. The team of Blanchflour, Ardiles, Waddle and Gascoigne has a history, much like United, of attacking attractive football. Will Harry Redknapp send out his team, with little to lose, to make a game of it? Let’s hope so. 11 men behind the ball rarely makes for a good game at Old Trafford – or in the current environment – a decent United performance.
Sir Alex has his part to play too. On Wednesday his side nominally lined up as a 4-4-2, with Ronaldo joining Rooney in attack. In reality Giggs and Fletcher tucked inside and United lacked width and penetration. With games coming thick and fast, and tired legs commonplace throughout the squad, rotation is inevitable. But it was still a conservative selection.
With Spurs, ‘Boro, City, and Wigan to come before Arsenal’s visit to Old Trafford for the May 16 Premiership fixture United could well be out of sight before Wenger’s boys hit town. Better still, United could take the title with a flourish that day. Now that would be the right style.