Man United are at the top of the Barclays Premier league, a position not alien to Sir Alex’s men. However what’s certainly foreign is the tag of being unbeaten. Amongst all the glorious triumphs of the ‘Fergie Era’, never have the Red Devils reached this stage of a league campaign without tasting a single reversal. Twenty one league encounters without the gut wrenching feeling of defeat is undoubtedly commendable; however, there isn’t any reason to uncork the champagne as yet. It’s nice to know that there isn’t a single football club on the British Isles or for that matter the whole of Europe who can claim to be in such an enviable position as the club from Old Trafford, not even the mighty, all conquering FC Barcelona; but each and every United fan must remember that there isn’t a trophy given for an unbeaten season.
Is the unbeaten tag weighing the Devils down? The Albatross around the neck is well and truly hung.
The Away day misery
Eleven league games away from the hallowed Old Trafford turf and a paltry couple of wins – hardly stuff of potential league champions. Truth be told, United have been poor away from home this season – often struggling to maintain possession and definitely lacking the cutting edge. The Old Trafford outfit has now failed to score in three away day fixtures, and with even more daunting trips to old nemesis Chelsea, title challengers Arsenal and fierce rivals Liverpool on the horizon, there are reasons to be slightly worried.
Sir Alex seems to be in a dilemma of sorts on United’s travels; mixing aggression with the perfect balance of solidity has proven to be his Achilles heel. United have traditionally preferred their customary 4-4-2 formation, but in the absence of a proven hard man i.e. a central defensive midfielder, the Red Devils have found their two man mid field pairing outnumbered by the opposition’s three man midfield and are thus prone to opponent’s attacks. Michael Carrick has done his bit defensively and often repelled opposition’s offenses, but United’s midfield has failed to grab tactically the most important area of the field by the proverbial scruff of the neck. Maneuvering the ball in tight spaces ala a Xavi, Cesc or even Modric isn’t really Carrick or even Fletcher’s forte.
On the odd occasion, Sir Alex has tilted on the side of caution, by fielding a 4-5-1 United. They have found it easier to find the back of the net away against Everton and Fulham. Even at the Eastlands, in the Manchester derby, United had the better of the midfield exchanges and the trio of Scholes-Fletcher- Carrick won the midfield dual. Man Utd have possibly four senior strikers in the squad, one being the league top scorer, second the biggest star at the club and perhaps indispensible. However, with a young and promising goal scoring center forward knocking on the door, fielding a single striker gets tougher by the day. Getting the balance right is Sir Alex’s biggest conundrum at the moment. Abundance, and not scarcity, can also be a problem at times.
Wayne Rooney’s disappearing act
Where art thou ‘White Pele‘? In the last league campaign, the media and the opposition fans had labeled Sir Alex’s team as a ‘one man machine’ – that one man being Wayne Mark Rooney. They must have realized by now how horribly wide of mark those claims were. United have hardly had any substantial contribution from their talisman this season, yet still sit on top of the league table. Subsequently, if United is a one man team and even in his absence if they are good enough to top the league table, what does it say about the rest of the Premiership?
United fans on the other hand can’t wait to get the Rooney of old back. With all that has gone on between Rooney and the club, the least that Old Trafford faithfuls can demand for is their ‘best player‘ to play like that. They wouldn’t mind the one man team taunts. Wayne, it’s time to man up and be counted on. One goal from open play is a pretty poor return by any standards, let alone Rooney’s dizzying heights of the last league campaign. There is another factor now which can’t be neglected- ‘Chicho’ is breathing down Rooney’s neck and must be in with a shouting chance of getting the nod ahead of the Englishman. United’s second leading goal scorer this campaign, Hernandez, could overtake Wayne if the boy wonder continues to struggle in front of the goal.
Rooney’s poor form reflects badly on United’s travels, as perhaps he is the only striker in the current squad to perform the lone man act with precision. It could be a massive boost to United’s title credentials if their ‘Man Friday’ returns to being his former self.
The Name’s Vidic, Nemanja Vidic
There’s only one reason, and one reason alone, that United is in the desirable position that they are. “He comes from Serbia, he’ll f**ing Murder ya!! ” Manchester United’s captain has led the way in every way possible; he is the bedrock of the defense, the calming presence admits opposition’s siege. He is the captain United has been looking for, United’s player of the season, the master of the dark art of defending; to sum it up Vidic is the best thing since slice bread.
The unbeaten run and the Invincibility claims
As much as Devils around the world would love maintaining the unbeaten run, it is by no means a priority in Sir Alex’s scheme of things. If you could offer Sir Alex two more points and a defeat at this stage of the season than the unbeaten status, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that he would gladly take the former. While it’s good to feel proud in being undefeated, the goal of a football club should always be to win games rather than not to lose them, and at United wining is secondary to nothing. The club should always gamble for three points and never succumb to the temptation of a more secure draw. Sir Alex and the players have spoilt the fans with those miraculous late winners and the will to fight for a win even when they weren’t supposed to. United is the master of the Houdini act, and it should always be like that even if it comes at the cost of a defeat. “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt,” has to be the motto.
Also there is an outlandish notion going on that the current United side isn’t anywhere even close to the actual “Arsenal Invincible”. It’s been mentioned that this side isn’t in the same league and doesn’t even fit to lace their boots. Well a gentle reminder, nobody at United claimed the contrary anyways. Sir Alex has himself admitted that United isn’t even out of second gear yet and can only get better, so it’s not exactly United’s fault that none of the premiership teams have managed to get one over them.
The Invincibles were undoubtedly a great football team; however, at the same stage of their historic season Arsene Wenger’s men weren’t even at the top and had no less than seven draws to their names. So it’s not completely out of order to think that similarly this United team can also improve in the second half of the season.
Finding top gear
January is often the time of the season, when former United teams began their title surge. It’s a well known fable that the Red Devils come into their own in the latter stages of the league campaign. It seems common knowledge now that the inevitable surge, the influx of Nitro, would kick in any time soon and the swagger would duly return. Meanwhile top of the league without getting out of second gear, should be a reason to share the odd grin. However what’s bothering most United fans is the horrible but remote possibility that the team doesn’t have another gear left in the gear box. The scarlet Ferrari might be on full throttle already, and if this is as good as it can get, then United fans have reasons to be anxious. The return of Valencia is still at least a month away so from where exactly the propellant’s going to come must be a question in each of our minds.
Man United are at the top not without reason, undefeated not without merit. However to remain at the summit they’ll undeniably have to bring out their ‘A’ game. Till now Fergie’s men have been doing just about enough; from now on they’ll have to be better. Find the top gear now, or change the darn vehicle but push the accelerator. For now the chant for the season has to be “We are shite but we are top” – honest but apt.