In spite of the on-field exploits of Manchester United this season, there remains a perception that their performances leave a lot to be desired. Are such exalted expectations reasonable and what in the first place has given rise to it?
They have a 15-point lead at the top of the Premier League in March. Their tally of 74 points is the highest return any club has achieved after 29 games in Premier League history. They are still on course to be the first club in the Premier League to smash the 100-point barrier. They are one game away from a FA Cup semifinal date at Wembley. Even the most blinkered rival fan cannot argue that they were hard done by in the Champions League tie against Real Madrid. Had Nani’s boot, Alvaro Arbeloa’s hips and Turkish referee Cüneyt Çakır’s interpretation of the matter not come together in such calamitous fashion, they may still have been chasing the treble. All things considered, they are having a cracker of a season. And yet people continue to wonder, is this Manchester United team really anything special?
While it may sound absurd, the question does carry a lot a weight, especially among the media and pundits. They may annihilate all in front of them, but still will not be able to win over the purists. Or so it seems. Clinical, ruthless and efficient? Surely. A great team, one of the best in the recent years? Meh.
In order to understand such ambivalence, one must appreciate the nature of the vocation that is being dealt with here. In almost all other spheres of life, the end result is all that matters. Getting the job done without raising much of an eyebrow is a quality that is cherished in institutions across the globe. But not so in professional sports and definitely not in football. This after all is a spectacle. Results are important but they rarely are the be-all and end-all. The audience demands to be mesmerized by the events on the field rather than being witness to a routine win. In extreme cases the vanquished are glorified over the victors. In the mind of a football fan, the mention of 82 World Cup conjures up images of the brilliant Brazil team rather than the eventual champions Italy. In this game, the end does not always justify the means.
This axiom holds true for Manchester United more so than most other clubs. This after all is a club whose philosophy was molded by Sir Matt Busby. In his autobiography, Sir Bobby Charlton talks in great length how Sir Matt impressed upon everyone that football was something of much greater significance than a mere kick about on the grass. When played in the right manner and with the proper spirit, it had the power to bring happiness to the ordinary people. It was their escapade from the long arduous hours spent in the mines, shipyards and factories. On Saturday afternoons they came to Old Trafford to forget the woes of their dreary lives and instead be wowed by a magical piece of skill. It was the duty, as Sir Matt insisted, of every player who put on the famous red jersey to aspire to deliver such dazzling moments which the audience would forever cherish.
Times may have changed, but the philosophy has been ingrained into the club’s fabric. For Manchester United, simply winning is never good enough. The most common criticism leveled at them this season has been that this is not a vintage United team. Dictionary tells us the word ‘vintage’ refers to a quality that is old, recognized and enduring. So what is it about this United team that does not fulfill those criteria?
Can the lack of a true superstar be the reason? The great United sides of the past always seem to have that one special player whom everyone – teammates and fans – looked up to. In the mid-90s, it was Cantona, after that there was Keane and in 2008, it was Ronaldo. While Robin van Persie has been the outstanding performer this season, he will not be featuring in anyone’s all time greatest Manchester United XI anytime soon. Giggs and Scholes are still there but age has restricted their time on the pitch and influence on the team. And while Wayne Rooney has scored a bucket load of goals for the club, he somehow lacks the stature of the greats mentioned above.
The general play has been excellent and with United participating in a number of high scoring encounters this season, none can label them as boring. But there remains a fine line between entertaining and enthralling. Pieces of individual brilliance – like Cantona’s chip against Sunderland, Ronaldo’s backheel against Villa, Scholes’ dinked assist against Milan – have been short in supply. The fact that this season’s best contender has come from a right back – Rafael’s strike at Loftus Road – tells its own story.
This apparent loss of shine from United’s performance this season can be somewhat attributed to Sir Alex Ferguson, as well. Gone are the days when the Scotsman would send out his charges with ‘attack, attack, attack’ ringing in their ears. With the passage of time and evolution of tactics in the modern game, Ferguson has made his team adopt a more pragmatic approach instead of a buccaneering one. There is no disputing the fact that such a shift in attitude has paid handsome dividends too. This perhaps is best exemplified by comparing United’s recent match against Real with the one against the same opponent in 2000. Back then, after a goalless first leg in Madrid, Ferguson’s United tried to take the game to Madrid at Old Trafford but were undone by the brilliance of Raul and Redondo. This time around though, no such cavalier attitude was in display and instead we got to witness a tactically disciplined United making life tough for their much vaunted opposition. While such a performance might not have brought unbridled joy to the hearts of the miners and factory workers visiting Old Trafford in Sir Matt’s era, it so nearly worked on this night.
So the question remains for Manchester United: where to draw the line between chasing success and staying true to their roots? Sir Alex is too canny an individual to openly express his views on this issue and even though he often opines enthusiastically about the ideology imbibed within the club since the days of Busby, his thirst for success is unquenchable. So maybe it is time for the critics to redefine their yardsticks while measuring United’s accomplishments. And maybe it is time for fans to be satisfied with winning ‘just’ the Double.