By Tom Pattison
Why this is a great team.
I believe that our current side is on the cusp of greatness despite being criminally under-appreciated by the majority of the football media.
I must confess that the view I am going to criticise is one that I have voiced on many occasions earlier in the season. The view is one that has become the standard argument of the ignoramuses who infest the radio talk shows and studio sofas in the British football environment. The view is a variation on the following; ‘This is an average team in a weak league.’
Let’s deal with the latter point straight away – Manchester United is in no way responsible for the overall quality of the League. It is ridiculous to use this as a tool to deride our achievements so far. I also disagree wholeheartedly – the strength of a league is not how dominant the top four teams are but rather how competitive it is. No longer is it so easy to predict results as teams lower in the table are more than capable of performing against the bigger names. Not convinced? Wolves have beaten Chelsea, Manchester City and us this season. Blackpool have beaten Tottenham and Liverpool (twice!). West Brom have beaten Manchester City and Arsenal. That list includes three Champions League quarter finalists and the most expensive team in football history. In the past the Premier division has consisted of a mini-league of four sides with the rest simply making up the numbers; the dramatic levelling of the playing field makes triumphing all the more impressive.
I believe my argument can be broken down into five qualities:
4) Triumph in adversity.
5) Sense of theatre.
I have long mocked the British obsession with ‘character.’ Eddie Gray’s claim that the soon to be relegated Leeds United needed ‘less skill, more passion’ became a sarcastic motto for my group of friends at university. Although not as tactically adept as the peerless Sleepy Nik, I am a fan of the Michael Cox approach to understanding tactics which has enriched and raised the level of debate in the football world. However, as Cox and Jonathon Wilson point out; there are crucial mental elements which can not be proved through chalkboards or possession stats. It is easy as a Man United fan to take the quality of ‘belief’ as a given – we have seen it so often under Ferguson – yet it is a quality lacking from other arguably technically superior teams and can be the difference between winning and losing. When we perform poorly and trail 2-0 in a difficult away fixture this team does not hide. When we are struggling to break down a resilient side and are reduced to ten men with time running out this team does not feel sorry for itself. When we lose two big games in a row this team does not lick its wounds and crumble. The manager’s ability to instil this belief in players of varying age, experience and cultural background is nothing short of genius. Our allegedly aesthetically superior rivals manage to contrive a draw from a four goal lead whereas this team can turn a two goal deficit into a resounding victory. That is why this team is great.
Evidence from this season: Blackpool away, West Ham away, response to Liverpool and Chelsea defeats.
Evidence from previous Ferguson teams: Tottenham away Sep 2001, Everton away Feb 2004, response to losing to Leeds and Liverpool Dec 1995.
Once upon a time there might be some debate over which two from Giggsy, Andrei and Sharpey would play on the wing and not a lot else. Now the build up to a big game becomes as much a debate over systems and strategy as who will play. One look at this site’s wonderful forum will confirm as much. In the aftermath of the failure to replicate the success of 1999; Ferguson has sought to develop teams capable of performing a variety of tactical strategies. The gradual abandonment of the ‘first xi’ principle had mixed results in the early stages but the ultimate justification of the brave move has been the way this adaptability has impacted upon this season. In the away game against West Ham with the team trailing the team shape was adapted at half time to employ Giggs at wing back to accommodate a greater goal threat – this team responded by turning the game around. In the tricky away game against Marseille a conservative midfield three was adopted with the attacking threat coming from the wings – this team responded by achieved the goalless draw the manager had clearly set out to gain. In the home FA cup tie against Arsenal, Brazilian full backs were deployed as wingers, a defender played as an old fashioned centre-half and the goal machine striker from the previous season was asked to perform as an enganche/trequartista; this team’s response was to devastate their illustrious arrivals. One of the greatest strengths of this squad is the ability of manager and players to adapt to situations in order to achieve the aim. Think of an outfield player and you can generally identify at least two roles he will have performed this season. That is why this team is great.
Evidence from this season: West Ham away, Chelsea away (CL), Arsenal home (FA), Marseille away (CL)
Evidence from previous Ferguson teams: QPR away January 1993, Barcelona away April 2008, Milan home 2010.
An under-appreciated aspect of a successful squad is players being given the opportunity to progress. It is the norm today for fans to be flooding forums begging for star names to be drafted in but as our noisy neighbours and the oligarch’s plaything have found out; this does not equal success. A vital characteristic of our current vintage is the number of players who have made progress in their own performance as the season has gone on. Berbatov perhaps bucks the trend having dazzled more brightly earlier in the season yet in fairness he continues to make vital contributions despite seemingly failing to secure his position for the biggest encounters. At the start of the season Rafael was defined as rash in the tackle and defensively naïve, yet he has progressed into one of the most consistently impressive fullbacks in the country. Chris Smalling was a raw youngster earmarked for the future, yet he has performed magnificently on the biggest stage time and again. Javier Hernandez was a potential super-sub, who would take time to adapt to an alien culture, yet he has achieved a phenomenal goals-to-games ratio and his selection in crucial games no longer raises any eyebrows. When you factor in the recent rebirth of Rooney and Carrick as potent forces you complete a picture of a group of players hitting form at precisely the right time. That is what makes this team great.
Evidence from this season: Rafael Da Silva, Chris Smalling, Javier Hernandez
Evidence from previous Ferguson teams: John O’Shea 2002/03, Darren Fletcher 2008/09, Nani 2009/10.
Triumph in Adversity
Adversity comes in many forms. It can be suffering damaging injuries to players at crucial times. It can be when events threaten the stability of the club. It can be when the authorities appear to actively increase the challenges you face. As much as we might like to envelop ourselves in the ‘siege mentality’ and accuse the world and his wife of being ABU we need to accept that all clubs face these problems; the sacking of a coach who loves to stay on his feet and the signing of a world class striker has destabilized Chelsea, the absence of Vermaelen and injuries to Djourou and Sczesny has left Arsenal short of defensive cover at a crucial time of the season and the club captain of Manchester City has been suspended for the rest of the campaign by the authorities for making a foolish yet innocent mistake (de ja vu?). The difference between us and them is how we refused to allow these adverse conditions to become an excuse. We only had five fit defenders against Bolton yet this team squeezed out a victory in the dying seconds. Our star player chose the evening of a Champions League game to publically request a transfer yet this team not only won that game but remained unbeaten for the ten games that followed. The FA removed the services of our form player for an admittedly brainless bout of profanity yet this team shrugged off his absence to record a vital home victory and stay on course for the title. Regardless of his often embarrassing public rants, Ferguson demands the highest standards from his players no matter how challenging the circumstances and that is what makes this team great.
Evidence from this season: Home win against Bolton, response to Rooney transfer request, victory against Fulham.
Evidence from previous Ferguson teams: Missed out on league by 1pt without Keane since Oct 97/98, won the league despite Beckham challenging Ferguson 02/03, missed out on league by 1pt when Cantona suspended 94/95.
Sense of theatre
It is perhaps a glaring indictment of my limited vocabulary that I cannot think of another way to describe the sheer thrill and excitement which has always characterised the greatest of Manchester United sides. It is perhaps this ‘sense of theatre’ above all that the current incarnation is accused of lacking – where is the dynamic thrust of Ronaldo, the late drama of Solskjaer or the majesty of Cantona? I suspect it is because we have been spoiled over the years that we seem to be unable to recognise the feats of utter theatre that have been achieved by this current team. You want individual athleticism to set the heart racing? This team offers Wayne Rooney scoring an overhead kick so aesthetically stunning it felt like watching a video game. You want victory snatched from the jaws of disappointment? This team offers a 93rd minute winner against Wolves when we looked doomed to draw. You want a master-class of sublime technique and creativity? This team offers a team goal against Blackburn started by his own box and sumptuously finished by the enigmatic Berbatov. When you add the fact that Nani has racked up 18 assists and 9 goals, Berbatov leads the division in goals, and this team has not failed to score a goal at home since December 2009 suddenly this team doesn’t seem quite so bereft of flair as many would have you believe.
Evidence from this season: Rooney against City, Park against Wolves, Berbatov against Liverpool, Berbatov against Blackburn.
Evidence from previous Ferguson teams: Ronaldo against Fulham February 2007, Vidic against Sunderland December 2008, Team performance against Tottenham January 1993.
I am not suggesting that this team is on a par with the ’94, ’99 or ’08 vintages. It is wrong to compare them as football has changed so much in such a short time. Drawing comparisons between sides from different eras is as futile as it is enjoyable. It is not for us to say how history will reflect upon the current side – which let us not forget, could still end the season with nothing. However the trend to denigrate this team through spurious comparisons (Rio slams critics who claim current United side is below par) says much about the continued unwillingness to accept that yet again Sir Alex Ferguson has managed to create a side capable of outplaying, outwitting and outlasting their fabled rivals. I don’t expect the rest of the world to fall in love with see football team but I would like to see them receive greater respect from those who boast understanding of the game. Analysis of even the minimal depth I have offered provides irrefutable proof that this is indeed a great side. Yet if opinions never change, maybe that’s what the great man wants; you cannot stop what you don’t recognise and after all, wasn’t the greatest trick the devil ever played to convince the world he doesn’t exist?
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