Is Manchester United the best team in the Barclays Premier League at the moment? Going into the New Year, the answer could be argued either way. On one hand they sit pretty on top of the table, with a game in hand to the likes of Chelsea and Arsenal, and two to Manchester City.
On the other hand, the likes of Tottenham Hotspurs and Arsenal must be wondering how this team have managed to sit on top so comfortably by December after the ridiculous start they had.
Draw after draw was snatched from the jaws of victory at Old Trafford against West Brom and at Goodison Park, Craven Cottage and the Reebok Stadium, while the same team, most of it anyway, looked nothing like possessing a championship winning caliber at the Stadium of Light or Villa Park. In both scenarios, it was tough to foresee this kind of an upswing. Along the way there were also stalemates that showed up that oppositions still fear the Red Devils in the form of the two nil-nils at Old Trafford against the Rangers in the Champions League and at Eastlands against Manchester City in the Premier League.
United’s best result in this period was unarguably the away win at Valencia. It was an agonizing game for the spectator, but United’s famous never-say-die attitude shone through in the end. That the goal was created largely by Nani (23), Kiko Macheda (19) and Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez (22) highlighted United’s long term prospects in the light of Glazer debts. The away win also went a long way in helping United’s cause in finishing top of their group for the 2010 Champions League.
The foremost credit for United’s rejuvenation has to lie with the manager. Sir Alex Ferguson maintained throughout the gut wrenching beginning that United are prone to slow starts and usually come into their own around Christmas. Indeed, looking back now, he underestimated his team.
United marked their turnaround during the dying moments of the game at Villa Park. After an edgy first half where United failed to capitalize on their chances, Villa came charging through their youth players, most noticeably Marc Albrighton, in the second half, and astonishingly grabbed two fantastic goals within 10 minutes of each other to lead United two to nothing by 76 minutes.
Ferguson immediately pulled out his ineffective strike pair of Hernandez and Dimitar Berbatov and replaced them with inexperienced the Gabriel Obertan and Macheda. Minutes later Macheda grabbed yet another goal from the bench against an opposition who must be dreading the teenager already, and after Nani’s exquisite cross had found Vidic at the far post with 84 minutes on the clock, it was United pressing for a win. The win never came but it signaled a turnaround in United’s fortunes, nay form. The four league games since that encounter have brought United 12 goals against opposition like the high flying Gunners and Sunderland.
The only blip was at Upton Park where West Ham United thrashed four goals past a hapless United XI on a bitterly cold and snowy London night, while a 1-1 at home to Valencia denied United a record for clean sheets in the group stages, but helped them avoid the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona for the first knock out rounds of the CL nevertheless.
But aside from managerial masterstrokes, it has been the players stepping up to the challenge that has helped United climb the table and stay on top. The brightest spot for United is crucially in the midfield, an area that has been exposed since Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure.
Oliveira Anderson has been sensational since his return. His first game back marked United’s biggest win in 3 years, a 7-1 thrashing of Blackburn. Anderson was instrumental in that performance, coming up with two assists, and causing the Blackburn defense plenty of headache with his lung busting runs from deep in the field. The combative midfielder has featured in every United game since then, managing to grab a goal against Valencia, only his second in a United shirt, but more impressively, he has been imposing himself on every midfield he has come up against. The Old Trafford crowd chants about Anderson’s domination of Francesc Fabregas and Steven Gerrard during his first season at Old Trafford three years ago, and his form this season certainly suggests that the Mancunians aren’t exaggerating his ability.
Nani has been the other creative spark in United’s team who has been irresistible all season. He has largely picked up where he left off before the pre-World Cup injury ruled him out of Portugal’s ill fated campaign. While his crossing has waned his dribbling and passing in general have been top notch. That is of course reflected in his assists tally, which sits comfortably as the highest in the league.
In defense, it has been the Nemanja Vidic show. The Serbian has been handed the arm band this season and it seems to have eked out even more from United’s all action centre back. Gone are the pre season rumors of a transfer. He has always been a firm fan favourite within Old Trafford, and now Europe at large is taking notice of a player who being hailed as probably the best defender in the world. Rio Ferdinand along side him is recapturing the form of two seasons ago, while Patrice Evra remains the foremost left back in the game at the moment.
The right back slot, an area which has seen a different occupant every season for the last three years, seems to have finally got a long term solution. Rafael da Silva has effectively displaced Garry Neville, Wes Brown and John O’Shea as United’s premier right back. The 20 year old has displayed great dribbling and tenacious tackling abilities, which, if they hadn’t already cemented his reputation among the Old Trafford faithful, have been bolstered by his ability to stand his ground against international super stars such as Carlos Tevez and of course Frank Ribery and Ronaldinho. The much hyped Gareth Bale too was dealt effectively by the young Brazilian. Astonishingly Rafael made the task seem like child’s play, while his country’s international right back, often touted as the world’s best, Maicon, had a harrowing time against the Welsh winger in Europe.
Dimitar Berbatov has two hat-tricks to his name this season, one of them against arch rivals, Liverpool. He grabbed five against Blackburn. He is the leading goal-scorer in the league. For any other player, that would be enough to enjoy cult status at any team in the world. At United, Berbatov is still an enigma. Between his two hat-tricks, the Bulgrarian went 7 games without a goal. And was found on the bench for the game following the mauling he dished out to Sam Allardyce’s side. Understandably, Blackburn are no Arsenal, but it indicated Ferguson’s greater faith in the ambitious Wayne Rooney as compared to the Bulgarian, especially in a system that employed three in midfield and just one striker.
When the two have played together, Berbatov has outshone Rooney. Rooney has come up with some wonderful assists this season, but is yet to find the back of the net from open play. Indeed he even missed a penalty against Arsene Wenger’s side. While that didn’t cost United, Rooney’s patchy form coupled with Berbatov’s lack of consistency still pose problems for United when playing bigger sides. The problem stems from United’s weak defensive midfield department. Anderson and Carrick are fantastic in attack, but only Anderson possesses the energy to run the length of the pitch and put in a tackle at the other end. Fletcher is also capable of such heroics but his form this season has been horrendous to say the least. The Scot always puts in a shift, but he no longer resembles the man who was a given in United’s starting line-up, especially in the bigger games.
United have shown that their best formation is a 4-4-2. But when they play a midfield consisting Nasri, Arshavin or Lampard, Essien, or very soon, Xavi, Iniesta, just two out of Anderson, Carrick, Scholes and Fletcher are not going to be enough. Ideally Ferguson would need Anderson and Fletcher at the top of their games to pull off a two man midfield against any of the European heavyweights, but in the absence of that, Sir Alex has been forced to play three in the middle, which of course means Berbatov on the bench.
United are top of the Premier League, been drawn to play Olympique Marseille in the first knock out round of the Champions League. While they find themselves out of the League Cup thanks to West Ham, the Red Devils will kick start their FA Cup campaign against the struggling Liverpool at home in January.
While 2010 has brought United few pieces of silverware, 2011 definitely holds high prospects for this team. The Premier League is there for the taking, for the fourth time in the last five years. United look strong enough to challenge Barcelona and Real Madrid in Europe, while their bench strength, with the likes of Michael Owen, Obertan, Bebe, Chris Smalling, Johnny Evans, et al itching for a game, will be tested and should hold them in good stead in the FA Cup.