Tuesday, January 18, 2011

MU 11: Closer to Unwatchable than Invincible?

Manchester United negotiated one of their season's tougher games on Sunday, leaving White Hart Lane with a point and their undefeated league record intact.

That's disturbing for Arsenal fans. We don't have a Treble or a Champions League triumph to look back on; but Manchester United have never ended a league campaign without losing a single game.

More upsetting still is the fact that it's this United team that are threatening to do it.

03/04 Arsenal: Lehmann; Lauren, Toure, Campbell, Cole; Ljungberg, Vieira, Edu/ Gilberto, Pires; Bergkamp, Henry.

10/11 United: Van Der Sar; Rafael/ O'Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Nani, Fletcher, Anderson/ Carrick, Giggs/ Park; Berbatov, Rooney.

United's defence now is probably stronger as a unit than Arsenal's was seven years ago. Individually, Ferdinand and Vidic are superior to the Toure and Campbell we knew in 2004. Ashley Cole and Patrice Evra are two of the best left backs you will ever see. Further up the pitch, would you take any of United's front six over their Arsenal counterpart from the unbeaten season? Maybe Nani for Ljungberg.

What's more amazing is that United are doing this without a clear first choice right back. And their defence remains the foundation for their likely success. This points to a fundamental difference between the two teams I'm discussing here.

Arsenal's triumph of 2004 was one of a great team of players. There was a clear dividing line between first choice starters and back up players, with the exception of Edu, who would sometimes be preferred to his less crafty countryman.

United's prospective triumph of 2011 would be one of a great squad. It is hard to decide what United's best eleven is; arguable, even, that they don't have one. This is probably part of the reason that they cannot approach the fluidity of that Arsenal team, who were enormously entertaining. Alex Ferguson changes his team regularly, extensively. He does not get slated for it, as Ranieri and Benitez sometimes did, because it has not obstructed United's success. If his switches were explored- they are more often ignored- pundits would find that they are canny changes.

Above all, they make it possible for United to maintain a challenge on multiple fronts.

United lack the sprinkling of stardust they have had in the past- especially with Rooney struggling for form- but they have a lot of players who are effective in differing ways. It's something of a boring cliche at this point, but they are better at grinding out results than Arsenal. They can play in more ways. They may not be capable of the possession football that Arsenal now play, but they are better on the break. They can soak up pressure. They can play with genuine width, and score headers from crosses. They can play in different styles, and Ferguson can tailor the selection to suit the style. Their attacking play will doubtless improve with the return of Valencia, who set up many of Rooney's headed goals last season.

But for now they remain the most prosaic of potential history-makers. Their midfield has running power, but is sorely lacking in flair. Even Anderson, Brazilian and a 'number 10' by trade, deals more in power than finesse. Darren Fletcher is a tenacious presence, but his passing is erratic and unimaginative. Michael Carrick was, even at his best, flawed; now he's gone backwards. Ji Sung Park is a tireless worker and a regular goalscorer but it's hard not to see him as Dirk Kuyt with slanty eyes.

They all play their part in making United tough to beat. Nani, unpredictable as he is, has become the Premiership's most productive attacker, when you combine goals and assists. He makes United tough to keep out. And despite Rooney's troubles, Berbatov has shouldered a lot of the goalscoring burden. Hernandez has the enviable knack of being able to come into a game late and shape its outcome.

1-11, you could look at any of United's line-ups this season and say, they're not a patch on Arsenal's of 03/04. In entertainment terms, they certainly aren't. But they get the job done.

Even with their deep and mostly injury-free squad, can they keep it up for the rest of the season? You'd hope not. It certainly wouldn't say much for the patented 'Best League in the World'. United have been outplayed by some poor teams. Aston Villa (relegation candidates) battered them before imploding in the 2-2 draw at Villa Park. West Brom (relegation candidates) battered them at the Hawthornes, just didn't take their chances. United are helped by the favourable treatment they get from referees- as in that game at the Hawthornes, when the over-the-hill Gary Neville should have been dismissed and a penalty given. Nothing doing, of course. Neville was also allowed to foul without reproach, while on a yellow card, at Stoke.

I don't suggest that it would have changed the outcome, but Rio Ferdinand suffered no scrutiny when, with characteristic physical cowardice, he entered an aerial challenge with Bacary Sagna studs-first. In the same game, Darren Fletcher was allowed to lay his hands on the referee, in the self-entitled way that is the hallmark of all United's players.

All of these things help. So, too, the fact that Ferguson is looked upon with awe by most Premiership managers. Few will cross him. They will happily gang up to aim their xenophobic ire at Arsene Wenger. Ferguson can actually bend these lapdogs to his will. This is not paranoia or conspiracy. Sam Allardyce, before his latest sacking, masterminded a seven goal spanking of his own Blackburn side by United. His Bolton side, who would resort to tackles bordering on assault against Arsenal, were, surprise surprise, always meek opponents when they played Ferguson's team.

When Gary Megson took over, his first game was at home to United. He was obviously not part of Ferguson's circle of friends, because Kevin Davies kicked the shit out of Patrice Evra. On the touchline, the Laird's purple face betrayed his incandescent rage. "Save it for Arsenal".

When Liverpool played Blackburn in 08/09, Rafa Benitez made an innocuous hand gesture with the Reds having established an early two-goal lead. Liverpool were challenging United for the title. Sam Allardyce, at the behest of his master, kicked up a fuss over the supposed disrespect shown by the Spaniard. His gesture had, apparently, signalled that the game was over. Benitez was at the centre of a storm. Over nothing. The Laird is omnipotent.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying, United's power goes beyond the eleven players they put out on a pitch. And that helps. If ever a fairly average team was capable of going a season unbeaten, it's Manchester United.

Let's just hope that either Ancelotti's Chelsea or Wenger's Arsenal can put paid to this. If they don't lose a game, we'll never hear the end of it.

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