Man United finds success amid fragility

Man United finds success amid fragility

Published Jan. 21, 2012 12:00 a.m. ET

After the (then) cellar-dwelling Blackburn Rovers spoiled Sir Alex Ferguson’s 70th birthday with an improbable 3-2 win at Old Trafford on New Year’s Eve, the Manchester United manager maintained perspective. “We’ve had our ups and downs in this campaign,” he said, “but overall the first half of the season has been as good as anything I’ve seen in the last 25 years.”

That assessment, emerge as it did after an insipid performance by a team that made absolutely no sense on paper (and had to do without Wayne Rooney, who was axed after training poorly following an ill-advised Boxing Day dinner), came under more scrutiny when United capitulated in its next game, this time suffering a comprehensive 3-0 defeat to Newcastle at St. James’s Park.

Later that week, a provocative opinion piece on The Guardian’s website made the bold claim that the club was on its knees and that “every significant aspect” of it was “decaying,” while the latest issue of FourFourTwo went so far as to ask the following question on its front page: “What now Fergie? Humiliated in Europe. English dominance over. City louder than ever.”

United responded, as it always has done under Ferguson, by seeking to prove the critics wrong. The Red Devils knocked their tormentors Manchester City out of the FA Cup, though it felt like Roberto Mancini’s side, down to 10 men after 12 minutes and 3-0 behind at half-time, claimed a “moral win” by fighting back to make the score 3-2 against all odds.


Last Saturday’s emphatic 3-0 victory at home to Bolton was a return to form, but also routine, as United at least avoided the ignominy of a third consecutive league defeat. Paul Scholes scored for the first time after coming out of retirement. Yet his return — which will continue Sunday against Arsenal on FOX (10:30 a.m. ET; check local listings) — while observed by some as a motivational coup from Ferguson, has been seen by others as admitting the failure to plan and provide for his absence, even if the scale to which United’s central midfield has been ravaged by injuries this season (notably to Tom Cleverley, Anderson and Darren Fletcher) was unforeseeable.

For now, though, let’s reconsider what Ferguson said after the Blackburn debacle. Points-wise, he is absolutely right. United has 48 from 21 games. It’s United's joint-fourth best start to a season since the Premier League began in 1992. The Red Devils may be three points behind City, but they’re also three points better off than they were a year ago. And with 52 Premier League goals, United has only scored as many at this stage of a season once — in the `99-00 campaign with the enviable collection of Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Teddy Sheringham alternating up front.

This indicates United is, on the whole, producing results of a very high standard, but, as Chelsea did under José Mourinho in the `04-05 season, City is threatening to raise the bar. “The main difference I can see this season is that City have amassed a bigger points total than Chelsea or Arsenal would normally have managed by this stage,” Ferguson said. “Their first half of the season was fantastic, and the way it’s going we could be looking at something approaching 90 points to win this league. It could certainly be in the high 80s, and that is surprising really, because in recent seasons more teams have been taking points off each other.”

In many respects, United’s first half has been fantastic, too. But apart from the first couple of months, it hasn’t really felt that way. Reflecting on how United so unsparingly laid bare the insecurities and the weaknesses of Arsenal in August — inflicting the biggest defeat on its Premier League rival since 1896 — it’s interesting how any psychological edge it amassed from their 8-2 victory at Old Trafford has been seemingly blunted.

Reading the match report on the club’s official website, a sense of hubris, easy to detect with hindsight, was palpable. “Whatever City can do, United can do better,” it stated. Earlier in the day, Roberto Mancini’s side had signaled its intentions by dispatching Tottenham 5-1. This, some said, was one-upmanship from United. The 8-2 was not about Arsenal, but City. United felt a need to respond.

United had won each of its first four games of the season. It had come from behind to beat City in the Community Shield and dismantled Tottenham 3-0 with its youngest-ever side to play in the Premier League. After Arsenal came another tour de force, this time a 5-0 win at Bolton. Wayne Rooney scored back-to-back hat-tricks. As a start to a season, it was remarkable.

A week later, another presumed title rival in Chelsea was put to the sword. United, already 3-0 up at halftime, held on to win 3-1, and Rooney could even afford to miss a penalty as Fernando Torres missed a sitter, too. Confidence was high, and no more so was that evident than in the Carling Cup the following Tuesday when Sir Alex Ferguson rubbed it in Leeds United’s noses by asking Dimitar Berbatov to play with Michael Carrick in central defense towards the end of another 3-0 shellacking.

Then United’s mask appeared to slip. A 3-3 draw at home to Basel in Champions League required a last-minute equalizer from Ashley Young, while Romania's Otelul Galati held United to a 2-0 win sealed only by a pair of Rooney penalties. Then, of course, came the 6-1 defeat at home to City. “It was our worst-ever day,” Ferguson admitted. “It’s the worst result in my history, ever. Even as a player I don’t think I ever lost 6-1. I can’t believe the scoreline. I’m shattered.”

United picked itself up but was left under no illusion as to the challenge that awaits. To the team's credit, it has kept on City’s coattails in trying circumstances. The transition from Edwin van der Sar to David de Gea at goalkeeper hasn’t proved seamless. Mistakes on his debut against City in the Community Shield, then West Brom, Arsenal, Benfica, Basel and Blackburn have, for now, cost the talented but raw 21-year-old his starting place amid reports that he might need laser surgery to correct a problem with his eyesight.

Anders Lindegaard has played in each of United’s past three games, and while he hasn’t been flawless (spilling a shot in front of City’s Sergio Aguero in the FA Cup third round), according to Opta he has the best saves-to-shots ratio in the Premier League at 84.21 percent and a 100 percent catch success rate. Lindegaard, to use his own term, exudes “calmfidence” and cuts an authoritative figure in goal.

That can only help a defense that has conceded 20 goals in the Barclays Premier League already this season (the leakiest at this stage since the `02-03 campaign). But then it must be said that six came in one game against City, and the back four has been decimated by injuries. To give that its proper context, United has used 11 different partnerships at center back.

The defense has had to be patched up on a game-by-game basis. United last had an injury crisis of this scale in 1998. That year, the Red Devils were 12 points behind Arsenal at the beginning of March and relinquished the title.

With that in mind ahead of Sunday’s trip to the Emirates, United can be satisfied on the one hand that it's still in touching distance of City, which hosts Spurs at the Etihad earlier in the afternoon. On the other, United must recognize it can’t miss any more opportunities to close the gap, let alone lose more ground.

This is a trap-game for United, with a proud Arsenal still licking its wounds after the mauling in August. “What happened at Old Trafford is motivation, for sure,” Robin van Persie said. “I’d never lost a match 8-2 before so I’m hungry to put that right, as is the entire team.”

Arsenal needs to win after last week’s defeat away to mid-table Swansea left the Gunners further adrift of the Champions League places. There’s so much at stake for both sides. All told, it promises to be an Epic Sunday.