I took to my bed early last night, feeling emotionally shot after a Manchester Derby that saw Manchester City deservedly win 1-0, thus overtaking United and returning to the top of the Premiership on goal difference. I deliberately tried to avoid the mounting media hype about the game, but with my worst fears realised, I will confess to feeling drained and in need of an early night.
Traditionally, of course, these are the games that United always win; rising to the occasion to produce a Champion’s performance that puts pretenders to the sword. Not last night, though. United have picked the worst possible time to lose their mojo and though they were well beaten last night, it was really the points dropped in the preceding games against Wigan and particularly against Everton that are likely now to settle the Premiership in City’s favour.
Vincent Kompany heads the crucial goal at Eastlands
The post-mortems on the Red side of the fence will probably go on for a while, particularly if City win at Newcastle this weekend, which is probably the last real banana skin between them and the title. If City are indeed a team of real pedigree, they will win that game, though with Newcastle also having fallen foul of a resurgent Wigan last weekend, I think that it’s not quite as daunting a task for them as it might have seemed a few weeks ago.
And of course, whilst everyone is assuming that United will win their two remaining games at home to Swansea and away to Sunderland, history should show us that teams in United’s position often collapse once they lose a key game like last night’s encounter. I can well recall the season of our first Premiership victory (1992-3) where we had been neck and neck with Aston Villa through the final weeks of the season.
Down the stretch, Villa lost a key away game at Blackburn, whilst United won at Crystal Palace later the same day. Villa then had a home game against relegation-threatened Oldham the day before we took on Blackburn at Old Trafford and it was widely assumed that they would win that game, requiring us to beat Blackburn to win the title. In the event, after their defeat at Blackburn, Villa had ‘gone’ in the footballing sense, almost as though there was a collective loss of belief among players and staff. Nick Henry’s late goal gave Oldham an unlikely win and kept them in the Premiership, handing United the title without them having to kick a ball. I wouldn’t bet against a similar scenario unfolding this weekend.
From this morning, Manchester-based United fans will of course be struggling to cope with their grinning sky-blue neighbours and workmates after having been undisputed Kings of the Hill – locally, that is – for the last 25 years, but I have written here before about my sentiments on this way back in 2009; here: (Carling Cup Semi-finals: Blue ketchup and a minor domestic disturbance….)
To recap briefly, when I lived in Manchester, I probably knew more City fans than United fans and if we aren’t going to win the title and my ‘local’ team (WBA) aren’t going to, then I can live with the prospect of City having their day in the sun. Better them than Chelsea or (the ultimate nightmare) Liverpool.
I suppose my thoughts are more about looking ahead and wondering how all of this is going to affect our ageing manager and the club’s attitude to rebuilding the team….
For the last few seasons – certainly since the last ‘great’ United team of Ronaldo and Tevez and Rooney, there has been the feeling that the club (the Glazers usually get the blame here) have been penny-pinching, even though big money signings (Berbatov, Smalling, Jones, Young, De Gea) have continued to arrive at regular intervals. The area that has been a constant source of concern here has been the midfield. Traditionally, midfield has always been United’s major area of strength from the days of Bryan Robson through to the great Butt/Beckham/Keane/Scholes/Giggs unit that emerged during the late 90’s. Certainly, the title-winning teams of recent years have had a curiously makeshift look about them with ageing stars like Giggs and Scholes alongside solid (if unspectacular) performers like Carrick & Fletcher and inadequate makeweights like Gibson. What the team has lacked in recent years – and this is something they missed badly last night – is a ‘warrior’ who can rally the troops.
Roy Keane is the obvious example of this. A player of boundless energy and no little skill, what really set Keane apart was his combative attitude and his ability to act as an anchor point for those around him. Yes, he could be a loose cannon at times and I will always find it hard to forgive him for the way in which he (allegedly) bullied the massively talented Juan Sebastian Veron into a bit-part role when Veron should have been the focal point of the team. Even so, Keane was usually seen as Fergie’s alter ego on the pitch and whether it was facing down Patrick Vieira in the Highbury tunnel prior to a game or driving the team on to greater efforts, he became synonymous with the drive and spirit that made United serial trophy winners.
Wembley 1996; Roy Keane enquires as to Robbie Fowler’s health
Alongside the perceived lack of an onfield ‘general’ is the inescapable feeling that United have, since 2008, somehow contrived to win the League title due more to the shortcomings of their challengers (notably Chelsea and Arsenal) rather than due to any undue amounts of excellence on their part. In short, United have won titles because they’ve been the least worst team . The inevitable emergence of our moneybags neighbours as a major force inevitably changes all that.
It’s in the character of the manager and the club to respond positively to setbacks like this. Of course, United may yet win the title, but the odds are against that happening. Even if it does, I am hoping that Ferguson appreciates that the make-do-and-mend era has to stop now.
Our veterans – Scholes and Giggs – have helped to paper over the cracks in midfield and although Giggs hasn’t had a great season, Scholes has done tremendously well since coming out of retirement in January. However, to expect either or both of them to keep rolling back the years indefinitely would be foolhardy. Michael Carrick has again performed well this year but he is over 30 now, whilst Darren Fletcher is unlikely to play any central role in Fergie’s future plans given the delicate nature of his health. Anderson’s days as the ‘Nearly Man’ of squad are surely drawing to a close. Whatever talents he may possess, Ferguson hasn’t been able to tap into those on anything other than an occasional basis, whilst Paul Pogba (assuming he stays) has huge potential but will need time and regular first-team appearances in order to blossom. The real disappointment this year has been the injury-prone Tom Cleverley, who started the season like a world-beater, but has hardly played of late, contributing little when he has got on to the pitch.
United are already being linked with high-cost midfielders like Lille’s Eden Hazard, whose name suggests that he should have been a character in a Bond movie or a sidekick of Napoleon Solo in ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’, but other sharks are already cruising in those waters and Fergie has never enjoyed bidding wars. Ajax’s Danish midfielder Christian Eriksen would be a better fit for United, I think. He’s still a work in progress but would undoubtedly benefit from playing in a better team. There’s also a lot of focus on the entire Athletic Bilbao team who so ruthlessly ended United’s brief Europa League adventure, but, again, United will be competing with other heavy hitters from La Liga and elsewhere. Besides these ‘creative’ options, the team also, as mentioned, badly needs a midfield enforcer – a new Roy Keane would be just the ticket.
Elsewhere, it could be that a new striker will be on Fergie’s shopping list. Berbatov is apparently on his way and the injury-plagued Michael Owen and also-ran Federico Macheda will surely join him. With Will Keane apparently due to be shipped out on loan next season, that leaves Fergie with just Welbeck, Rooney and Hernandez as striking options. Hernandez has endured a largely disappointing second season and badly needs a complete rest this summer, so Fergie may want to strengthen in that area as well.
Whatever the case and whether the title is won or lost, United need to respond this summer to the new challenge thrown down by their ‘Noisy Neighbours’. Mancini may talk of establishing a ‘dynasty’ of success at Eastlands, but Ferguson and United are never so dangerous as when they are written off.