Masters of the art painting a Worrying Picture

Having bourn witness to Manchester United over the past couple of decades, there’s one thing the Red Devils have mastered better than any other team. It’s not pretty but it sure is effective. The art of winning when playing badly.

Turning 23 yesterday, my wonderful girlfriend bought me a couple of tickets to see Otelul Galati in the UEFA Champions League and it allowed me to see firsthand the masters of the art. Yet walking away from Old Trafford on another dreary yet profitable night in Europe for Fergie’s men, I feel that maybe these victories paper over the cracks of this United team. Scrub away hard enough at the surface, as our smug rivals in the blue half of the city did, and there are a number of reasons to be concerned.

As a good friend of mine, Chris Lloyd, remarked to me today that United have lost their air of invincibility. Teams do not fear coming to Old Trafford any more. Joe Kinnear, former Wimbledon boss once said after a heavy thumping in 1999 that the best thing about coming to play United was knowing you didn’t have to come back there that season. For 88 minutes yesterday, Galati sensed an opportunity for a smash and grab when all attending expected a rout against them.

Having been free scoring earlier in the season, their deserved drubbing against City has eradicated that fear factor. Old Trafford is no longer a fortress. Chris believes that teams believe United are beatable and I’m inclined to agree.

But what has changed from the all conquering side that has claimed back-to-back Premier League crowns and reached the final of the European Cup in three of the last four seasons?

History tells us that United are notoriously poor at coping with the loss of key elder statesmen, not only within their side, but also in the backroom staff. Brian Kidd, Steve McLaren and Carlos Quieroz all departed successful United teams during their dominant Premier League era and almost immediately the title was conceded.

Continuity behind the scenes is something that our current downfall cannot be blamed but it highlights how United are perhaps too slow to respond to change. Admittedly I’d argue they respond better than any other team in the world, but for supporters across the globe greedy for success, their hunger must now recede along with expectation.

In the past 12 months, three key figures have vacated the dressing room, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Edwin van der Sar all retiring, leaving a chasm that United cannot immediately fill.

Eric Cantona departed in 1997, the following season Arsenal did the double when Teddy Sheringham couldn’t fill that void.

Peter Schmiechel’s retirement in 1999 saw Mark Bosnich, Fabian Barthez, Massimo Taibi, Paul Rachubka, Andy Goram, Tim Howard, and Roy Carroll all tried, tested and discarded before Edwin van der Sar restored structure to the defence. During that time, United conceded trophies to Arsenal and Chelsea.

David de Gea has the hallmarks of an outstanding keeper but I still reserve question marks on his effectiveness in the English game, particularly marshalling United’s loose back four. Goalkeepers at Manchester United must be feared by the opposition and by his own defenders. Barthez was a great shot stopper but prone to errors and lacked authority.

Given the fact that United have been peppered with more shots than any other in the Premier League this season, de Gea hasn’t even sneezed at his so-called defence. Yesterday against the Romanian champions, a team languishing in mid table in their league, United afforded their opposition too many sniffs at goal and yet de Gea didn’t berate his players once.

His aerial ability looked nervous, his catching always contained the odd fumble and his distribution was lacking. He just misses something, that X-Factor if you like.

Moving onto the defence and the fact that the manager doesn’t even know his best back four says it all. Ferdinand is now a squad player. His pace, his aura and his awareness isn’t as sharp as it once was. Last night he wasn’t majorly tested but when you look like the second best defender when playing alongside Jonny Evans, something’s gone awry.

At right back, Gary Neville slow shoe-horning out of Old Trafford has led to Rafael (who’s not a good enough defender), Fabio (who’s left footed), Brown (who was always injured), O’Shea (who lacked a certain je-ne-sais-quoi), Valencia (who’s a right-winger), Smalling (who’s a centre back) and Jones (who’s a centre back) all being trialled there with only Jones and Smalling looking like realistic successors.

Having seen Jones now first hand, he will be one of the greats in English football in two or three years. His pace, his presence, his physique and his sheer ability lend themselves perfectly to defending and his forays down the right wing have been spectacular this season.

Yet United’s strong sides were always built around their defence. For early success read Parker-Bruce-Pallister-Irwin; for treble triumphs read Neville-Stam-Johnson-Irwin; for noughties glory read Neville-Ferdinand-Blanc-Silvestre and for European ecstasy read Neville-Ferdinand-Vidic-Evra. Pick a United’s best back four now?

Maybe City’s rotation policy is the new direction of the modern game. I know six reasons that might be true.

Now looking further up the field…

The dearth of attacking flair and sumptuous vision left by Paul Scholes has been well documented with SAF quite rightly refusing Wesley Sneijder’s absurd £250k per week wage demands. They have good options in the middle of the park. Carrick, Fletcher, Anderson, Giggs and Cleverley will all do a job. But when has doing a job ever been the ethos at Old Trafford?
Wayne Rooney can fill Scholes’ boots, both in quality and temperament. His vision and passing are a joy to watch and even though not on top form in an alien position last night, he looked like he had so much time on the ball and carried himself with dignity and pride throughout the game.

His attacking ability is already there, as too is the fitness to run box-to-box, which he did as a striker anyway. All he needs is to develop the brain and nouse to control a match from the middle of the park and intimidate the opposition. This will work for Manchester United but not satisfy England.

This then creates a gap up top. Hernandez, for all his quality, cannot operate as a lone striker. Berbatov and Owen aren’t the forces they once were. Rooney’s excellence in midfield is something Fergie hasn’t bargained for. So are United on the hunt for a world class striker or world class attacking midfielder? Not having this answer will lead to United getting left behind by their rivals.

So history tells us then that United are currently in their transitional phase. The phase that sees an exodus of greats and an influx of raw talent, the phase that sees Fergie moulding young players to become the best in the world and the phase that sees young players becoming seasoned professionals – in this case the likes of Fletcher, Rooney, Nani and Carrick stepping up a level both on and off the pitch. It’s a phase that also will not yield a Premier League title.

But what of the legacy? Ferguson has said that the squad he is compiling now will be his last at the helm. In order to maintain the dominance, he needs to map out where the next exodus or natural decline may arise. Evra, Ferdinand, Carrick, Giggs, Park Ji-Sung will all be on the decline in years to come. Manchester United need to start building their fifth great side now to avoid the rebuilding trend becoming a habit.

But is this a realistic assessment? Is it actually possible to do this? Does the transition mean they have to rebuild that ‘air of invicibility’?

Wins will help, but pretty performances will paint a more rosy picture.