The buoyant overriding sense of optimism on the eve of a fresh season, a new campaign is typical amongst sets of football fans across the land. This year, the sense was the red half of Manchester were definitely in this boat of feverish expectation and anticipation, especially as the wounds, from seeing the noisy neighbours lift that precious piece of silverware, were still fresh, all the blood, sweat and guts from the nine month graft would ultimately count for nothing.
It was without doubt one of the longest summers in terms of waiting to get back on the Premier League rollercoaster, it seemed an age before we could start our quest to reclaim what is ours, but the summer was very productive- it seemed as though immediately after the bitter pill of second place had to be swallowed, the manager already had a distinct vision in his mind of how to wrestle the Premier League crown off City and reclaim our unanimous hegemony over the blue half. Sir Alex, in typical fashion, set about this season boldly by declaring we would never the title in such a painful manner again, he brought in a mix of high-class with players of tomorrow at the forefront of his transfer dealings.
It is easy to get carried away when we are in a wave of good form, but currently the situation domestically and abroad could not be looking any sweeter. Top of the Premiership, without blowing teams away, runaway leaders in our Champions League, collecting maximum profit in the process. Ok, elimination from the Capital One Cup was not ideal, but let’s be frank here, it is certainly not high on the list of priorities. The Chelsea defeat will benefit the kids trying to forge themselves a career at the highest level, Scott Wootton of course was culpable for conceding the penalty at the death and a weak back header, accounting for two of Chelsea’s five goals, but it will be a learning curve for the boy and he will come out of it for the better. That blemish should not tarnish the fact that we are on course both home and away, without playing scintillating football, just imagine for a second the Manchester United that will undoubtedly move up the gears and play at full throttle. Exciting eh?
Last night’s encounter with Braga somewhat epitomised most of our early season form. For the majority, we were laboured, turgid, we did not play at a high enough intensity to cause their defence any problems. We fell behind, yet again, how many times have we seen that this season? It has almost become second-nature and customary for our defence to creek first. Then, we get bailed out by an individual piece of brilliance and an injection of liveliness. It’s uncanny sometimes how it needs a team-talk (or two due to the bizarre light failure last night) to transform a performance, people wonder why it takes so long to see the real thing.
After last night’s performance, there was a resounding feeling of optimism wherever you looked. People were even posing the question ‘Can we do the Treble again and rewrite some more history?’ It got me thinking, so here is my spin on it.
It is a staggering and remarkable statistic from our perspective that we have recovered 21 points from losing positions already this season, and we are only in the early embers of November! We have recovered to beat Fulham, Southampton, Liverpool and Stoke in the Premier League (we also fell behind against Everton and Tottenham but could not turn those two fixtures into points) and against Cluj and twice against Braga in the Champions League. Of course, we would like to see United open the scoring and claim the 3 points, the players have acknowledged that they need to stop this habit of falling behind in matches, we have more often than not started sluggishly in matches this season, not coming out of the traps (we have conceded very early in home matches, Fulham, Stoke and Spurs broke the deadlock within minutes), we need Old Trafford to a fortress with a tight collective back-line.
That said, these turnarounds strike resemblances to that glorious 98-99 season. Our FA Cup ambitions were seemingly being dashed by bitter rivals Liverpool and Michael Owen, but with 2 minutes to go Dwight Yorke equalised and we could sniff blood. Our very next attack saw the ball fall to the ideal man in those situations, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the rest was history, that gave us the platform to go on and seal the second installment of the United Treble mission. Nothing could convey this steel and grit more than that unforgettable evening in Barcelona. Trailing to Mario Basler’s free-kick early on, United needed a similar act of heroism to complete an unprecedented treble, need I tell you the rest? Well if you insist, super subs Teddy Sheringham and Solskjaer produced two moments of deadly poaching to make the impossible possible. This bouncebackability, the ability to land punches after being on the ropes is truly an elemental and hereditary quality in the Manchester United DNA, something that enables us to win the games where we are not at optimum performance, it is a priceless dexterity, that never-say-die attitude, which has produced so many last-gasp winners in the past.
It has always been a good talking point in pubs, the broad subject of ‘what was the best ever Premier League team?’ That Treble winning side are serious contenders. We had the best goalkeeper in the world at the time in great Dane Peter Schmeichel, over the course of a season he would win United 10-15 points with a string of majestic saves to see out tight games. After narrowly losing out on the title the previous year to Arsenal, we shored up our defence with the big money signing of Jaap Stam. He formed a very reliable partnership with the highly understated Norwegian Ronny Johnsen. In the full-back areas, local lad Gary Neville was very solid and encapsulated what it takes to play for United, wearing his heart on his sleeve and giving nothing less than 100% per game. On the other side, Dennis Irwin was just as consistent and chipped in with some vital penalties along the way. That back five was water tight and hard to get past.
Our strength lay in our midfield and attacking options. We had a variety of different types of players, all adding different qualities. David Beckham, for instance, could put the ball on a sixpence with his high-quality dead-ball delivery and unparalleled crossing ability. Roy Keane, the captain marvel, hard as nails, fought ever battle, box to box energy, goal threat and steely grit, arguably the complete midfielder at this point. What summed up Keane’s play for me was during the away-leg of the Champions League semi-final to Juventus. It is a must-win game after Juve’s away-goal in Manchester, trailing 2-0 away to Pippo Inzaghi goals and the master Zinedine Zidane weaving his magic, in a cauldron of noise, Keane picks up a fateful and costly yellow card meaning he would miss the final should United turn around the situation. Keane almost single-handedly transformed United from boys to men, despite the horrible feeling deep down he would not be part of any further glory, this was his time to shine. He headed home a Beckham corner to bring United back into the game and gave fresh hope. He nullified Zidane’s creativity and got in the face of Antonio Conte, Keane’s character and burning desire to be part of something special got United over the line and en route to Barcelona. Paul Scholes, who would also suffer the heartache of missing that final, came of age in a United shirt and was the main goal threat from midfield. Ryan Giggs, was probably the best left-winger in the world at this time- trickery, pace, goals, he had everything. Our striking quartet was top-class. Summer signing Dwight Yorke galvanised the place, forming a deadly duet with Andy Cole, Sheringham and Solskjaer relatively played second-fiddle to those two but as previously mentioned they both had the ability and knack to deliver crucial goals.
How do they compare to our current crop? David De Gea is seemingly first-choice in the manager’s mind again, after experimenting with Dane Anders Lindegaard. Freshly turned 22, De Gea is getting better and better, he could easily be the world’s best when in his prime. He has turned a corner after a few blemishes last season, he has already saved us a few points this season. The back four is an interesting one. Rafael has seemingly made the position his own after a string of marvelous performances this season, he has come of age and matured as a footballer, like De Gea he is only 22, the manager has gone on to suggest he could become United’s best ever full-back. That is high-praise given his predecessor in the number 2 shirt. He has always had a penchant for the attacking side of the game, he is improving in the bread of butter of defensive solidity. It is a given last season that we desperately missed the inspirational presence of Nemanja Vidic, surely we’d have won the title with a fully fit Serb marshalling the back-line? We need him fit again to shore up what has thus far been a shaky collective back-line. With Rio having just turned 34, a lot of emphasis will be on the younger Jonny Evans, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling to play their parts this season, Rio is still a class act and will be an important figure when it gets down to the wire in crunch games. Alex Buttner should provide Patrice Evra with sufficient competition in the other full-back spot. we are well stocked in the defensive areas.
Our engine room has been enhanced this season by the addition of Japan international Shinji Kagawa, the re-emergence of Tom Cleverley and the very welcome sight of seeing Darren Fletcher back on a football pitch after his 10 month injury hell. We have seen less and less of the evergreen duo of Scholes and Giggs, an indication this will be their curtain call, with more of an emphasis being placed on midfield vibrancy and energy. This is why not only Cleverley and Fletcher will be important players in the months ahead, but Anderson could also come into the reckoning. If played in his niche position, he can cause havoc with defence splitting passes, he combines creativity with industry meaning he is a force to be reckoned with when on form, he has shrugged off the critics who suggest he is carrying timber by looking leaner, hopefully it’s a fresh start for him after a stop-start 4 years. Michael Carrick is the midfield anchor, linking the play between defence and attack, he has won over many who previously questioned his role and is very consistent. The manager knows our strength is in our wing-play. Antonio Valencia is devastating, a willing defensive winger linked with his power, pace and crossing has led to him arguably being the best winger in the division. Wayne Rooney loves playing with Valencia, as does Van Persie, no surprise given the quality he possesses. With Nani out of sorts and out of favour, this is a big season for Ashley Young. He has divided many, but his pace and crossing are a handful, he also has the eye for goal that modern wingers need.
The manager is adamant that our current striking quartet are the best he’s had at his disposal since the Treble season. It is difficult to categorically state this, when we had Rooney, Ronaldo, Tevez and Berbatov would probably trump our front-line of today, that said we are blessed with attacking talent. Rooney and Van Persie, much like Cole and Yorke, have already hit it off, they look happy in each other’s company and already have a mutual understanding of each others’ games. Many suggested our success this year would hinge on whether Rooney and Van Persie could hit the ground running, they have started in the right manner. Van Persie’s arrival was not just a signing… it was a coup and a statement of intent. He has reminded me of the signing of Eric Cantona, he seems to have given the place the necessary lift needed after last year’s heartache and wants to drive the players on to create something special. One man in form at present is Chicharito. He has benefited from a full pre-season and break and is replicating his first-year feats by getting back on the goal hunt. He is of Solskjaer’s ilk, a fox in the box with the ability to score crucial winners. Danny Welbeck will also play his part in the season ahead, but his finishing needs work.
So can we replicate the feat of the Treble team? It is important to not get carried away with our current success, we all know how quickly things can change, we were 8 points ahead of you know who last season. But this year, I certainly have not felt as bullish and confident about our chances for a while. Look at our bench from last night’s game- others could only dream of having a Young, Cleverley, Carrick or Van Persie in their starting lineup, let alone their bench. We have the strength in depth required to last the hard slog of an onslaught domestically and in Europe. This year, it seems as though we can just turn it on in an instant. We were poor for 70 minutes yesterday, within a blink of an eye Van Persie is on and the game is transformed and we get 3 points. Not since we had the quartet of Rooney, Ronaldo, Tevez and Berbatov have we had the ability to go through the gears and suddenly out of nowhere turn the course of a match, we have match-winners in our ranks. It seems as though this crop have bottle and the required steel and nerve to claw back losing positions. 21 points recovered already is a staggering achievement, a bit worrying defensively but this just proves that we have the ability to score from all areas and the potential to outscore anybody, which will also enhance our chances in Europe.
These comeback wins echo back to the glory days of ’99, it makes me want to believe that this crop of United players can replicate those scenes. The last time we won our opening four Champions League matches, we went on to lift the most prestigious trophy in world football I am not saying outright we will do the Treble, but this team seem to possess the necessary ingredients of a trophy-winning team.
I for one will be amazed if we end up trophy-less this season.
Follow Paul on Twitter – @RowlesPaul