December has left nobody knowing how good Manchester United really are: a tame draw and two defeats showed a team stumbling to one of those mythical places that doesn’t even offer the Europa League. The six consecutive wins in all competitions that followed, however, at least allows United to be relevant for a lot longer than others had hoped for.
After the 0-1 at home to Newcastle United, a second failure at Old Trafford in the space of a few days, David Moyes commented: “I think the game against Everton was very similar to the one against Newcastle. If we had come out on top in both games I don’t think anybody would have said an awful lot about it.” From then on, United were able to take their chances in games that were similarly close (Shakhtar Donetsk, Hull City and Norwich City) and find three points that either assured an easier draw in the Champions League (Olympiakos), or made sure they closed the gap when points were dropped around them. It could be looked at another way: United need to play better even in games they’re expected to win. December was like that for Manchester United and Moyes.
Not everything is so distorted, though. It is Danny Welbeck’s month: played in the middle, he has scored four goals this month, finding the opener in three different league games. And, in those, United scored no less (though no more) than three. There can be no doubting how much he enjoys the game in his favoured position (and his international record goes further in proving that). Welbeck can do more than just score, of course, but it is nice when he does that, too.
He makes it happen. It was his pass and movement that allowed him to get a second against Villa, and his quick closing down of the ball that helped him get the winner at Norwich. It wasn’t coming at Carrow Road until Moyes turned to Welbeck at half time. And for Adnan Januzaj’s at West Ham – his first of many at Old Trafford – it was Welbeck who had initially done well to win the ball, later playing a one-two with the teenager. Januzaj’s feint and finish would be one of the goals of the month had Wayne Rooney – again, with Welbeck’s help – not hit a superb volley at Hull.
Problems still exist for Manchester United but they aren’t ones that an impending transfer window cannot solve or, failing that, good form from their existing crop cannot alleviate. Tom Cleverley and Ashley Young looked a lot more like United players (the latter useful in taking United to a cup semi final), but all legitimate doubt still remains, while the return of Darren Fletcher does something for midfield depth. Januzaj and Welbeck would have to continue being the bestest, and Rooney’s presence somewhere between midfield and attack should stick. It’s been clear recently how much his increased presence in the middle has helped, even if the player apparently prefers to play further forward. Maybe we’ll hear more about that in July.
Back to Moyes. In addition to the quotes above, again, before the winning run, he also said this: “I stand firm we will be very close. I hope we are in it at the end of the season.” The reason for that, he adds, is “the players – because I am working with the champions.”