I get a lot of stick on the blog, from our own fans and rivals unlike, because of my unwavering optimism. If we have a dreadful game, I will take it on board, but try and find the silver lining, however difficult that may be. There are optimists and pessimists (or realists as they would probably refer to themselves) within every fan base and of course neither one is better than the other.
But during our dreadful patch, when Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick were playing in the centre of defence, on the occasions when even Park Ji-Sung was called upon to play at right back, I wasn’t alone in defending the team, because it had to be done. We were absolutely crippled by defensive injuries, with the meek Tomasz Kuszczak behind our out of position players. It shouldn’t have come as any surprise that we weren’t going to play well. Not only because we had no defenders and therefore inexperienced midfielders filling their shoes, but because our players were being taken from their most effective positions. How is Fletch supposed to hassle our opponent’s creative midfielder from right back? How is Carrick supposed to play a great ball through to the strikers from the centre of defence?
In the 3-0 defeat against Fulham, we played Kuszczak in goal, De Laet at right back, Carrick and Fletcher in the centre of defence, and Evra at left back. Just one of our back five was a player we wouldn’t consider unusual to start in the league. It was a dreadful game of football and a dreadful performance from our perspective, but what can you expect? How would Chelsea get on with Turnball in goal, Sam Hutchinson at right back, Ballack and Lampard in the centre of defence, and Ashley Cole at left back?
Things have to get worse before they can better though and that defeat to Leeds was about as bad as it can get. Getting knocked out of the Cup by a team you hate is bad enough, let alone when they’re two divisions below you and the team you put out is relatively strong. Everyone has a bad day at the office but it was the lack of effort and commitment that hurt as much as the result. If our players couldn’t work themselves up for a cup tie against Leeds, what was going to get their fires burning?
But since then, we’ve got better and better. I’d like to think some of this was down to the disappointment of the Leeds game, but more obviously, the returning players.
Looking at the games that followed, at Birmingham, we played: Kus, Rafael, Brown, Evans and Evra (2 out of our best 5), at Burnley: VDS, Nev, Brown, Evans and Evra (3 out of our first choice 5), at Hull: VDS, Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans and Evra (3 out of our first choice 5) and at Arsenal: VDS, Rafael, Evans, Brown and Evra (3 out of our first choice 5). Whilst still not there, this is a big improvement than the one first choice player in defence we saw at Fulham. Rio and Vidic, our first choice central defensive pairing, haven’t played together since October. Is it any wonder we’ve conceded double the number of goals we had at this point last season?
But having Van der Sar back in goal has made the world of difference. Not just because he’s bold enough to come and claim balls that Kuszczak and Foster probably wouldn’t, but because of his ability to organise and settle our defence. He tells them where to go, gives them a bollocking when they mess up and settles their nerves. Since he’s returned, we’ve won 3-0, 4-0 and 3-1 in the league, the only goal conceded a deflection at the Emirates. You have to hope the manager can say all the right things to keep him playing beyond this season.
Vidic was expected back against Arsenal but now we’re left hoping he will be back for Portsmouth. Hopefully it will be Jonny Evans who partners him in the centre of defence, whilst Rio Ferdinand serves his ridiculous ban, with Wes at right back. Evra, who has been consistently excellent, playing in every single league game this season, will of course take up his position on the left flank.
Our midfield put in an excellent shift against Arsenal and did the job against City. Whilst people ignorantly refer to us as a one man team, it is interesting to see where the goals have come from recently.
Taking in to consideration the games against Arsenal, both legs against City, Hull and Burnley, Rooney has scored 7, midfielders have scored 5 (including the goal against Arsenal, which was made by Nani and would have been tapped in by Park) and Berbatov and Diouf have 1 each. There’s no denying what a massively important player Rooney is for us, whether he’s scoring goals or otherwise, but his team mates have been pulling their weight too.
This isn’t a big fat I told you so, it’s far too early for that, but it’s reassuring to see that when we do have something that resembles a proper team available to play, we do pick up good results. We’ve never beaten Arsenal at the Emirates in the league and to do it so emphatically at the weekend, when the pressure was on and we were still without our best central defenders, says an awful lot about what this team is capable of.
Look at things plainly, Chelsea should win the league this season. The only major injury they’ve had to deal with is Michael Essien, but he’s still only missed 9 league games. Rio has missed 18 league games, Van der Sar has missed 16 and Vidic has missed 11. Drogba has been at the ACoN but only missed 3 league games because of it and is back for Hull tonight.
For United to win the league this season would see us achieve something no English club ever has before, winning the title four seasons in a row. Are we right for that to be the minimum expectation for us? I don’t think so. What are our expectations? To win the league every year? Football doesn’t work like that, not in this country at least.
If Chelsea don’t win the league this season, serious questions should be asked of them. If we don’t win the league this season, we can point to the weeks when we didn’t have a defence, the fact we had just sold The Best Player in the World (TM), and the reality that a fourth title is unprecedented.
Not winning the league this season wouldn’t mean we were dead buried. If we can push Chelsea to the end then we have to be proud of that and look forward to the following season. New signings like Valencia and Obertan will be a year further in to their United careers, Rooney is only 24-years-old, Evans and the da Silvas are coming through in defence, Nani might actually turn out to be brilliant, and whatever the issue with the Glazers, we will be given funds to buy (although I’d rather not think about where that money is coming from!). Chelsea are banned in the transfer market and if we are able to get anywhere near them come May, they will have to be terrified for the season ahead, when a defensive injury crisis is unlikely to strike again.
As it is, unsurprisingly, I still think we will win the league this season, because we have a team of winners who believe we can do it. We have a captain who sticks his finger up at the man we hate and celebrates with all the passion in the world in front of our biggest rivals, not a captain who shags his team mates’ birds. We have a striker who every team in the world wishes they had. We have a solid base of players who have been with us since they were children and put their heart and sould in to every match. We have been there and done it all before. We have a history of going where no team has gone before, from the European Cup, to the first Premiership title, to the Treble. So can we win a fourth title on the trot? It’s too early to say I told you so and we definitely will, but honestly, I don’t see why we can’t.