There’s just nine games to go. In September, when Chelsea were seemingly running away with the title, if someone told me we’d be top of the league with nine games to go I’d never have believed them. If someone had offered us this position then, we’d have bitten their hand off.
However, instead of being made up we’re in the best position of any team to win the league this season, there is doom and gloom, anger, resentment and frustration.
With us having no news from the club to reflect on today, here’s just a few thoughts that I’ve been mulling over recently, particularly since yesterday’s result at Anfield.
1. The midfield
I don’t think there as been a single ‘Reaction to…’ article I’ve written this season which doesn’t make some reference to the fact our midfield isn’t good enough. After every game, winn lose or draw, there always seems to be something missing and it isn’t the midfield winning us games.
Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher are just shadows of the players they were in their best United seasons. Paul Scholes was great before his injury but since returning from those two months out, has really struggled to dominate games the way he was earlier in the season. Anderson has probably been the brightest spark from our midfield this season but this is probably more in comparison with his poor competition in Fletch, Carrick and Gibson. Plus he’s been in and out of the team through injury too so we’ve not been able to see him consistently in the team and having the opportunity to improve.
Whilst the centre of the park is the biggest concern, the wide areas have also been a problem, mainly through injury. Antonio Valencia has been injured for 6 months and Park Ji-Sung has been missing since December. This has left us with Nani and Ryan Giggs as our only wide players in the first team squad. Gabriel Obertan and Bebe are options but they’ve hardly been given a chance and in their fleeting appearances haven’t impressed. Credit to Nani, a shining star this season, who has more than done his bit to step up and help overcompensate for the fact we’re without Valencia. Giggs has played his part too and has come off the bench to change games for us and succeeded. Still, you can’t expect a 37-year-old to do that every week.
2. Away form
Whether we play 442 or 433, regardless of which strikers we play or which midfielders are played, United have been dismal on the road. If not for our incredible home form, which has seen us pick up at least 8 points more than any other club despite playing a game less, we’d be in trouble this season. Believe it or not, only Arsenal, Spurs and City have better away form than us, but we’ve won just four games on the road, picking up 20 points from a possible 45.
Our saving grace this season is that Arsenal are the team we need to finish above to win the league. Yes, they play great football. Yes, they have some really talented players. But they don’t have the bottle. They don’t have a team of winners who know what it takes to win the Premier League. If Chelsea of a year or two ago were the side chasing us, I’d feel more nervous, but this Arsenal team don’t even have the bottle for a League Cup win over Birmingham, their best chance at a trophy since they won their last one in 2005.
If Arsenal win their game in hand, it is just goal difference that would separate us, with United currently on a better goal difference by 3. They don’t play their game in hand until the back half of April though, travelling to White Hart Lane midweek to face their hated rivals who need the points for their top 4 finish. They’ve tasted Champions League football now and have enjoyed some brilliant results against some of Europe’s biggest clubs, so there’s no way they’re going to give up on that next season without a fight. A week and a half later, they play us. As well as us (h) and Spurs (a), in these remaining 9 games they’ve still got to play Liverpool (h), Bolton (a), Stoke (a), Fulham (a), Blackpool (a), Blackburn (h) and Villa (h). Arsenal don’t like playing these tough tackling teams from up north and I fancy them to drop plenty of points yet.
4. Wayne Rooney
Not a popular point for those who would rather pretend nothing happened but we cannot ignore the fact that the player who held our club to ransom over a move away/greatly improved contract, has been disappointing for a whole year now. In March 2010, Rooney scored 6 goals in 4 consecutive games against Milan, Liverpool, Fulham and Bayern Munich. He was injured in Germany though, rushed back too soon, then came the summer when he told the club he had no interest in discussing a new deal with United.
He’s been played out on the left several times this season. It hasn’t worked. He’s been played up front, alongside Berbatov or Chicharito, and it’s worked a bit better. But you can’t escape the fact he’s scored just 7 goals in the league this season. The City goal was far and away his highlight of the season, given how good it was and the importance that win had, but those special moments should be far more regular for a player who believed our club didn’t match his ambition. We’ve dragged him through this season and whilst only Nani has more assists than him in the league this season, if we make it 19 in May it’s more in spite of him than because of him. With Dimitar Berbatov and Chicharito the more prolific scorers this season, you have to wonder when they are going to get the nod ahead of Rooney.
5. Big games
We haven’t won any of our big games home and away this season but equally, we haven’t lost them either. City 4/6, Spurs 4/6, Arsenal 3/3, Liverpool 3/6 and Chelsea 0/3. Arsenal and Chelsea are the only teams we’ve played just once and the timing of these fixtures is incredibly cruel/kind. The first weekend in May we travel to the Emirates, the second weekend in May Chelsea come to us, then we’ve got just two games left to play. These games provide United with the opportunity to land a knock out blow where the title is wrong, but equally, could the occasions where we throw it all away. Thankfully, Arsenal and Chelsea have the worst record against top 6 opposition this season. Essentially though, I think our biggest strength this season is our opponents weakness.