Just six games in to the season and there will be some people who are totally baffled by Manchester United’s start to the season. We were supposed to struggle to find the back of the net in Cristiano Ronaldo’s absence but have already achieved in six matches what it took us ten games to do last season, by scoring 15 goals.
Now don’t get me wrong, with 32 matches left to play there’s no way I’d claim that all the people who wrote us off should take it back. I personally believed they should have done that as soon as they wrote their eulogies but I understand five wins from six isn’t enough to prove the doubters wrong.
Still, I think there are plenty of positives we can take from our start to the season, particularly when considering the standard of opposition we’ve beaten.
For large chunks of last season, United didn’t play that well. We got to the final week of the season and I was still waiting for the lads to reach top gear. It just never really seemed to happen. I know that sounds pretty ridiculous, given we won three trophies, including the league title, as well as reaching the European Cup final, but in terms of performances, we played a poorer standard of football than we had during our two previous title wins. 06/07 we exploded out of the blocks and never showed any real sign of slowing down. 07/08 saw a crap start to the season but we got better with every passing month, Cristiano Ronaldo at the centre of everything.
Last season was different though and I’d probably put that on Ronaldo’s shoulders. Not as a criticism of him, as despite missing the opening month or so of the season, he still was just one goal within the top scorer of the league, which is very impressive. However, he became less and less like a winger and so our football overall changed. Other players had to compensate for his failure to track back and his liking to be come more centrally. Again, this isn’t even really a criticism, because clearly it was something the manager was happy enough to deploy, but it did have a negative impact on our team as a whole. That goal against Arsenal in the European Cup semi-final was United at our best but those kind of moments were rare last season.
Thankfully, we had a phenomenal defensive record (something I don’t really understand, as we seemed to be making stupid mistakes all the time and got away with them – until the 4-1 mauling by the dippers) so our less than special attack wasn’t exposed too badly. This season it seems as though a match can’t go by without us making a costly error or two, so it really will have to be the attack we rely on this season.
Which is where Wayne Rooney comes in. What do Arsenal, Spurs and City have in common? They all conceded goals against Rooney and they were all unbeaten before they played us. Like Ronaldo proved an important player in the year preceding this one, Rooney seems to be the man stepping up to the plate up front.
Looking at those fixtures on paper, you had to worry how many points we were going to pick up, particularly given our away defeat to Burnley. Whilst our performance against Arsenal was poor, their only other clear effort, other than the Arshavin goal Foster should have done better with, was Van Persie’s early attempt in the second half. They were the best attacking team in the league and we kept them out, which is at least one positive to cling to, particularly given Rio Ferdinand wasn’t playing.
In contrast, our performance against Spurs was great, even with us going a goal down with less than a minute played. We picked ourselves up and got on with it though, showing the quality and fighting spirit fit to win any match. To be away from home, playing with ten men, against a side who was so far unbeaten, and still go on to score a goal is a big achievement for the side, particularly when so often we’d relied on Ronaldo to produce these match-saving moments of glory.
Whilst defensively we let ourselves down against City, the second half display was brilliant. It was all the more impressive given that we were playing against a defence that cost close to £60m to assemble and had only conceded two goals all season. City weren’t just pinned back in to their own half, but their own box, and there was a real sense that another goal was always coming, whether at 1-0, 1-1, 2-1, 2-2 etc. More surprisingly though was that these chances and attacks didn’t revolve around Rooney, but Ryan Giggs.
It does make you wonder whether this year there won’t just be one player who we’ll be turning to when our backs are against the wall. Whilst we can hope and expect for Rooney to carry on scoring at a rate that he has done, our football doesn’t have to be so one dimensional. I’d like for the team to be built around him but it’s good to see the goals shared around the squad. In six games we’ve had seven different goalscorers suggesting maybe this season will be more about a team contribution, as we anticipated. Thankfully, that is the way things seem to be working out at the moment.
Still, we have a tough game coming up against Stoke, who we struggled to beat away last season, needing them to go down to ten men before we could break the deadlock. Whilst the press seem to be fond of Stoke, always praising their fans, I really do not like them. Their trip to Old Trafford was like a pantomime, with their fans far more concerned with abusing Ronaldo than actually supporting their own team and players – I’m struggling to remember a set of fans so determined to target one of our players, and it’s not as if Ronaldo was ever popular with any other fans but ours. It was totally bizarre. When we went to their place, there were deafening boos at half time as all the players walked off the pitch, more bothered about showing their dislike for our players than appreciation of their own. They won’t like being branded ‘small-time’ but that’s exactly how they behave, showing up at the game in fancy dress and obsessing over opposition players.
We have passed the previous three tests though and just when you think we might have a bit of breathing space, we’re landed with a fixture like this. We are going to need some battlers on the pitch, which is why I hope we stick Antonio Valencia on one of the wings, whose strength and speed will come in handy. Michael Carrick has looked out of sorts so it’s probably best that we stick with Anderson in the centre of midfield. Fletcher is an obvious choice these days, as obvious as Rooney, so I guess it’s between Giggs/Park/Nani for the other midfield spot. Whilst Nani didn’t impress against Wolves, I do like the idea of having two proper wingers playing, but then Giggs was bloody brilliant against City, so does that mean he can’t be dropped, or, he needs more time to rest to recover from that blinding performance? Who knows.
Predicting the team these days is bloody impossible but essentially we need a lot of strength on the park to match Stoke, as well as the more intricate skill it’s going to take to break them down at the back. It will be a tough one but after picking nine points out of nine from trickier games, it relieves the pressure somewhat on our travels tomorrow. We could have been approaching this game from a lower position in the table so we should travel there full of confidence and fully prepared for a scrap.