A quick succession of five direct, first time passes ushered Alan Smith’s composed finish to double Manchester United’s lead against AS Roma in a Champions League knockout game in 2007. For Cristiano Ronaldo acolytes, that game will be fondly remembered for the then prodigy’s first goals in the tournament. But for Manchester United, that game, particularly Smith’s goal, represented what the club was about.
There is a lot to like about United even in these dull periods in the aftermath of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign at Old Trafford. The fanbase is second to none, as Jose Mourinho noted following the latest crushing defeat against Tottenham Hotspur on Monday, with United filling every away end and singing all game, win, lose or draw. We have stayed faithful to the principles put in place by Sir Matt Busby, putting trust in the academy graduates, with the record of us including a former youth player in every match-day squad approaching its 81st year anniversary.
We still command enormous amounts of wealth and elite status among the best sports teams in the world. While the team has whiffed on a long list of stellar names in recent transfers, members of the present group pack a punch. David de Gea shares the title of the best goalkeeper on the planet with Bayern Munich’s Manuel Neuer. World class outfield players are found all over the squad with Paul Pogba, Alexis Sanchez and Anthony Martial quickly coming to mind.
Up and down seasons make up the cycle of every club, particularly a club as old as Manchester United, and after several prosperous years annexing titles, recent years haven’t been so successful. Yes, the 2017 Europa League and League Cup titles were clinched just over a year ago but stinging low points have come to characterise United post Fergie.
Claiming the Europa League crown meant a closure few clubs can relate since the 2-0 win over Ajax ensured United has won all major trophies in the sport.
Yet when surveying the lows, last season’s 2-1 loss to rivals Manchester City at home easily stands out with City dominating everything in the game and walking away with the most important stat. To see United fail to put together a worthy performance in the significant derby hit home hard and saw the beginning of the end of our title hopes for that campaign.
Responding in equal measure away from home did go some way to healing those wounds but the motivation behind the win was far from the best. Beating City to avoid facing a firsthand celebration of City’s fifth league title was petty and short sighted. The broader view showed City winning the league with a whopping 19 point difference which highlighted the gulf between the two clubs.
On the surface, things are looking up; last season’s point tally was the best since Sir Alex’s last run. More games were won, fewer goals conceded and another title was within (distant) reach, as United could at least claim to be the best of the rest.
However, a closer look at the team shows an inferior demeanour that certainly did not exist a few years back. Hitherto, the opening acts this season, against Leicester City, Brighton and Spurs, would have been an unfair treat to United since Sir Alex’s boys would walk into those fixtures, win and flat out dominate. Unfortunately, United has been playing catch up even to such teams to the tune of picking up a win and two losses respectively.
In the 2-1 win over Leicester, an early goal proved mightily important to get one ahead of the Foxes. Guarded optimism about the team’s play gave out at the AMEX Stadium over a week later in a drab performance that ended in a bad loss against Brighton. While the standard of football improved against Mauricio Pochettino’s men, with United creating more chances in the opening 35 minutes than they had in the whole game against Brighton, our inferior defence meant that creating three times as many opportunities to score as our opponents counted for little.
Attacking opposing sides is the United way and nothing else. Mourinho and those who came after Sir Alex’s retirement, Louis Van Gaal and David Moyes, have failed to live up to such standards. Setting the team up consistently in a defence-first stance and sapping energy and confidence from players with berating public comments is churning out poor returns from a group that should be competing with City and brimming with confidence of clinching at least the league title like Liverpool. Instead, United is already second guessing its status and strategies three weeks into the new season.
The entire blame can’t be placed at the doorstep of the manager because players are equally responsible for United’s present state. Players are simply not playing well irrespective of having world class conditions available to ensure consistent delivery of top quality performances.
To liberate Pogba from defensive duties, United’s board has splashed hard cash on Nemanja Matic and Fred. Mourinho has given the Frenchman a free role to utilise his all round abilities and played him more in an advanced role. However, the returns have been inconsistent and poor on other occasions. Sanchez has been given time to settle on the left side of attack he was handed, despite Martial’s improved form in his second season under Mourinho, yet the Chilean has not delivered. The same can be said about Victor Lindelof and to an extent Romelu Lukaku whose first touch and questionable decisions continue to separate him from world beaters like Sergio Aguero and Harry Kane, and whose finishing letting us down against Brighton and Spurs.
With constant chatter of rift between players and manager, as well as manager and management, mixed with average results et al, there is a lot to not like about United at the moment. When will the United we know and love return?