In dissecting Manchester United’s loss at home to Tottenham last weekend, I was struck by the reaction of Red Devils fans.
In the last 12 months, millions of Manchester United supporters had to watch (literally) the Premiership title be handed to Manchester City (after leading their arch-enemies by as many as seven points with a month to go in the race), followed by seeing Chelsea roll through the Champions League and hoisting the trophy. They also had to get used to the idea of Manchester United playing in Europa League, and the team bowing out of the FA Cup in late January.
Now with a tricky game against Newcastle United this weekend, we’re looking at a match that Manchester United has to win to silence their growing number of critics and make amends for their dreadful performance versus Spurs.
United looked older and disinterested against Tottenham. It’s one thing during the grind of matches to fall asleep and have to rally against Stoke or Bolton or Fulham. But against Tottenham, there’s no excuse for Alex Ferguson’s squad to look as lackadaisical as it did in the first 45 minutes.
So here’s something to ponder. In the 20 years of the English Premier League, Manchester United has won the title twelve times and has never finished below third.
But could Manchester United finish fourth this season? It sounds ludicrous but not really when you consider their issues.
1. Chelsea is better than most expected to be. I saw the Premier League as a three-horse race this season, unlike most who thought Chelsea would be third at best because of their aging core, uncertainty about Roberto Di Matteo’s managerial credentials, and the fact so many newcmers in the last several years haven’t found a proper place in the squad. But Eden Hazard and Oscar are looking like what Chelsea needed. Another strong season start by Branislav Ivanovic and Fernando Torres, no longer in the Chelsea shadow of Didier Drogba, has the Blues flying high. There’s minimal chance that Chelsea won’t be much better than they are right now in January or February, barring injury setbacks.
2. Manchester City, though struggling, won’t give up the title easily, regardless of how they’ve underwhelmed thus far. As much as they’ve been criticized, they still haven’t lost a Premier League game. When they do, and especially if it’s a couple in a row, then I would be worried. Remember, they’re not going to earn 89 points like they did last season, but you don’t necessarily need to. Manchester United coasted to an 80 point total in 2010-11 and won the title in a laugher over second-place Chelsea (71 points).
3. Manchester United’s defence has issues. Rio Ferdinand was turned into dust by Gareth Bale, and this week it was reiterated, rather publicly, when Roy Hodgson turned the page on the United star’s England career. Hodgson was hammered by some when he left Ferdinand off his Euro 2012 squad, but it was the right decision, and the play of fellow veterans John Terry and newly-established international Joleon Lescott proved it. In addition, Rafael hasn’t impressed yet, and we should be willing to wait it out and let him find his way, which he more than likely will.
4. Who’s the number one goalkeeper? Being the last line of defence for Manchester United is a thankless job, with the exception of the wages, trophies, and medals. But neither David de Gea nor Anders Lindegaard has been consistent or healthy enough to cement themselves as the clear No. 1 and that’s just not the “United Way." You don’t even need to make a mouse click to go through United’s goaltending history, but when they win and are dominant, it’s a one-person job. See Peter Schmiechel, Fabien Barthez, Edwin van der Sar, and to some extent Tim Howard.
5. Wayne Rooney came back this week and sooner than expected, but he’ll have to show that that gruesome cut he suffered isn’t restraining him in any way. If Rooney is fine, it makes Robin van Persie and Nani better and gives them far more room to wield their own brands of magic.
There are other warning signs despite the astute acquisition of van Persie, Nani’s development into an elite player, and the "problem” of finding enough time to get Danny Welbeck onto the pitch in situations where he can thrive.
But with the advanced ages of Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, the end is always a step closer with every match. I’d like to see Javier Hernandez play a lot more than he has – he’s just a gem of a player who seems to get what being a pro is about on and off the pitch. But they didn’t sign the Mexican to play him every other match, a scenario that eventually compromised the usefulness of Dimitar Berbatov, even when he did play.
If you asked me right now, I’d still say there’s no chance Manchester United finishes outside the top three. But is it impossible like it’s felt the last several seasons? Certainly not.
It’s the old expression though: Manchester United never rebuilds, they re-load. And unlike the big four North American sports leagues, there’s nothing stopping United from getting the players they want and need, unless of course Manchester City or Chelsea outbid them.
So rumours of any demise for Manchester United are obviously greatly exaggerated, and certainly so compared to what Liverpool, and to a lesser extent Arsenal, are going though.
But are they the threat to win the title we may have thought they were on when the season began? I really don’t think so, but obviously count Manchester United out at your own peril, and wallet, if you’re so inclined.