6 Reasons for Manchester United to Be Optimistic for 2013
After spluttering into the Christmas period with a stuttering draw at Swansea City and a narrow last-minute win at home against Newcastle United, Manchester United have laid down their marker for 2013 with convincing victories against West Brom and Wigan.
Perhaps more significantly, the two wins came with no goals conceded, a fact that will have pleased Sir Alex Ferguson, who was beginning to despair at United’s preponderance for giving teams a goal start before reaching top gear.
I outline below what I consider to be six encouraging signs from their festive encounters.
Vidic Returning Could Be Crucial
Gradually, and at an important time for the club, United’s injury problems are abating. Nemanja Vidic, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones are examples of players returning from periods on the treatment table who will strengthen United’s defensive core. This will also, of course, allow rest periods for overworked teammates such as Patrice Evra and Jonny Evans, who have hitherto been forced to play through United’s heavy schedule of games.
Wigan boss Roberto Martinez compared his own inability to rotate quality players over the busy Christmas and New Year programme with United’s strength in depth, which is, at last, beginning to bear fruit.
Sir Alex Ferguson's next problem is how to keep all his stars happy and keep the team fresh for the difficult games ahead at home and in Europe.
2. Michael Carrick.
In his own quiet and often understated way, Carrick has been the catalyst for many of United’s better performances so far this season, and his ever-presence over the Christmas period re-emphasised his importance to the team’s cause.
He does make the occasional error, and perhaps, partly because of his calm demeanour, these mistakes sometimes give the impression of casualness and lack of concentration.
However, his confidence on the ball and his instinctive ability to hit pinpoint passes to colleagues on the move have made him an invaluable asset.
Ask Robin van Persie about Carrick’s value to the team effort, and I have little doubt that his praise for his teammate would be fulsome.
Carrick has benefited greatly from the intelligent running of the Dutchman and seems to be on the same wavelength much of the time.
He is also greatly assisted by the work ethic and tenacity of Tom Cleverley, who, with his tireless darting runs and great engine, is showing himself to be the perfect accomplice to his more cultured midfield partner.
Chris Smalling's Return Adds to Ferguson's Options
3. Goals Conceded
As mentioned above, United have, at last, stemmed the flow of goals that has been hemorrhaging their defence all season.
Two matches with no goals conceded would not have been considered unusual in preceding seasons and can hardly be considered as a corner being turned, but Sir Alex will be sleeping more easily after the floodgates have been closed, albeit maybe only temporarily.
What are the reasons for this area of improvement?
I think firstly that you have to consider the opposition, which, with due respect to overachievers West Brom, has not tested the Red’s to the limit.
Secondly, the back four have looked a lot more solid with Vidic’s return, and although he was on the bench for the Wigan match, his availability puts pressure on the rivals for his position and keeps them on their toes. Similarly, Ferguson now has Smalling and Jones as cover for fullbacks and centre backs, which augers well for the new year.
Yaya's African Adventure Could Help United
4. African Nations Cup
Whilst United have none of their major stars missing for the African Nations Cup, their main rivals and noisy neighbours, Manchester City, will have to do without the influential Yaya Toure and his brother Kolo for at least seven league and cup matches.
With their top striker, Sergio Aguero, suffering from a hamstring problem that could sideline him for several weeks, City could be up against it in their attempt to claw back United’s current seven-point advantage.
It certainly looks rosy for the Reds in this respect, but football has a nasty habit of turning such perceived bonuses on their heads.
Robin Goes Double Dutch Against Wigan
5. Robin van Persie
Sir Alex may well look back at his signing of the devastating Dutchman as one of his best, if not exactly one of the most unexpected successes. He has so far achieved everything that was expected of him several times over.
I don’t think even Sir Alex, in his most optimistic moment, could have imagined the decisive impact Van Persie would have on his team, scoring 19 goals in 25 appearances.
His contribution outside his goalscoring feats have also been immense, and you feel that United’s prospects of silverware domestically and in Europe will be deeply entwined with the strikers ability to remain injury free for the rest of the season.
Interestingly, The Times' Matthew Syed reported that Roberto Mancini blamed the current gap in the title race on City’s failure to sign Van Persie in the summer break.
Unless Mancini is playing obscure mind games with this comment, you would think that such defeatism is akin to the Italian psychologically shooting himself in the foot.
Such apparent envy at United’s purchase is ironic when you consider the almost vulgar amounts of cash that City have had at their disposal and the cost of the rest of Mancini’s current squad.
Without doubt, Van Persie is potentially the key to United’s success this season, but from personal experience, it’s always prudent to have a spare key.
In this respect, Sir Alex must be hoping that Javier Hernandez continues his current rich vein of goal scoring and that Wayne Rooney recovers quickly from his present injury and rediscovers the form that he showed sporadically in the first half of the season.
Love Is All Around at Old Trafford
Whilst infighting and discontent has characterised United’s rivals in the recent past, you sense that all is well in this respect at Old Trafford.
Van Persie has said that he feels that at United, all his teammates are pulling together and individual egos are sacrificed for the good of the team.
When you look at the shenanigans which have gone on at Chelsea, typified by the regular change in management and the apparent player power which forced out Andre Vilas Boas, you realise how important stability in a football club is.
Similarly, the somewhat abrasive management style of Mancini at Man City and the difficulties he has had controlling some of his charges (Carlos Tevez and Mario Ballotelli, to name but two) smacks of disharmony amongst the ranks.
Sir Alex Ferguson would not allow this to happen and has shown himself to be ruthless when players begin to get too big for their boots and are not contributing to the team cause.