When Arsenal won the title in 2002, there was a statement from them that roughly said that the era of Manchester United’s dominance was over and it was Arsenal’s turn. Since then Arsenal have topped the table just once, whilst United have been crowned champions four times.
Five league games into the season and apart from the little hiccup at Turf Moor, Manchester United are looking good near the top of the table on their way to an unprecedented fourth consecutive title. If all goes to plan this could well be United’s most important season till date.
Going back to the last three years, Cristiano Ronaldo has been United’s talisman, a responsibility that now falls on Rooney’s shoulders. His contribution was more than what numbers can justify and departure to the Spanish capital has been amongst the most talked about signings in recent times.
Talking about most talked about signings, one cannot ignore Michael Owen. Whilst the Ronaldo move was inevitable, not many saw Owen coming. This could be a masterstroke in a lot of ways. England have qualified for the world cup and Capello is known to pick players who have regular first team football at a competitive level.
With two more qualifiers and a few friendlies left, Capello may reconsider. Capello’s attention and one more shot at the world cup will be definitely motivating for Owen. If Sir Alex can channel this motivation and convert it to goals, that could play very well into United’s hands.
The young guns, Macheda and Wellbeck have shown last season that when called upon they are more than capable of handling the pressure that comes with being a United player. However the key issue up front is to mould an effective partnership between Rooney and Berbatov.
In his first season at United Dimitar Berbatov got nine goals in 31 games prior to which he got 15 goals in 26 starts for Spurs. He is stylish, has the knack to be in the right places at the right time and the ability. When he scores he is a joy to watch. But when he fluffs sitters his style sticks out like a sore thumb making him appear lazy on the pitch.
Tevez’s departure should remove any insecurity and instil self-confidence in him. However, the more I start thinking of Tevez, the more I start to question Sir Alex’s judgement. Was sacrificing Tevez for Berbatov a risk worth taking? This question is likely to be answered towards the end of this season.
Creativity in the midfield will be needed more than before from Anderson and Nani. Valencia has the pace and delivery but he needs to do more than that to justify his signing. This leaves us with Tosic, Nani and Obertan. With Nani likely to feature in the league and Europe, Tosic and Obertan may find places in the cup.
Darren Fletcher’s importance in the United midfield these days has grown in leaps and bounds; perhaps to the extent that his absence may have played a big part in the loss to Barcelona at Rome. Barcelona passed United to death in that game and his absence was never felt more.
The way I have seen his rise to significance in recent years, I am tempted to call him the new Keane. The Scottish skipper is every bit the tough tackling midfielder that Keano was. And he is only 25. Hargreaves’ absence has also fallen beautifully into his hands. All he needs to do is stay out of trouble and do what he does best.
Ben Foster has grown up as a player over the last few months and the fact that Sir Alex has chosen him over Tomasz Kuszczak sums it all up. The back four should not be much of a worry, except for injuries at least for now. It can only get better with Van Der Sar’s return.
Come Champions’ League one is up against the best teams across the continent. As you get towards the business end of the season, the fixture list is crammed with important games everywhere. Here is where squad depth comes into play.
The league, Europe, the cup and the league cup go up to more than 65 games if United make it to the finals where possible. The return of Owen Hargreaves from injury will be a great boost not just due to his exceptional work rate and experience, but also because of the mindset that accompanies career threatening injuries. Add the motivation of a potential England world cup spot and there is a lot to play for.
An important element that is likely to play in United’s favour is balance. Teams like City or Real Madrid are loaded with attacking options but are frail at the back. However unless you defend your backyard well you cannot conquer new territories.
However it could all go horribly wrong. In the league United cannot afford to drop points, especially against the big six. I am not leaving Manchester City and Spurs out of the equation just yet. Last season United got only five out of a possible 18, against the big four losing to Liverpool twice, drawing and losing with Arsenal and drawing and winning against Chelsea.
They still went on to win the league because the other teams lost important games too. It is imperative for United not to depend on their opponents’ results. To be in such a position they have to win their games and win convincingly, especially against the fellow biggies.
With talks of his successor springing up everywhere, Sir Alex will want retire at the top, domestically and on the continent. Managers have risen and fallen around him and players have come and gone but for over two decades he has been solid as a rock and working tirelessly like a clock, winning everything in his wake. He will want his final seasons at the helm to be the most memorable in his career and in United’s history and ultimately it is Sir Alex who will make the biggest difference.