Manchester United's Surge: The Key Factors
Seven more league wins and United will again be champions of England.
The team’s two point lead at the summit of the Premiership, courtesy of a fine comeback win over Liverpool, has wrested control of the title race from rivals Arsenal and Chelsea.
That leaves Sir Alex and his team in command of their footballing destiny, despite an awe-inspiring run-in featuring Titanic clashes against City, Spurs and Chelsea.
In Europe, United have been granted the easiest available route to a third successive final in the Champions League.
If United triumph over Bayern Munich in the quarter-final, they will meet the winners of the match between Lyon and Bordeaux. These games deserve the team’s full concentration but they should make no one tremble at Old Trafford.
So much for the awkward transition into United’s post-Ronaldo era that many, this correspondent included, were expecting this season.
Now is not the time for revisionism. United are, on paper at least, a weaker side than last term.
It is also true that United’s current position looked improbable amid the defeats, erratic form, injuries to key players and off-the-field turmoil which marked the side’s progress from August to January.
During this period, United resembled a musical troupe which had lost its band leader. Fans watched through latticed fingers as the team slumped to defeats against Leeds, Burnley, Besitkas, Fulham, Everton, Aston Villa and Liverpool and City in the League Cup semi-final first leg.
These will be forgotten, should United be crowned champions for a fourth successive year.
Sir Alex’s management of his resources and the shrewd manner in which he guided his team to its best form right on schedule deserves great credit.
Here are the key factors in United’s recent revival.
Goals Goals Goals
United have responded magnificently to the loss of Ronaldo’s goal power, rattling in 72 league strikes so far. Only Arsenal have scored more league goals than United.
Wayne Rooney’s record goal haul has captured the headlines. In so doing, the striker, at last deployed in his favoured central role, has silenced any lingering doubts about his composure in front of goal and the weaknesses in his game when forced onto his left foot.
Above all, Rooney’s exploits have made it unthinkable for him to be farmed out to the left flank in future to accommodate other talents or in the name of team tactics.
The success of Rooney as a lone striker in recent months has allowed the manager to refine his game plan and tactics for big matches.
Much has been made of the manner in which Ji Sung Park subdued Pirlo in United’s drubbing of AC Milan.
The Korean, a modest talent at best, has enjoyed a purple patch of late, scoring important goals in big matches. Park has benefited from the manager’s decision to move him infield from the left wing and play him as the furthest forward of United’s midfield players.
He capped a typically energetic performance against Liverpool with a brave diving header that won United the game. United’s midfield, though shorn of star dust, now has the energy and surprisingly, the goal threat of Park, plus the dogged determination and steel of the outstanding Darren Fletcher.
Crucially, the midfield can also call on the quiet assurance of Michael Carrick, a player who tends to come into his own in the second half of the season and the estimable Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes
The winger Nani is another United player to reward the manager’s persistence. The Portuguese flyer looked a hot tip for an end of season transfer after a string of disappointing displays, most notably against Sunderland last autumn.
Sir Alex’s decision to play Nani on the right against Arsenal triggered a form improvement which has largely continued. Admittedly, the winger is being played out of position on the left but his pace, creativity and ability to cut inside the left back onto his favoured right foot makes him a constant threat.
What must also be a delight for the manager is that Nani’s presence does not appear to have weakened the team’s defensive solidity.
It is still too soon to say whether Nani has made the left flank position his own or if he can emerge as the heir to Ronaldo at Old Trafford.
Certainly, if the winger can maintain his progress and stay free of injuries, he will justify his £17 million transfer fee from Sporting Lisbon and prove that tales of his demise were greatly exaggerated.
Nani’s impact on United would be greater if he was played on the right flank. The current form and contribution of Antonio Valencia makes that option impossible.
The Ecuadorian is a 21st century update of 1990’s United hero Andrei Kancheslskis. He has the Ukrainian’s speed and directness, plus the crossing ability to unsettle any defence in the division.
Valencia should score more and can drift out of games too easily but his contribution to United’s overall effectiveness in front of goal has been substantial.
Tactically, Valencia’s development has allowed the manager to alternate smoothly between his favoured 4-4-2 line-up and 4-5-1. Few sides can match United’s tactical variation.
Sir Alex could not have known that the loss of Ronaldo would be compensated by a decline in the standards of his domestic rivals.
Liverpool, tipped by many good judges to be champions this year, are a dispirited shadow of the exuberant side that promised so much last year. The collapse has been stark and can not be attributed solely to the sale of Alonso.
So bad has Liverpool’s season been so far, that Rafa Benitez’ team could miss out on Champions League qualification after suffering 10 defeats in 31 league games. Last term, Liverpool finished second and lost fewer games than United.
Chelsea under Carlo Ancelotti are another side not to have fulfilled expectations this year.
The Stamford Bridge team could still win a domestic league and cup double but are no longer the powerful, fearsome unit that emerged under the stewardship of Jose Mourinho.
After an imperious autumn, the south London challengers have been cursed by misfortune and poor defending, amplifying the impact of losing Cole and Essien, in particular, to injury.
With rivals stumbling or in disarray, United have been able to stay in contention despite the team’s defensive frailties.
United might have wrapped up the league by Easter if Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic had been able to take the field in more games this season.
This confirms the general view that Injuries may have made the domestic contest more competitive this season, depriving United in particular of their defensive lynch pins, plus the likes of Van Der Sar, O’Shea, Evans, Brown, Rafael, Anderson and Neville.
Patrice Evra has been available throughout the turmoil and has rewarded the manager with probably his finest season in United’s colours. The Frenchman gives the team width and penetration down the left flank when United move forward and is a reliable defensive screen when called upon to defend.
The manager must hope Evra’s form continues as his first choice rearguard returns to active duty.
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