Manchester United’s loss to Newcastle United last night has got tongues wagging around the country today as doubts over United’s title bid surface again. This isn’t the first time that this has been a talking point this season; as Darren Fletcher announced in December he would take medical leave from Manchester United, there was an outcry from many that Alex Ferguson MUST sign players come January.
Now in to January, with the transfer window wide open, Fergie seems certain that his squad IS strong enough and Manchester United will recover from the latest defeat to continue to challenge for the Premier League crown. Maybe Fergie is right, after all, Man Utd are still second in the league, only a win behind the leaders, it is hardly time to panic…well at least not for some.
The last time people started to panic about Manchester United was after the loss of Fletcher – apparently they lacked class and depth in midfield…how did they respond? With a 2-0 away win to QPR, and two 5-0 victories against Fulham and Wigan…but then lost 3-2 to Blackburn and after the loss to Newcastle that is two on the spin, sounds like a crisis!
If you look at Manchester United’s Premier League stats, you will see their progress this season compared to others isn’t that bad. At the half way stage of this season (before the Newcastle game) Manchester United had 45 points, they still do obviously, but last season they won the league with a total of 80 points – if they perform the same in the second half of this season, like they did in the first half, they will finish with 90 points. Their best ever finishes to a Premier League season have been in the 1993/94 season playing 42 games and gaining 92 points and in 1999/2000 when they picked up 91 points in 38 matches and this is their second best start to a Premier League season ever.
That being said, Manchester City could be on course for that same points total and they remain unbeaten at home, having only dropped 4 points and could break United’s record this season if they have the minerals to last the duration. Spurs are hot on United’s heals and could be level on points if they win their game in hand, maybe this could be the tightest finish to a season ever if Spurs too can last the distance. If maximum points are taken by Manchester United, Manchester City and Spurs, without taking in to account the games against each other, all three sides could finish with 90 points. One thing is certain and that is if Manchester United want this title, they have their work cut out.
I always feel that playing for legendary managers and clubs, gives players and teams just that extra edge, an ‘x-factor’ if you like, maybe Manchester United have ridden their luck on this belief and x-factor this season. We all know the second half of the season is the toughest; players get tired, conditions get worse, players get injured, squads become bare and we have already seen this with Manchester United. We have also seen some bizarre goings on; against Newcastle, Valencia started the game at right-back despite having Rafael on the bench who is a natural full-back…what is that all about?
Another worrying thing is the relationship between Wayne Rooney and Alex Ferguson. Wazza upset his gaffer again and paid the price after he was dropped for the Blackburn game, which must have been a big loss to the team, but Fergie doesn’t give any ground and rules are rules. If Manchester United are to have a successful second half of the campaign, then Rooney will need to be an integral part of that and must recapture his form. In Rooney’s last 13 games for Manchester United in the league, he has only managed to score 4 goals, he is United’s biggest player and Ferguson will demand a reaction from him, it didn’t come against Newcastle.
The balance of the Manchester United team is also vital to them continuing to perform, but you have players out of position all over the pitch and you can only get away with that for so long. It is widely thought Phil Jones is and will be a centre-back, despite being able to play centre-midfield, but the lack of depth in the squad has meant he has had to play there. Are Anderson and Carrick good enough? In a world-class team you would expect to have a world-class centre midfielder and none of the current players fit the bill. The goalkeeper position is unsettled, De Gea is in and out and Lindegaard has so far been the better performer when called upon, despite being second choice. The promising youngsters haven’t been given their chance to step in to the first team despite opportunities for Fergie to blood them due to injuries; Paul Pogba is the obvious example here.
Although I think Fergie has made some minor mistakes so far, the panic hasn’t been justified in this first half of the season, despite Manchester United having lost two games – they only lost four in the whole of last season. The worrying thing is that they have now taken that tally to three following last night’s loss and I think the Champions this season will not lose more than 5 games, maybe Manchester United are teetering on the edge. On the positive side, they no longer have to worry about Champions League football, but then again neither do Manchester City.
Whether or not Fergie signs any players this January maybe be his and Manchester United’s downfall, time will tell on that. I know one thing is for sure, he has the biggest challenge of his 25-year reign this season and it could signal the end of Manchester United’s dominance in the Premier League if they don’t keep up with the pace both on and off the pitch.