Wednesday, March 16, 2011

When Lady Luck charms...

Manchester United is a great club. A footballing legacy steeped in history. A winning history. Manchester United was formed way back in 1878 as Newton Heath LY&R FC. This was the beginning of a club that would go on to become a football superpower. Probably one of the greatest traits of this club, that would give Jesus a run for his money in the red half of Manchester, is that it prides itself on its steely resolve.

Were it not for steely resolve, becoming the first English club to win Europe’s premier competition 10 years after the Munich Air Disaster, would not have been possible. The club lost 8 first team players, 3 staff and 2 players never played again in the aftermath of that air crash. It is a testament to the steely resolve of this club to rebuild and go on to win Europe’s ultimate prize 10 years on. Steely resolve would not ever have been possible without a man who embodied steely resolve, Sir Matt Busby. A lesser man would have wilted by the wayside. His endearing legacy is succeeded by an equally steely character, Sir Alex Ferguson, the current manager of Manchester United.

Sir Alex Ferguson has managed to reinvent his winning teams so many times it defies logic. How can a man build so many generations of winning teams? The answer lies in the fact that this living legend is a thoroughbred winner. He is a winner through and through, and a very sore loser. All winners are sore losers. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying! However the team he has at his disposal today are far from convincing winners.

His Manchester United squad that won his first Premiership in the 1992/1993 season was the first winning team he produced. That team had the great Bryan Robson and the established back defence of Schmeichel, Bruce, Pallister, Parker and Irwin. However, he still needed a player who was more than a player to create a great team. Right on cue, arrived a man who would change Manchester United, the football club, forever. In Eric Cantona, whom they aquired from arch rivals Leed United in the winter of 1992, Sir Alex had finally found his talisman. The single player who redefined the winning ethos into all the future Manchester United squads.

Legend has it that Eric Cantona could only ever be caught practising when he was in The Cliff, United’s training facility then. Such was his obsession with perfection that when he first arrived in Manchester and the squad would break for lunch, he’d always use the time to practise alone. After a week of practising all by himself during the lunch break, he went up to Fergie and pleaded for two reserve team players to practise with. Apparently he had grown tired of running back and forth picking up the balls. Fergie agreed of course! The Glaswegian then set about changing the training regime and schedules of Manchester United to incorporate more practise time. The rest is history. The cultural landscape of Manchester United changed forever. The seeds of the future winners of this club was sowed then.

Since then the club went through periods of which a generation of squads were built around great players like Roy Keane, David Beckham, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Cristiano Ronaldo and today Wayne Rooney. Of all the teams that have represented the red half of Manchester, today’s edition starkly pales in comparison. Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes who started in this club as part of Fergie’s Fledglings back in 1992 are still central to the team today! This is how far the club has regressed!

There should be absolutely no question about the longevity of these great players as they are marvels of football. The fact that they can compete at the very highest level in today’s breakneck pace of football is a testament to these great men. But for these legends to be integral to the current United team when they are passing their mid-thirties is to the detriment of progress in this club. Although, this cannot be attributed to them because there is no one in the current United team who are even half as capable of ingenuity as these great men are. Their cocktail of experience and stellar character far outweighs their advancing years. Thus Fergie is stuck with having to pick the remaining originals for his biggest games.

This season, Manchester United have enjoyed a record start to their league campaign by going 24 games unbeaten before eventually succumbing to defeat in the hands of the league’s bottom club, Wolves. For a vast majority of those 24 games, the Devils benefited from a bumper dose of Lady Luck’s charms. United scored in the last quarter in 14 of those games, of which goals in 7 games were points clinchers. Including that run, they currently have scored 63 goals and conceded 30, which puts their goal difference on a staggering 33. Since Wolves ended their unbeaten run though, the Devils have lost 2 big games. The first was to a limping Chelsea but the more morale damaging defeat was to a Daglish-inspired Liverpool. It was the most comprehensive defeat to their bitter rivals in recent memory.

The truth that had long been hiding behind the veil of Lady Luck this season has been that this is probably the most average of United sides since the inception of the Premier League. While they had ridden their luck to win against a Hodgson managed Liverpool, Stoke and Wolves, they also surrendered victories to Fulham, Everton, West Brom and Birmingham. Barring Liverpool, these games in which they struggled were all against sides who are candidates for the bottom half of the table. However this squad has also displayed remarkable character when coming back to win against Aston Villa and Blackpool. This might have more to do with the manager than the team! Against the new hierarchy of big clubs that includes Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham, they have a formidable record of only having lost at the Kop and Stamford Bridge. However, their title run-in does include games away to Arsenal and at home to Chelsea.

This has been one of those exceptionally extraordinary seasons where the Devils, especially, have benefitted. All the clubs in the new hierarchy of the English game arguably possess better players than Manchester United. However, the team sitting at the top of the table is still Manchester United. This freak of nature has been a combination of both the transition period all the top clubs are experiencing and the improved quality of the rest of the league.

Liverpool has probably suffered the most where they have had to deal with imbeciles for owners and the ill-fated reign of Roy Hodgson. But the wounded Liverpool are starting to find their stride again under the tutelage of an ambitious Kenny Daglish. They are also blessed with new owners who seem to have a long-term project in mind. This finally puts to rest the notion that all Americans are dim-witted moneymen. Of course, only time will tell if the sun sets here too.

Chelsea are suffering as a result of a talented but ageing squad. However, they have bolstered their squad with the whopping £70 million purchase of David Luiz and Fernando Torres. With the wallet of Abramovich at their disposal, they have illuminated their vast spending power. No wallet war is complete without mentioning the Arab-backed Manchester City. Here lies a team that will eventually become stronger than their city rivals if they keep up their spending. Their only drawback seems to be that they obviously have too many egos to manage and that Mancini is still a little raw. Although, given time, Mancini will exert a stronger influence on the dressing room and as a result make City title contenders. The frugal Arsenal, on the other hand, must have upset Lady Luck in some way. They have suffered from a host of injuries to their best players, poor refereeing and great goalkeeping from opposing teams. Most of all though, they suffer from the principles of Arsene Wenger who refuses to splash money in the transfer market. All they need is one Cantona-esq talisman and they’ll be sweeping titles soon enough. Otherwise Arsenal will slowly becoming a feeder club to the best clubs on the planet. Tottenham is another club who are on the rise and will continue to rise. Once they get past their inconsistency, which they have cut down on this season, they will be title challengers as well. This is why Manchester United need be wary.

Manchester United is world famous for their youth policy which was catapulted to the stratosphere during the reign of Fergie’s Fledglings. That batch that won all before them at youth level were an exceptional class, a one-in-a-million. Something along those lines is never likely to happen again. The youth coming through the ranks right now are average at best. The next generation includes Hernandez, Gibson, the Da Silva twins, Evans, Anderson, Lindegaard, Smalling and (god-forbid) Bebe. Bebe is probably the only time Alex Ferguson will ever get conned again! Hernandez is the singular exception who will go on to become a first team fixture. Of the remaining only Smalling, Da Silva twins and Anderson offer any iota of salvation. Though they will require heavy investment and patience for them to be playing consistently. Fergie reaped rewards when he showed incredible patience in the cases of Berbatov and Nani. He must show the same measure of patience at the few who can become great players. Of the few Anderson seems to be the one player running his patience thin though.

Manchester United does not play the brand of football associated with the Devils anymore. They play a cautious European influenced football these days. However their 7-1 demolition of Blackburn and 5-0 trashing of Birmingham indicate they are capable of switching into the right gears. But the future does worry the feeble minds of the United faithful. When the exceptional Van Der Sar retires, we will have a Schmeichel-like crater to fill up. The advancing years of the injury-prone Ferdinand may also mean that Vidic needs another defensive partner. The void of quality in the middle of the park is alarming and will eventually tell against the top teams, or lesser teams as we’ve come to realise. The manner in which Liverpool shredded United in the Kop still sits unpleasantly in the bellies of most United supporters. Up front is the only area the Devils can feel at ease. With Rooney, Berbatov and Hernandez to call upon, the team looks like scoring if provided the sevice. Both Macheda and the born-again Welbeck are on loan and should return better players. However United will have to invest heavily to reinvent this mediocre side to be world-beaters again.

Sir Alex Ferguson is stuck in an unenviable quandary whenever he backs the owners of this football club. They are the scum from which football must always rise above. They will never leave until their valuation is met and they have enough money to feed their maids caviar and the finest champagne. At the end of the day this virus has infected football forever and this club hasn’t stood a chance against them. If Sir Alex wins anything with the current United squad, he will have achieved his greatest ever success. For a man with a winning habit, he must retire after winning titles with this team, for otherwise his legacy will suffer. Going with this great man will be the legacy of winning everything while playing the brand of football only Manchester United play. This fear will one day become a reality. Brace yourselves for that day.