Twelve points. Not since May 2001 has the gap between the Premiership leaders and their nearest challengers been so gaping. Manchester United have garnered the highest points tally (65) after 26 games than any other outfit in the Premiership era.
Yet this is a side which receives very little love from the media. Every journalist or pundit stresses to clarify that this is far from a vintage Manchester United side. They’re not blowing teams away every week and their level of performance is far from spectacular. They will go out of the Champions League to Real Madrid and any domestic success will be as a result of the perceived low standard of the competition.
Now, I’m old enough to remember back to May last year. Manchester United ‘blew it’ in ‘the most exciting title race ever’. Manchester City had a seemingly endless chequebook, and by all accounts had a far superior starting eleven and greater strength in depth. Radio phone-in’s across the land and internet football forums were gleeful that not only were United no longer the biggest club in the world, but they weren’t even going to be the biggest in their own city. Then there was Chelsea – European champions and ready to launch a fresh assault on the Manchester dominance.
Sir Alex Ferguson was questioned. Without strengthening the centre of midfield, Man United would no longer be able to compete at the top level. There was no bite, no physical dominance. This tactic is a deliberate one by Ferguson. It is a clear attempt to drift towards a more continental style of play. Interceptions and pass rates were more important than a lionheart, blood-and-thunder style midfielder. But none of this will pacify the British culture, despite the continuous excellent results.
The Van Persie signing bamboozled most analysts. United possessed a dazzling amount of attacking talent with glaring inefficiencies elsewhere. Van Persie has been the signing of the summer. His 19 league goals speaks for itself, but he adds much more to the side.
The Dutchman is the spark: Cantona-esque in providing moments of pure footballing genius and inspiration. His set-piece delivery is outstanding and has injected defenders with confidence to attack set-pieces. Jonny Evans has scored 4 goals in 23 appearances, despite only netting once in his previous 124. Revitalised Frenchman Patrice Evra has also bagged 4 goals, more than his previous seven seasons combined. The dead-ball delivery has added a dimension to the Red Devil’s play that had never properly existed since Beckham’s departure a decade previously.
The van Persie signing bucked the trend of recent transfer market activity. At 29 years of age and a precarious injury record, he was seen as a risk at over £20 million. Sir Alex Ferguson consulted several individuals members of his first-team squad before finalising the deal, including Giggs and Scholes. He ensured that the striker’s personality would fit in with the rest of the squad: determined, driven and workmanlike. A team player. Van Persie has been all that and more.
Goals and attacking potential were never the problem this season, but the youthful abandon in the form of the side’s free-flowing attacking football created problems. 31 league goals had been surrendered by the end of January, in comparison to a mere 22 in the 2007/08 campaign. Defensive injuries contributed – rotation affects the backline more than any other part of the pitch, where understanding and cohesive are crucial.
Fortunately, post Boxing Day the squad has had a fully fit roster of defenders to choose from – and it’s showed. United have conceded 3 times in their previous 7 league outings (0.42 goals per game) compared to leaking 28 goals in their first 19 league matches (1.47 goals per game).
The development and maturing of the defensive pair of Rafael and Jonny Evans has been a massive bonus. These are two players who have been consistently written off yet have been entrusted by the manager, and that is now paying off. Rafael’s ‘Man of the Match’ performance against Everton was a marker of how far he has come since his confidence-destroying match against Bayern Munich in April 2010, in which he was sent-off. Evans suffered the same fate in the infamous Manchester Derby from October 2011 and like the Brazilian full-back, was made a scapegoat by fans and media alike. But the only opinion that matters to the players is Fergusons.
There are other success stories. Rio Ferdinand has been outstanding this term after being widely ridiculed for being past his sell-by date. His continual non-selection in the England squad for ‘football reasons’ become more ludicrous by the week. Phil Jones, despite not being a first-team regular, has excelled when called upon. He helped mark Gareth Bale out of the game at White Hart Lane last month, while Marouane Fellaini did not get a sniff against him on Sunday. His ability to nullify opponents of the highest calibre is invaluable and his career now appears to be back on track towards the very top of the game.
If United do manage to push on and secure the league title, it will be their fifth in seven years. And the other two? Missed out by a combined total of one point. One. In this time period they’ve also reached three Champions League finals, and would have won all three had it not been for the brilliance of Barcelona.
The Catalans are widely acknowledged to be one of, if not the, greatest club side to play the game. Yet they are the only team to prevent United from dominating Europe in the same manner they have done domestically. The perception of Ferguson’s men is at the other end of the scale.
Fortunately, Sir Alex still possesses that one great ability of proving the critics and the doubters emphatically wrong. If this is an ‘average’ or ‘efficient’ Manchester United team, I’d love to see a ‘great’ one.