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Mark Kelleher

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What We Talk About When We Talk About United

Posted: 04/06/2012 23:23

Reducing an entire campaign to the amount of points amassed during it is a dangerous thing. While a high total can signify a high win percentage, it says absolutely nothing about the performances that go into shaping a season. When Manchester United's late capitulation saw cross-town enemy Manchester City snare the title at the death on the last day, contemplating reds noted the shared points-total of both clubs and conceded there was little else that could have been done. Restricted by the limitations imposed upon them by the Glazer family, that United managed to keep the pace for so long was certainly an achievement in itself, but it warps the wider issues that ultimately rendered the season a complete failure.

Now that the campaign is over and has been subjected to an intense autopsy, many will cite the Wigan, Everton and City collapses as the harbingers of failure. Highlighting a trio of games where United - seemingly on the precipice of a 20th title - fell asunder as the moments that broke their title charge has merit, but to many it was merely symptomatic of a team who have declined steadily over the last four years. Amassing 89 points did little but beautify a campaign where United looked distinctly un-United for large spells. An improved away record on the season before last may have ensured United's form was commendable, but even the most catatonic of observers would note performances on the pitch have failed to inspire. Descending from the visuals of fluidity to the groans of functionality, United are now more about efficiency than effervescence - a damning reality given what the club once stood for.

Tracking the reasons behind the downfall of United's style is easy because there are so many aspects to it. A failure to ignite the team with fresh faces, particularly in the now infamous midfield abyss, has ensured United's approach is now pockmarked by a slowness and ponderousness that is readily exposed when faced with an opposition who get tight and move with pace. As reflected in the gulf in quality throughout both Bilbao ties, United are prone to affording too much space and time to those who will ultimately punish you if given too many opportunities. It was a flaw in United's armour that was further exposed in the 4-4 draw with Everton - a game that they could, incredibly, have ended up losing despite leading 4-2 with seven minutes remaining. Shock may have reigned in the immediate aftermath, but reflections afterwards were alarming in that most who can be true themselves conceded that such a conclusion wasn't surprising.

If United's collective lack of quality and character were exposed that day, their keeling over at Eastlands soon afterwards bore more evidence of their prolonged struggles. Alex Ferguson, for all his mastery in the managerial field, has never been a tactical-magician. While the squad's limitations may have rendered his team selection difficult, his refusal to approach the game with a mindset anything other than negative was a costly decision that ensured City edged closer to the title. United were a ghostly sight at City and their cringe-inducing petering out was in stark contrast to the old United who, even if things didn't work out, at least lost in a manner that was admirable. Failing to register a single shot on goal when a win would have all but secured a league title was not, even the most blinkered conceded, United in its classical sense. Hefty criticism was rightly directed towards Ferguson in the wake of the defeat, but underlying United's core for a number of years now is a lack of mobility, stealth and flair - everything they once proudly stood for.

Early in the season, there appeared a new optimism stemmed from the ease with which United were coasting along. Having disposed of an unconvincing Spurs, the 8-2 slaughter-spree that felled Arsenal brought with it a renewed hope that the conservatism of past years had been displaced by a swaggering relentlessness. Increasing gaps may have been spreading in midfield, but the almost reckless approach employed by United at least ensured they were doing what all supporters crave: entertaining. As it happened, much like the young nymph who swaggers into town only to be a transformed into a haggard old drunk hours later, they slipped from the enamouring to the aggravating. While tightening was the sensible thing to do, much of what United continued to do for the rest of the season was devoid of electricity and dependent on efficiency. The return of Scholes - a lamentable necessity, despite his ceaseless brilliance - added some modicum of class to United's eleven, but his presence was merely a bandage over a widening wound. Both Scholes and Carrick are more than capable of providing tidiness, but crucially cannot be trusted upon to cope when faced with a sprightly opposition. This has little to do with their respective credentials but everything to do with the failure to surround them with those who can complement their grace with needed grittiness. It should, of course, be noted that United were unfortunate in losing Tom Cleverely for large spells of the campaign. His early assuredness may have blurred perceptions into thinking he was the wunderkind to overthrow all woe, but his craft is one that would have added options to a squad in dire need of them. The rest who waited in the wings inspired little or nothing: Darren Fletcher is sidelined for an indefinite period; Phil Jones experienced a stark regression as the season wore on; Anderson has locked himself in a room and has pleasingly scoffed the key; the kids lurking below in the youth squads are not yet all right.

Such realities only throw spotlight on the necessity for United to do as most aspiring sides do and spend. As quality has regressed, it should come as little surprise that character - the one trait above all that defines United - has taken a slump with it. United may have easily brushed aside a number of inferior sides throughout the season, but notably fixtures that once appeared doable were too often uncomfortable. Some may purport that the general quality of the league has improved and there are now no easy fixtures, but it doesn't help when you afford the opposition acres of space to inflict harm. Where once before they would have got away with stumbling to victory, the dark force looming across town and a potentially reinvigorated Chelsea squadron ensures United have sparse wiggling room. Improvement is needed and it is needed instantly.

Craving a return to what was enrapturing brings with it criticism. Cries of being spoiled will ring the air from those who become distressed by critiques. Stats will be produced by those bent on reducing what is a fundamentally simple game to a confusing mess. Most realists will readily accept that all teams go through some form or decline over time, but it is not a sin to desire the return of a high standard a club set for itself. Unearthing the reasons behind United's regression - in style, at the very least - isn't a difficult task. Financially impaired by their debt-loading owners, it would appear the days of splashing big have indefinitely ceased. The most fervent of criticism is rightly directed to those who have destabilised the club's foundations, but Ferguson and his players have not been without fault. Obscure selections at critical times hampered United along the way. The eleven selected to face City in what was essentially a title-decider had the hallmarks of a nightmare and was suitably punished for its negativity. The selection of Park and the shunning of Valencia gave City an impetus when United were in no position to proffer hope. What we are experiencing now is particularly alien to what was for long witnessed in Alex Ferguson's Manchester United; the swagger, the win at all costs, the cancelling out no matter how many is conceded, has been displaced by a conservatism in approach and a decline in excitement.

United have failed to convince for quite some time because, in reality, they don't have enough quality: a strong overall squad, yes, but too often the starting eleven is devoid of the necessary quality that is needed for the level a club of its status should be operating at. With a lamentably limited transfer budget in hand, Ferguson has needed to be wise in his movements. Yet a long period of time has passed since a signing has been made that has immediately improved the starting eleven. Last summer's captures of Young and Jones improved the squad considerably, but their arrivals came at a time when any money that was at hand was needed to improve a flailing eleven. Another summer cannot pass where United fail to enliven the areas that have stagnated for too long. But the questions remain: how much money, if any, is available - and if some is, how much of it will be spent wisely on the improving the eleven.

The archetypal United mode was barely in existence last season. Revisiting more illustrious times in the hope they may return might sound idealistic, but above all supporters tend to want to be entertained. Crucially, it's not all doom and gloom for this current United side. There is a lot there to work with and some of its younger troops - namely Welbeck, Smalling, Jones and Cleverely - are still acclimatising themselves to the rigors of the league. It would be dramatic to state a complete overhaul is needed in order for United to get back to where everyone wants them to be, but a considerable amount does need to be done. A number of players - Anderson and Park, for instance - need to be shown the door, while doubt still remains over a number of others. An injection of pace and a wealth of quality is needed not to solely benefit attack, but also to ensure the gaps that lead the way to the defence are closed.

What has separated United from most other sides around Europe has been their propensity for the dramatic. Whether it's carving sides open with blitzkrieg-like attacks, or attaining success in the most unlikely of circumstances, the club is defined by its ability to produce when it looks as though all hope has died. Propelled by endless waves of attack, United were once at their most deadly when a goal behind - it was then, spurred on by the terror of failure, that the opposition was reduced to a whimpering wreck and United moved into their comfort zone. Tellingly, United failed to win a single league match after going behind last season - drawing three and losing five of the eight where they fell behind. To put it simply: going behind does not now fuel a club that once thrived on jousting back from a seemingly lost battle. In dire need of midfield dynamism, it is only through the purchasing of quality that the character of old can return. Worryingly the required finances may not be in place to reclaim it.

Manchester United are by no means a mediocre, or finished, side. The attractiveness of the United of old may have been in short supply last season, but the attainment of 89 points did at least prove that there is enough weaponry there to not lose all hope. However, such is the nature of Manchester City's rise, it would be suicidal for United to dawdle like they have done over the last few years. Now is not the time to invest what little money there is in unknown prospects, squad players and areas of the team that are not as immediately in need of faces as midfield. As summer progresses, United's intentions will come to light. Alex Ferguson can bemoan enormous transfer fees and wages - paying little attention to the ugly sums being siphoned out of the club - but United need to act, and to act now, or they will be in danger of aiding the enemy's pursuit of glory.

Unless money is freed up to secure a number of players, the horrific sights of the last campaign's closing moments will become a sad regularity. Desiring good football is not being spoiled or discarding the importance of winning points regardless of how well a side plays; however, as shown regularly last season, United only ever do themselves real justice by rolling along with the rapidity that fuelled the greatest moments in the club's history. Few managers would have brought United to the brink of a 20th title with a team who, for the most part at least, looked to be running on empty. An injury crisis further hampered United's season - they would almost certainly have won it if not for the surreal list of casualties that continued to grow - but improvement is needed. Time will tell if the broken places can be fixed and if those of us lost in nostalgia will soon see a return to the moments that made us not only adore the club but also the game itself.

*Postscript: Tuesday's news that Shinji Kagawa has agreed to a move to Manchester United is - credit to the club - the first step in repairing areas that have long been broken. The Japanese playmaker's arrival needs to be a start - not an end - to United's summer transfer dealings.

 

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