When Sir Alex Ferguson set out to overhaul Liverpool’s record of 18 league titles, few would have considered the outcome to be a safe bet. Yet, 26 years and 19 Premier League trophies later, the dream has become reality for Manchester United supporters. And what’s more, far from resting on their laurels, the Red Devils are in hot pursuit of a 20th league championship; four points clear and unbeaten in nine, Ferguson’s latest breed of superstars are in pole position. Unless, of course, those ‘noisy neighbours’ have anything to say on the matter… Top for the majority of the season, Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City – with a game in hand and a 100% home record – could be set to spoil the party.
For United, the key word has been resurgence. A matter of weeks ago, Sir Alex Ferguson looked a man bereft of ideas as a stuttering midfield was matched by an equally unimpressive back four and a goalkeeper struggling to adapt to the English game. However, Fergie regained his magic touch once more and back came veteran, Paul Scholes, to pull the strings as midfield lynchpin. Indeed, Scholes’ return, accompanied by a significant defensive improvement and coming of grace for De Gea, has seen United embark upon a superfluous run of results. The likes of Wolves and Bolton have been decimated, Tottenham Hotspur comprehensively outplayed and Chelsea, crucially, pegged back from 3-0 up. Just when the jury was out on United’s season, a timely romp of success has launched them into first place, perhaps compensating for a lacklustre year in the knockout format.
…2.52 goals a match are scored…
Statistically, United’s league form cannot be criticised: 48% of games produce a clean sheet, accompanied by 0.93 goals conceded per match on average – this coming at a time filled with defensive injuries and uncertain partnerships at centre back. Attacking wise, 2.52 goals a match are scored on average, thanks to a fearless strike force, clinical finishing and an effective use of space with free-flowing movement off the ball.
The recovery of Ferguson’s men has been nothing short of remarkable; fans and critics alike have been reminded that any new kids on the block must produce their absolute best to have any chance of stealing the crown from the red half of Manchester. But what is it that has made United tick? What is it that has enabled them to rise from the dead when many had already marked their gravestone? The answer lies in a marked development of key personnel.
…a reformed character…
Johnny Evans, for starters, has come on leaps and bounds since a time when onlookers may have laughed at the mention of his name. Scoring his first Manchester United goal against Wolves, the Northern Irishman has worked on his strength and physique and consolidated his position in the starting line-up; his solid form is a far cry from his sending off against Manchester City earlier in the season. David De Gea, too, is a reformed character; no longer fumbling at crosses and suffering from indecisiveness, the Spanish goalkeeper is showing why his manager thought he was worth a reported £18 million.
In midfield, the aforementioned talisman, Scholes, is well supported by Michael Carrick, a consistent performer of late. This central midfield pairing are in exceptional company with Nani, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia out wide. United’s biggest strengths are their versatility up front and the match-winning ability of so many of their players. Ferguson is able to rotate between the likes of Welbeck, Hernandez, Young, Valencia, Nani and Rooney, scorer of 20 league goals this season, to suit the strengths and weaknesses of his opponents. And with regards to being match winners, Ryan Giggs, Javier Hernandez, Michael Carrick and Wayne Rooney have all scored decisive goals to win their team points at vital stages of the season.
Image courtesy of Olivier Taillon