It’s fair to suggest that Manchester United’s start to the season has given everyone cause to be wary. To say it’s been a hot start for Ferguson’s side would appear to be an understatement. The seamless assimilation of new blood, whether transferred or promoted, has produced some exceptionally fluid, eye-catching football.
Amongst many other positives, the flexibility of the front four has been notable. Ashley Young has been a revelation. His menacing delivery from the left has brought its expected benefits, but it’s his contribution to the sharpness of United’s attacking moves that has really impressed. The relationship between him and Rooney is a strong example of his value in this department. Rooney himself has been extraordinary. His goal-scoring feats, mighty impressive as they have been, have barely been the half of it. His ability to find space and link-up the play has been crucial, but more important has been the tempo he sets at the heart of United’s attack – something that was conspicuous in its absence last Saturday in the 1-1 draw with Stoke.
Indeed, the tempo of the entire side appears to have gone up several gears. The midfield now hinges on the dynamism of Anderson rather than the artful precision of Paul Scholes, and, with Chris Smalling regularly bursting down the right and Tom Cleverley frequently weaving his way forward, the contrast looks even starker. Such is the change in direction for United that it is their style of football, rather than Arsenal’s, that is now drawing comparisons with Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.
United have indeed given cause for everyone to be wary – and that includes fans of the Red Devils themselves.
The various comparisons that have made with Barcelona are both wide of the mark and lazy. The key to the success of the ‘blaugrana’ isn’t so much in pretty passing patterns as in their ability to control games and choke opponents into submission. And for all their brilliance thus far, United have failed to control a game in the manner of Barcelona. Possession statistics can be misleading in this respect, because despite being the dominant passing side in all of their five Premier League encounters thus far – and achieving an average possession percentage of 57% – such dominance has not had the suffocating effects that it might have done.
True, United have conceded only five goals in seven games, but the openness of each fixture led to the concession of over twenty shots in four of their first five games. To offer an apt comparison, when United lost to Arsenal in May they allowed a mere ten shots; and in the one victory from last season that comes close to mirroring the goal-heavy scorelines characterising this season’s start, the 7-1 thrashing of Blackburn, only four goal attempts were registered by the visiting side. The reputation David de Gea has as a poor long-shot stopper means teams are shooting from positions they otherwise would not have done.
United are winning games, perceptibly quite comfortably, but they are not controlling games. Barcelona manage this so totally because of their ability to press intensely from the front as a unit, so it is only natural that it should take this side longer to gel as a defensive entity than an attacking one. But part of the problem lies with the fluid 4-4-2 formation Ferguson employs, which naturally leaves the centre of midfield more exposed, especially as Rooney – so willing to drop into midfield to receive the ball and start attacks – seems to have been given license not to drop back and defend. Another issue is Tom Cleverley, who, for all his talents as a retainer and carrier of the ball, does not appear to read the game as well from a defensive point of view as he does from a more attacking perspective.
Moreover, Ferguson’s previous emphasis on tactical variety seems to have been thrown out the window.Last season, following the arrival of Hernandez on the goalscoring scene, Ferguson pretty much started with the same shape and the same emphasis – to go for it. In games towards the back-end of last season against Chelsea, Arsenal and, most unwisely of the lot, Barcelona, United set out with two strikers and tried to fight fire with fire. This year it appears to be the same, although it may be too early to predict what will happen as the Champions League progresses.
So far this season, Ferguson’s side has escaped relatively unblemished. This is certainly the most entertaining side that Ferguson has produced, and they clearly have the potential to be a great side. But the openness he appears to be encouraging has already resulted in some pretty sticky encounters. The Chelsea fixture highlighted just how narrow the margins can be when high-risk strategies are pursued against quality outfits. Andre Villas-Boas’ side are clearly going through a transition, and one might question whether Manchester City with all their attacking talent and defensive capability would let United off the hook so freely.
One thing’s for sure: Barcelona certainly won’t.