Let’s face it, as United fans we’ve developed a bit of a thick skin over the years from having rival fans have a dig at what seem to them like ridiculous excuses for not performing – the most infamous one being the trip to the Dell in the grey shirt.
And Carlos Queiroz’s comments after the derby game seem set to fuel the fires, claiming that the players were suffering from fatigue.
I don’t think the comment should be as mocked as it has been, it was a fair assessment following an international friendly week where Ronaldo was forced to play 90 minutes in Italy, Ferdinand and Brown both playing the full match (while Micah Richards had a week off, in essence) against the Swiss at home is another notable reference. These players haven’t had a rest all season and while this is not an excuse – City outplayed us and thoroughly deserved to win – it is the bigger, more general picture that we should look at.
Brown has been our only choice at right back all season, Simpson has impressed in fits and starts but really Brown is the senior man. He’s barely had any time off, because when the centre halves are out, he’s first choice replacement there too. Rio has barely missed a minute, likewise Ronaldo, but both seemed to be suffering the consequences of a gruelling and pointless midweek.
Some will say “but they might have been playing for United in midweek”, yep, that’s true, but Ferguson’s selection policy would be to protect those players from burnout and he would have used them sensibly, not recklessly.
But as I commented above, we need to be looking at the bigger picture. I’m going to instantly draw comparisons with 10 years ago. 1997/1998. Is it fair to say tiredness killed that season? Perhaps. There are many paralells.
Roy Keane was injured early season and while the replacement, Butt, performed admirably being thrust into his first real position of responsibility, he simply couldn’t keep it up, and there was no-one to come in for Butt.
The comparison is almost the same for this season with Scholes injury, but it is more to do with the timing of Scholes’ return, being thrust straight back in where perhaps a softly softly approach would have been appropriate.
The more general point would be to use comparative injury lists of those eras, and the strength in depth we had in the affected areas in that period. In 1998, a team already shorn of Eric Cantona, United lost Schmeichel, Pallister, Irwin, Keane, and Giggs for crucial parts of the season. We played the likes of Ben Thornley, Gary Neville at centre half, John Curtis. In 2008, we’ve missed Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, Wayne Rooney, Owen Hargreaves, and Louis Saha may as well have handed his number 9 shirt to someone else for the season given his input. Aside from the Scholes injury, we are light in all affected areas. Seeing the likes of John O’Shea go up front against Reading in the first game, and Vidic playing as a centre forward for the last 15 minutes on Sunday, has flashes of Phil Neville replacing Ryan Giggs on the wing against Monaco in 98.
Like 10 years ago, we went into winter full of form and playing the best football in the country by a considerable distance. After Christmas, despite flashes, we stuttered and lost our title without so much as a whimper.
An unfancied Leicester snatched 3 points from Old Trafford in the late winter – likewise, a resurgent City at the weekend. Two late season home fixtures with Liverpool and Arsenal in 1998. Check. Football has a nasty habit (or good, some might say) of pandering to superstition.
Without wanting to sound pessimistic, it would be very unlikely that we will have a full quota available to us in the near future, and there’s probably one or two injuries to key players at key times yet to happen. To be optimistic, using superstition, the 50th anniversary of Munich should inspire the players – it is fair to say that the burden of expectation weighed too heavily on those too eager to impress on Sunday, but that was a one off game, and that alone does not mark the anniversary.
And to end on a positive note – United almost always bounce back from adversity in style, and what greater opportunity to do that by overcoming Arsenal, first directly on Saturday in the FA Cup, and then in the League to retain the title? It is too early to say whether the potential disappointment will prove whether the current players are as good as hoped, but the next few months will certainly give us an insight of their personality in adversity.