How good is this Manchester United team?

Relentless winners, relentlessly confusing too.
Manchester United: Relentless winners, but relentlessly confusing too.

Author: Rob

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After roughly 40 games of the season played, I still have no idea what to make of this United team. The way things are looking, it is turning out to be either the most dominant not-great team in the history of professional sports, or a genuinely great team that has rarely displayed why, in fact, it is so great.

Even though the campaign isn’t over yet, we’ve already seen articles, positive and negative, about the quality of this season’s crop. I’m not here to make a judgement in either direction – it’s too early to say – but I just find it interesting how confusing this team is. This team keeps winning games like no other Manchester United team I have seen in my lifetime. Yet I can scarcely remember a sustained 90+ minutes where I could’ve said “Wow, yeah, that was this United side at its best.” To be honest, I’m not sure I know what “this United team at its best” even looks like. Even the players have been confusing. Rafael has had his best ever season, Jonny Evans is progressing superbly, and Evra’s back in good form – yet the defence has been unnervingly porous in almost every game. The United midfield is still maligned by fans and outsiders alike, yet Carrick’s getting rave reviews from far and wide, while Cleverley is seen as one of England’s future stars.

Goals are coming from everywhere, yet we’re decried as a one (Dutch)man team. Our best, most dynamic, flying winger is almost 40 years old. It’s a team that could realistically win a Double, could very conceivably win a Treble and set a Premier League points total record, yet I would not have been completely shocked if they lost to bottom-of-the-table QPR today. They’ve won away at their two biggest league rivals, and are 12 points ahead of a team that embarrassed them home and away last season – yet the squad is carrying an enormous amount of dead weight (Anderson joke!) and I was terrified that Reading would score a last-minute equaliser at Old Trafford on Monday night. What?

When we’re talking about how good a team is, we’re really making two comparisons: a) how good it is compared to its contemporaries (home and abroad) and b) how good it is compared to previous incarnations of itself. Regarding (a), it seems pretty clear that United are currently the best in England; internationally, this year’s Champions League seems a uniquely good barometer of team quality, stacked as it is with excellent sides. With the Premier League going through a relatively weak period recently, I think Champions League will define how this team is remembered over the next few years. When it comes to (b), which is what a lot of journalists, commentators, and Fergie himself have done recently – I think things get a bit more messy.

At this point, I should probably clarify what I mean by the word “team.” I don’t mean it as in any of the following: “best XI,” “squad,” “corporate branding vehicle,” etc. It’s kind of the whole thing I’m talking about, a narrative unit, a team as in the noun we talk about when we say “ahh, now that was a great team.” It is some combination of the players, the manager, the most important games they were involved in, the style of play, the most memorable goals and moments, plus a bit of the mythology around it – like the mythology which allows us to forget that ’98-99 United were destroyed by Arsenal early in that season, or that Guardiola’s Barça played poorly and failed to win its first 2 league games, or that ’07 United played in one of the worst FA Cup finals in history. In this context, will we be allowed to forget about Carrick starting the season at centre-back, or about Norwich beating United convincingly? I’m wondering whether the current United side is good enough to earn it such a myth.

Because this whole “team” concept encompasses so many things, some of which are related to our capacity to romanticise some facts and forget inconvenient ones, it’s hard to compare (say) the ’99-’01 United team with its counterpart from ’06-’09. Because it’s so complex, you can’t just end the discussion with things like “the ’99 team won a Treble” or “the ’06-’09 team had a sustained run of excellence in Europe.” Nor is it just admissible to stop at “the ’99 midfield would’ve dominated the ’08 one” or “Ronaldo would’ve destroyed the ’99 defence on the break.” By the same token, while it’s true to say that both those teams had better players than the current crop, we can’t immediately conclude that they’re better than ’12-’13 United, because the current team has the best manager of the three. What? Yes. He’s the same guy as he was in 1999 (+more grey hair +knighthood +red nose), but I think it is an inarguable fact that Sir Alex Ferguson is now a better manager than he was in 2008, and that he was a better manager then than he was in 1999.

When it comes to this incarnation of United, Sir Alex seems to have been bizarrely overlooked as the source of the side’s relentless ability to win. Roberto Mancini described him as “…like a seat in the stadium, the grass on the pitch. He’s part of United.” Even if you don’t like Mancini, you can see what he means there – Fergie’s been at Old Trafford for so long that he and the club are almost synonymous. But that might have led us to take Ferguson for granted, when in fact he’s been more crucial to United’s performance now than at any point in the preceding 26 years. He has been unbelievable this season, from squad management to tactics and motivation in the “big” games to the grooming of young players like Jonny Evans, Phil Jones, Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck.

Everyone can see how excited he is about the challenges facing him this season – witness his press conferences in Madrid, full of enthusiasm for the occasion, and his favourable comparison of this team to the 1999 side post-match. Player rotation choices have worked out even better than usual, like the decision to play a stronger side against Everton when he knew City had lost – which led to United getting excellent results in both games that week. Tactical adjustments have been largely successful – contrast the opening-day loss to Everton and the comfortable 2-0 win at home to the same team, or the success of the diamond midfield away at Newcastle, who bullied us in the same fixture last season. As a result, the few defeats so far have been fully deserved, and have come down mostly to excellent performances by United’s conquerors. This isn’t to say that United have been consistently brilliant this year (they haven’t), but their not-consistently-being-brilliant is only minimally the fault of Fergie.

For most of the season, I’ve thought that the Champions League would be too much for United, and declared that I’d be content with a quarterfinal place. A few weeks ago, before the Real Madrid tie, I thought United would have little to no chance of winning it (maybe 20%). I don’t think I was alone in this. My thoughts were a mix of “holy hell, this is going to be so much fun!” and “we have no chance in hell of winning the Champions League this year, because while we may be able to sneak past Real Madrid, beating them plus at least two of Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus and Dortmund is too much to ask.” Now, after seeing a gutsy young side give such a determined, positive display in Madrid, the possibility of advancing seems real, though still difficult. And, with Barcelona facing a huge struggle to qualify for the quarterfinals, a path to the final seems at least thinkable now. United are weird this season. Football is weird this season.

The side has been undoubtedly thrilling, especially from August to November when every game seemed to require a heroic comeback in order to win. Some commentators still complain about boredom at watching United, because they thrill only in short bursts. Some also express “narrative fatigue” because they’ve seen the “Man United superhero/late comeback” story so many times before, and for them it doesn’t capture the imagination as it once did. That’s probably not the case for us as United fans, but it is an understandable view for neutrals, and in the end when we’re talking about how a team goes down in history, neutrals will have the last say regardless. In so many ways, though, the current group typifies Manchester United under Sir Alex: the pleasing commitment to youth, the talismanic forward(s), the super-sub, the comebacks (alternative names: the making-things-hard-for-themselves or the fans’ impending heart attacks), the forward line being way better than the defence, and Ryan Giggs of course.

What a confusing, exciting, typical United side this is. I’m no closer to making my mind up about this team, but I’m interested to hear what you have to say about them – please proffer your views in the comments. Also, never define a team as a “corporate branding vehicle.”

To have a flutter on Manchester United’s remaining fixtures, why not check out the Premier League betting news on Bet365.

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11 Responses to “How good is this Manchester United team?”

  1. Edpayasugo says:

    Interesting post, thanks.

    In the post Ronaldo era I’ve always thought United have been underrated generally.

    The point about defenders being individually good, Evans, Evra and Rafael (Plus Rio has been excellent) but overall we have looked suspect is intriguing.

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  2. Gotta say VERY well written and i dont think there is a UTD fan who can argue with a point here, Whilst i haven’t missed a home game this year (in fact i think only 15mins of home football has been missed) I have not seen a single game whistle > whistle where we have mullered the opposition (think arsenal/spurs at home last year) we seem to get a good 45/60mins then just take our foot off.
    Now is this the guys thinking ok no need to go hammer/tongue the quality of opposition or just the team isn’t that ‘good’. By good what i mean is the scent blood like the team of Cantona/keane/kanchelskis etc, that team of the 90s if they sensed a chance they woudlnt’ stop at 1/2 goals but go for 4/5/6 etc. This team seems to hold back i feel at times, they score 2 then just happy (see reading in cup)
    But overall agree 100% Im little sad that City have imploded as funny as it has been, because i would love to have seen another toe-2-toe like last year and that would be a better way to guage how good we really are, are we good the other 19 teams crap.

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  3. Chuck says:

    Maybe they’ll be remembered as a team that proved the doubters wrong, a bit like the 1995/6 team. Fergie’s put a lot of faith in hate figures like Evans and Carrick and young players like Rafael and Cleverly, and at the moment it looks like they’re repaying it.

    I wouldn’t expect too many of the star players to leave so they have a few years yet to write their story.

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  4. DA Sullivan says:

    Very intereting article I shall say and just like you, I have mixed feelings,wouldn’t have much to say about this current united team. There is a thin line between anger and sudden joy when watching United play this season. They haven’t been impressive but unlike the rest of the teams in the league,they always knew when to get the job done, crappy or not, they won when it mattered the most. Comparing the current crop to previous ones will be a waste of time really,they all have or had ups and downs,this current united team is not impressive,that’s all I can say. Hat off to Rafael, Evans and Ferdinand,he’s been professional. As for Nani, I fuess he’s going to be the unexpected hero towards the end of the season.

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  5. chuks says:

    Nyc post.

    United is better this year no doubt about that but we where also good last year @ least we were good enough to win the EPL.
    Last year United lost the title because of very poor defense. I can recall Vidic and Rio where both injured and carrick was playing in the central defense most of the time (even earlier this season) and the available defenders where inexperienced. But this year we have every player in good form and we are now showing the whole world how good the team is. Honestly we have not been keeping a lot of clean sheets which we see as a defensive fault at times but to me i tink it more of a midfield error than defensive. Carrick and others are doing a great job but If we can get a better holding midfielder, then United will be a team no other will want to face. And we’ll be able to see the best of our team. Maybe Darren can do that for us when he gets back.
    Another important thing to note is our wingers especially Valencia and Young. Honestly they are not doing a great job and thats why we are not scoring many goals. I dont know about other fans but Valencia is flopping these days when he runs and sees a defender instead of beating him he’ll just turn around and pass the ball i mean wingers are supposed to make football lively with the running, beating and then crossing or playing shot on target when they have nobody to cross the ball to or when they feel their is a chance of scoring from there u knw it makes the game sweet and entertaining and provides more chances for the strikers. I hope Nani doesn’t leave and gets more games to get back to his former form i used to knw him as a player every defense try to avoid and also hope Zaha will come to united in his present form. And i also hope cr7 do come back next season.
    We Are One! We Are United!!
    United 4 Live!!!

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  6. danny says:

    really enjoyed this article and i must say you have summed up so much of my comments in the pub or in the ground…i have gone thru every emotion this season with united…from believing we are terrible…believing we are average and believing we are fantastic…and utterly convinced in each emotion at that time…..i think as the season progresses we can scratch the first 2…we arnt terrible and we arnt average…..however the point we all cant decide is just how “good” are we?? are we just good and slightly lucky?? or are we very good and making our own luck??…i believe that our first 11 isnt as good as the 99 side…however our current squad is better than the 99 squad…and i think thats were the confusion comes in…if the 99 side had a couple of injuries and lost everyone would say “its because scholes and giggs were injured” however now we have 15-16 players of similar ability…with the exception of van persie every player is replacable with a player of similar ability…does anyone really care who plays on the wing at the moment like we would in 99 or 2007-8??..does anyone care really who plays in central mid?? carrick jones or carrick clev it doesnt make you bat an eyelid…however 99 if keane or scholes were rested in a big game there wouldve been outrage…can you imagine playing madrid away in 99 and wellbeck playing ahead of cole or yorke?? and that for me sums it up…we have a squad of pretty good players..who have a great team ethic..accept rotation and accept what the manager tells em…contrast that with city and chelsea where egos rule and team spirits dreadful…and i think we get nearer the truth…we are consistently good team(not great) who are more settled and have a better team spirit and manager than our rivals……fergie has constantly adapted to the times..realisng its a squad game these days and rotation is key…and team spirit is needed for rotation to work…hence why the super egos at city and chelsea are playing way below standards…and wengers childlike subborness and refusal to change with the times means arsenal wallow and flatter to decieve……

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  7. denton davey says:

    chuks @ 5:06: “Another important thing to note is our wingers especially Valencia and Young.”

    Neither has scored a single goal this season and, correct me if I’m wrong, they’ve not made any assists either. In contrast, NinjaEvra has four goals and LittleRedRafa has three.

    Even more significant than the really poor play of AV7/AshleyYoung has been the stop-start seasons of KagawaBunga and Nani. These two guys have fantastic talent – “game changers” – but they’ve been hurt and missed huge chunks of the season. If SAF can figure out how to get KagawaBunga/Nani playing with TheWayneBoy and RVP then we might FINALLY see real fireworks.

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  8. Naijared says:

    Thought provoking article I must say, especially with the reviews this team has enjoyed both positive and negative from different outlets around the world. Even we the united fans across the world sometimes wonder at the quality of this team. On my part I ask myself certain questions and then the answers I get definitely defines the position of this team!
    1. Is 15points lead in a 20 team table down to luck?
    2. Winning at Chelsea, Liverpool and Man city is it also down to luck?
    3. When was the last time we had the same 11 players lining up for 3 straight matches?
    4. How many different players have we seen get on the scoresheet this campaign?
    5. Y did RVP choose Utd?
    6. Since we had our defenders fully fit, how many goals have we let in?

    So many Questions and more that all points to the quality of the TEAM as a whole…. But then I shall let u seek those answers urselves my fellow reds.

    Bring on the Treble as we take each match as it comes…….as we go marching ON.

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  9. pearta red says:

    very interesting piece of journalism,not all fluffy and bright,exposing the weaknesses in the team on match day and through the course of the season,inconsistent yes,infuriating yes,controlling games yes and no.what is interesting is the view on s.a.f,i have to thouroghly agree with the fact that the gaffer has grasped the initiative at the start of this campaign and drove them on,it hurt very much what happened at the end of last season.his meticulous planning of games 2,3,4 games ahead of the next one are of genius strategy.he has drove the squad on relentlessly.i think he will particuarly like this season for the way the squad has reacted,but the conceeding of early goals in the first half of the season really got to him,the likes of rafael,evra,evans,smalling,vidic and the immense rio[in last few weeks]has been excellent,the defence has worked miracles in the second half of the season.david degea has been for me outstanding in a lot of the games,he is quality and the rumours of madrid sniffing around show what kind of form he is in,keep the belief in him,he is world class.carrick has been nothing short of superb,some of his passing has been exceptional,his vision,his leadership not in question.rvp has been a revelation and the council house tenants must be kicking themselves at the thought of missing out on him,history not money was his[rvp,s] choice of club.rooney has had a stop start season,valencia hasn,t quite hit the heights of last year which is a shame.if we can get jones fit and always available then he is a great versatile player to have,cleverly is quite simply an exciting prospect for utd and england,giggs,s contribution has been excellent again.it is a mix of previous campaigns wth a stop start beginning to the start of the season,i do think we could do a double of some sort[f.a,or c/l].but the work of s.a.f at the start of the season has been instrumental in his quest to get our trophy back.it is interesting to read the above report,very concise,accurate and as always excellent.

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  10. Ifejiofor Chioma says:

    Great article and thought provoking too i must say. In anycase, we must remember that this is a very young manchester united team. Right now, what we are seeing is the great potential in this team. They are full of promise and will dominate the world of football for many years to come. They have lots of time on their side to carve out a niche for themselves among the great united teams of the past. At this point i would say that their achievements so far (giving manchester city’s established stars a run for it last season ,their achievemants this season) is a little premature and unexpected and as such all the credit should go to the gaffer. Its to his credit that he is able to stretch to their fullest capacity a team so young and get the best out of them. Thereby confounding their detractors time and again.

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  11. robert says:

    Another excellent and thoughtful article on your really good site.

    I went to the QPR game yesterday–the most strikng points were not Rafael’s goal,De Gea’s alertness,Hernades’ mobility,Vidic’s resolve etc–but the real professionalism and determination shown.

    There is a cohesiveness in this team–and an impressive bench in all games which means that the substitutions do not weaken the team.

    Is this a better squad than 1999–ask yourself if May,Van der Gouw and Cruyff etc would be an addition to this squad—-even Wes Brown and Ronnie Johnsen–there is a great depth to this squad–a testament to SAF .

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  12. [...] at their best can beat United at their best. As I’ve said before, I’m not even sure what this United at their best looks like yet. Deep down, Real Madrid know that they can go to Old Trafford and win, or at least get the [...]

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