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