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With Man United on course to win the title this season and likely to come close to breaking or matching records, it’s funny to think so many (media and general football fans) still dismiss this group of players, particularly when comparing them to previous successful teams. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that the players who’ve starred in the 44 games so far, have at some point been much maligned and to the neutral bandwagon jumper, they’re just not that exciting. Or maybe it’s because since Ronaldo and others left, United just haven’t been considered as dominating on the pitch. Yet, those that have excelled this season have been superb and deserve the praise that’s not been so forthcoming.
This is the age of pretty football, when pretty means possession, technical players and flair. Players who excite, notably attacking players, are recipients of huge amounts of often over the top praise. By contrast, functional players, which United have in abundance, tend to be overlooked and collectively make up allegedly ‘average’ teams. Manchester City were fairly lauded for how they won the title last season, with Silva, Nasri, Aguero and others at the heart of much that was good but whilst they’ve underperformed this time around, United are currently annihilating all in their wake.
At the core of United’s good season to date have been players who the media, opposition fans, and even our own fans have doubted. The likes of Rooney, Valencia, Nani and Kagawa have for one reason or another not played much or not played as well as they can (despite what Rooney’s impressive goals/assists stats say). If they had, United would suddenly became a bit trendier and would undoubtedly have lavish praise thrown over them, praise that a 15 point lead deserves.
Maybe there are too many egos that don’t want to admit they were wrong; wrong to suggest that the likes of de Gea, Rafael, Evans and Carrick weren’t good enough. Along with Evra, Ferdinand, Welbeck and Cleverley, they’re all players that have had a backlash of negativity. Yet these are the names of the players who hopefully come May will be title winners and recognised as key cogs in a very solid team.
There is of course van Persie who’s maybe the exception to the above. He’s not been a revelation because that would be doing his ability and reputation before joining United a disservice, but he’s done exceedingly well despite a recent goalscoring blip and general fatigue. Still, given the hatred that non-United fans seem to have for him (something I certainly had when he was at Arsenal), he still hasn’t quite made United fashionable.
Then there’s Carrick. After a summer of fawning over Pirlo, fans and pundits suddenly realised that Carrick’s actually alright. Having played more forward passes than any other midfielder this season and been arguably United’s most undroppable player he’s finally had some much warranted recognition. Still, his most important contributions are defensive – intercepting, tackling, clearing, blocking – simply reading the game so incredibly well. However, you can imagine that your average football fan would scrunch up his face if you tried to suggest that Carrick had been so good. Such a clean player, one who excels at the simple things, really isn’t appreciated unless he plays for Barcelona.
There are themes for United’s other stalwarts – players who’ve been written off or labelled as never good enough. Martin Lipton famously suggested earlier this season that both Rafael and Evans were not United-quality. Evra rightly had people questioning his place in the side 18 months ago but he has responded superbly, not that he’ll get the wider praise he should. Similarly, Rio Ferdinand has been ‘finished’ on countless occasions, only for him to keep coming back and playing as well as he ever has done.
Not good enough: Lind, Val (gone backwards), Welb (sadly), Anderson, Rafael, Giggs (because of birth cert), Buttner, Evans, Fletch (health)
— Martin Lipton (@MartinLipton) January 11, 2013
A certain sign that United’s key performers really aren’t getting the praise they should is David de Gea. The world seemed to wake up to him after the Real Madrid games and yet plenty will point out that he’d been playing that well for much of the season. His errors have been few and far between but one mistake in early 2013 and it was made out that he’d been doing that every single game. By comparison, plenty of nameless more experienced keepers have had much more torrid seasons than he has.
Even Welbeck and Cleverley are worthy of positive column inches. Neither might be the most obvious candidate for any player of the year awards but what they’ve done for the team has been vital. To some extent, Tom’s still getting used to United’s pace and intensity after last season was blighted by injury and yet he’s still played a hell of a lot of minutes. With Anderson out of favour and most other central players unfit/injured he’s been a consistent source of reliability alongside Carrick. Yep, he has plenty to work on, notably his endurance levels but without him United would be in serious trouble. It’s a similar story with Danny too – often used wide as others have been injured or out of form, he may not have the assists or goals that his fellow strikers do but he’s sacrificed himself for the sake of the team, notably in the biggest of games.
In what’s hopefully set to be a very good season for the club with a convincing title win, from the outside this feels like one of the most unfancied United sides going. That our best players haven’t been the ‘biggest names’ or the most attractive natural footballers only makes the current situation even more remarkable. We may not have a technical player who’s had a season like Messi, Ronaldo, Hazard, Mata, Silva, Cazorla or even Suarez but we have players who’ve excelled in just about every other kind of attribute and they should be appreciated, praised and come May, touch wood, celebrated.