Author: Herzog’s Child
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Manchester United’s early ascension to the top of the premier league may not be revealing in itself, but the swagger and rapidity with which they’ve done so has cast eyebrows aloft. The opening day away defeat of West Brom may have been more customary than stylistically enamouring, but what followed, the sweeping aside of Spurs and the relentless blitzkrieg on Arsenal, bewildered as much as pleased all revelling reds. The kids were more than all right. The subsequent trouncing of Bolton, a notoriously snappy opponent, was a mere continuation of United’s early promise. There was no ill-form or comedown from the patently annoying International break. United’s stealthy counter-attacking and warming finesse smacked not of a team treading lightly into a new season, but one already gnashing its way into early battle.
Gone, of course, are the aged stars of Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, and Edwin van der Sar, and with them, too, a stockpile of dead-wood: O’Shea, Bebe, Obertan, Brown and, literally in this case, Owen Hargreaves. Age cannot be restrained and time for the dispensable recedes. It was not an overhaul, per se, but last season’s struggles more than paved way for the necessity of something new; what was needed, as was blatantly obvious, was a little more of a little more: urgency; pace; fearlessness. The essence of the United that cemented its history and ethos.
As has become clear in the early season, and now on the international stage, Chris Smalling’s progression as one of Europe’s most capable young defenders has seen him secure a starting place for United and England at a time where few had expected him to. Oddly, it is the prolonged declination of Rio Ferdinand (fitness wise, at least) that has spiralled Smalling into a sure-starter for club and country. His current berth, slotting in at right back, may be a more than admirable transfer, but let us not forget that long-term it is at centre half where he’ll continue his United career. It was playing in that position where United’s eyes were first averted to Smalling, an often clumsy bit-part filler-in for Fulham, and it’s where, filling in for Rio, he quickly inspired mass optimism amongst all watching reds. A superior footballer to Vidic, unequivocally more aggressive than Ferdinand, his steadfast rise to prominence has already rendered his £10m snaring from Fulham a snip that once seemed gargantuan. Beside him, Phil Jones – a summer capture from Blackburn and already a man-mountain at just 19. His surprise move to United, at a time when Dalglish had believed he was Liverpool’s, shouldn’t have raised too many heads, in truth. Ferguson likes to do his moving quickly and secretly. In Jones he has invested in a prospect already nearing completion. Immensely tough and a more than keen user of the ball, Jones is a leader whose ease in play is – at such a young age – almost as bewildering as it is mouth-watering. You won’t bully Jones, and you’ll have a hellish time trying to skip past or out-jump him. Curiously, it was in one of last year’s rare comedic days that Ferguson knew Jones was for him. The centre half, then still at Blackburn, was part of a pitiful collective which was succumbing to a 7-1 dissolution at Old Trafford. But Ferguson spotted something: it was Jones unleashing a litany of abuse and directives towards the experienced pros who were faltering around him. It comes as little surprise that tentative approaches were made for Jones in January of this year. His is the style which Arsenal, for instance, are so nakedly lacking. Or Liverpool, who thought that they had him. That United secured the country’s two finest defensive talents, at a time when others were in dire need, speaks volumes: that the future, in Ferguson’s eye, is always tomorrow.
And yet, it is in the middle and up front, where reds are deriving the most new pleasure from. As a twosome, Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck have perhaps traversed the most galling of circuits to reach United’s first team. Cleverely, for instance, has been on United’s books since the age of twelve and has worked tirelessly to leap from one rung to the next. Similarly, Danny Welbeck, the only Mancunian in United’s present set-up, has stridden to condition himself to the illimitable rigors of life at the highest level. It is in their patterns of play, the quick-paced and fearless exuberance which only the young striving to make it can exude, that is most touching and has United at their now rediscovered most frightening. The inevitable disappointment of not signing an established midfielder still hangs heavy, but there is a certain undistinguishable romance bearing witness to your young battalion coming good. The terrier-like disembodying of Man City in the Community Shield alerted red pulses; the subsequent gelling and frequency of play since has cast all expectations into dream-land, a result of unexpected glee blended with hyperbolic giddiness. It needs to be understood that the season is a mere four games into its birth – but it would be amiss to not smile at the intrigue it has given birth to. Both Welbeck and Cleverley’s injuries may not have come at a worse time, but their assured displays will not go forgotten; they are, quite clearly, now an essential part of United’s set-up. There is a bite now within United that was unseen in recent years, a swarming approach reliant on frenetic interplay and relentless attacking. The gaps it opens in midfield may well inflate the heart to beyond combustion point, but the positives borne out of it strangely deem it something that can be brushed aside at free will. Whether or not this style will be curbed when facing a stronger side is hard to know, but it’s pleasing to be assured that when we will need it, it’s there to be called upon. The desultory reserved front when embattling stronger opposition is too often ineffective and boring. Gung-ho, yes please.
Early appraisals for United’s young crop have been healthy, but David de Gea’s initial issues have garnered a swathe of unsurprising critiques. Whilst it’s easy to cry outrage at the baying press for picking apart the young Spaniard’s mistakes, it would be amiss to not cast your own early doubts. As seasoned observers have stated, de Gea’s issues have little to do with talent and all to do with nerve. The two mistakes against City and West Brom were unsurprisingly similar: in both moments, his footing was mistimed – a sure sign of nervousness. If the Bolton game was rewarding for Jones, Rooney and Hernandez, it would have come as a joyous occasion for de Gea: there were no jittery moments, or dropped crosses, or mistimed footing, or fear in completing the basics. A fine save, a clear punch, and a whole load of emphatic kicking was the sum total of de Gea’s most assured display yet. The ball in his hands, or at his feet, his distribution is that of a seasoned midfielder. De Gea finds his man and continuously orchestrates attacking moves from the launch-pad of his box. Sadly, unlike every other position, the goalkeeping spot is a harsh field to win others over in. But de Gea will rightly be continued to be entrusted with the role. His reaction in the wake of his tumultuous opening games told us more about him as a person than the mistakes told us about him as a goalkeeper: he understands the criticism, the task ahead and its cut-throat rigors. Clean-sheets, you would feel, and a few more saves and de Gea will really set off. Fergie will know that the most pressing concern will not be his goalkeeper’s early form, but the reaction he’ll display in the wake of it. Unlike the tedious hyperbole spouted by hacks, where immediacy is a necessity, it is patience and belief in de Gea that will see him good.
The inclusion of youth is a bold and brave move by Ferguson. Whether it was a decision of his own, or one forced upon him by financial restrictions, we’ll never know. What is sure is that, despite the prolific nature and clinical finishing of United’s early form, we’re still some way off the grade where we’d like to be affixed: a little closer to, well, Barcelona. The fear is that what looks like a new United make-up will be temporary, and that many of the sigh-inducing aspects of last season will eventually return: the desperate slowness; the ponderous hovering on the edge of the opponent’s box; the blues of the days away from home. Only the future can unravel a continuation or an end and return to days which we wouldn’t wish back. But there is an undeniable hope in there, too – that those who, until now, have remained sidelined due to the progression of youth will raise a gear when their chance arises again. Michael Carrick, for instance, will have watched Tom Cleverley’s ascension with a dosage of discomfort. Now that Cleverley’s facing a sideline spell, Carrick should approach his chance with an enthusiasm and motivation to produce that has seeped out of his game in recent years. He will know that this current United set-up has the ability to supersede that of recent times. It won’t be enough for Europe; it may not even be enough for another league success – but there’s something of the old United way in it; An endearing and much missed fearlessness. Sure, given the enormous gaps in midfield, it looks like it could all implode at any time, but most will be appeased if it’s compensated by forever going for the throat of the opponent. So, let’s hope this continues to inspire. If it were to fall apart now and return to a less appealing style, we’ll end up wishing we never bore witness to the hope of it all. There’s a pleasure in being bloody. Score as many as you like – we’ll score one more. Or, ahem, 8, as recent events have well displayed.