So the season is really under way. That unrivalled feeling of excitement as you feverishly seek out match reports from each and every newspaper, site and blog to relive the match all over again. It is fair to say that a buoyancy has enveloped United supporters which began in pre-season and reached its highest point so far last night as a young team triumphed over an established Premier League force. When I say young, I really mean it, not like when Ferguson still describes Darron Gibson as a young man, this team was proper young. To put it in context, as I was tweeted last night, only Rooney, Young and Evra from the team that lined up against Spurs were even BORN when Ferguson became manager of Manchester United.
Take a moment and reflect on that.
Good isn’t it?
Like the miserable happiness destroyer that I am I’d like to reach up and drag you off cloud nine, shove some black coffees down your inebriated soul and bring some sober reflection to the events of last night. A crucial process that I am forever telling the kids I teach is to identify not only what could have been done better, but also what went well. A victory without recognising how you achieved can all too easily remain an isolated triumph. There is already a plethora of blog articles rightly hailing the glorious football that brought three high quality goals but I want to raise a few of my own reflections that I haven’t seen covered in-depth elsewhere.
These boys are hungry
Listening to Test Match Special earlier this Summer the discussion turned towards what distinguishes a great test match cricketer from a good one. Former England Captain Michael Vaughan argued that talent was a mere 10% of the reason and in fact mental toughness was the distinguishing characteristic. I would suggest that this is true in other sports – football being among them.
Is Cristiano Ronaldo for example a greater talent in terms of technique than Ricardo Quaresma? Perhaps, but I would venture that the key difference is the former’s unquenchable desire to be the best. Year on year Ronaldo is driven to prove to himself and the world that he is a champion. It is a quality for which he (and we) have been rewarded. It is this quality that Ferguson is looking for when he talks of looking into the eyes of players for the hunger.
One of the most exciting things about last night was that in the eyes of Welbeck, Cleverley, Jones and Smalling it was there to see. The team was already leading when Tom Cleverley misplaced a pass and the camera picked out the utter disgust and outrage he felt towards himself. Sure enough within a minute he had won back possession with a shrewd interception and successfully put right what he felt he had done wrong. In an era of players earning five-figure weekly wages and being introduced to a world free of want from an early age it is a quality that is all too rare.
Ferguson values it above all else and has been characteristically bold in his backing of the new generation. High achieving, trustworthy O’Shea and Brown are gone. The temptation to bring in a decorated goalkeeper has been eschewed in favour of a younger man with a taste of European success who wants more. Whether through misfortune or design a global star has not been added and players who may have feared for their futures when sent to Wigan and Sunderland are now entrusted with the task of bringing continued success to a club who demand it. The parallels to 1995 are obvious but the current influx of youth is an even greater gamble given these players have not all grown up in ‘the United way.’
The new breed has much to prove and how effectively they sustain their hunger for success will determine their achievements.
Silk needs Steel
The second goal felt like a declaration of intent. Already today I have read two blogs dissecting it’s construction from the quick throw of de Gea to the accomplished denouement. However two key interventions preceded it that preserved our advantage and secured our grip on the contest. World footballer of the millennium Gareth Bale played a neat one-two and surged towards the box. Phil Jones made up the ground – impressive in itself – before executing a perfectly timed challenge to block the cross and snuff out the immediate danger. A mis-timed challenge and a penalty is a certainty and Spurs are back in the game. No-one would have blamed young Jones for the goal had Bale finished the chance or created a goal. The easy option was not to risk the potential ignominy of responsibility yet Jones didn’t give it a second though. It is exactly that mental toughness which makes a good player great.
The urge for the players to view the danger as over following Jones’ intervention is a powerful one. Jones’ old club showed this last week when they considered Robinson’s penalty save to be the resolution and promptly conceded when failing to act to shut down the rebound. Whilst many would switch off, it was Wayne Rooney who recognised the threat and nicked the ball off van der Vaart’s toe as he prepared to fire at goal. Huge credit should go to Rooney for having the awareness and speed to act and like Jones he played a crucial role in preserving the lead.
We all know what happened from our next attack.
Familiarity breeds success
As I alluded to earlier this latest crop of young talent include some expensive arrivals alongside graduates of the youth system. Like all new additions to the first team they need time to ‘bed in’; the process by which they learn how to deal with the pressure, how to react to changing game situations and what is expected of them by crowd, colleagues and manager. Ferguson has been wise so far to keep a settled team.
The most common adjective used to describe the new breed has been ‘fluid’ yet for 45 minutes on Monday night there was precious little evidence to support this label. Anderson and Cleverley had a disjointed half as Spurs pressing forced them into squandering possession with lower percentage passes. Positionally there wasn’t a clear sitter so both players regularly existed in a kind of purgatory – not confident to advance past the line of attack or anchor the middle. This confusion was replicated in the forward areas where both Rooney and Welbeck regularly came deep crowding the space in central areas. When the home side did attack there was a lack of width as Young and Nani turned inwards and both full backs were reluctant to join perhaps in fear of the pace of Bale and Lennon on the counter.
The twitterati implored Ferguson to replace Welbeck or bring on Giggs at half-term as nerves wavered. Thankfully Ferguson has rarely been too quick to jump the gun and thanks to some adjustments at half-term the shape of the team was vastly improved after the break. This improvement came not only from the direction of the manager but the successful reaction of players to new situations.
I believe we will experience many more examples this season of this young team appearing to lose their way – whether it be in the face of a physical bombardment at the Britannia, the hostile atmosphere of Anfield or the bus being parked by visitors to Old Trafford.
The key from all quarters is patience.
A less than sparkling first half at Stamford Bridge was met with ‘booing’ – thankfully we don’t do that at United. The more these players play together, especially the partnerships (Evra/Young, Cleverley/Anderson, Evans/Jones, Welbeck/Rooney), the more adept they will become at reacting to situations quickly and effectively.
Now is not the time for wholesale rotation. I hope to see the same side chosen for the visit of Arsenal. The temptation will be to restore Chicharito in particular for such a key encounter yet I would urge continuity. If things don’t pan out as hoped it is an understatement to say we have able replacements on the bench.
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