It’s been ten and a half seasons since the glorious treble of 1998-99 and so far the season hasn’t quite gone according to plan. On the face of it, the season so far doesn’t look too bad; Only 2 points behind Chelsea in the Premier League with half the season to go; Into the knockout stages of the Champions League (albeit, a daunting meeting with AC Milan lies in wait); The semi finals of the FA Cup (against Manchester City and with the blues hungry for any silverware that they can lay their hands on, and Sir Alex insisting on playing a youthful squad, it does not look too rosy) and of course, the defeat at the battle of the Roses (listless display; no excuses there whatsoever). So what then has been the difference between that all conquering team and this team of “superstars”? My findings:
Leading from the front
The front three this season have scored 28 goals between them (Rooney 15, Berbatov 6 and Owen 7) so far, while in the treble season, Yorke had 29, Cole had 24 and Ole had 18 at the end of the season. Add to this Sheringham’s 5 and that’s a total of a whopping 76 goals between the front four. SAF had three top strikers, any two of whom he could start with in any match and an impact sub in Sheringham. In comparison, his team today has 2 top strikers and Owen, the supposed impact sub as the third striker. Agreed that United’s style of play has changed and that there is a different system employed but whatever the system is, goals are goals; and goals must be scored.
Down the flanks
In David Beckham, Ryan Giggs and Jesper Blomquist, Manchester United had three fantastic exponents of wing play. All three were excellent on the flanks and all the three of them could cross the ball. Set pieces too were more than taken care of. In comparison, today’s squad has one ONE genuine winger in Antonio Valencia, with Nani flattering to deceive, Tosic deemed not good enough , Gabriel Obertan, who is one for the future but is certainly by no means the finished product and Park Ji Sung, who is not an out and out winger. Clearly, this has had a bearing on the team. Even if the crosses do come in, the natural poacher is not quite there in the box.
The false Nine
With the arrival of Dimitar Berbatov, it was well and truly established that Sir Alex had also converted to the philosophy of the ‘false nine’. Until then, there was at least one out and out Number 9 but since the departure of Louis Saha, there has been no real pivotal figure up front, who could be called on to play route one when required. And with Berbatov not quite having the desired impact, and with the departure of Ronaldo, there appears to be no alternate route this season. In the treble season, there were both Yorke and Cole alternating as the front man with the other dropping off.
If anyone watches the highlights of the treble winning season, one thing will scream out; Paul Scholes. If his long rangers were absolute belters, his toe pokes from knock downs inside the box were equally important. He was always in the periphery of the box and joined in the attack with aplomb. With the passing of the years, his dynamism has also been impacted and although his range of passing remains as good as ever, there is no doubting the fact that he is no longer at the height of his powers and that he can no longer produce stellar performances week-in week-out, as he has admitted himself at times.
Oh! Sweet Sixteen
If there was one man the United faithful would love to see at the heart of the midfield even today, it has to be the skipper. Chants of ‘there is only one Keano’ still echo inside the theatre of dreams. Such is the impact of the man. When he was driving United, it was rest assured no one could afford to slack off, even for a minute. That was the stature of the man and the respect that he commanded. More than anything else, it was the winning mentality that was instilled in the team that made him the legend he is today. While United today do have a box to box midfielder in the rejuvenated Darren Fletcher, its Keano’s drive and ambition that they lack. The only one in the current team that comes close to that is a certain Wazza but there can be no comparison really on the influence wielded.
The reinvention of Eleven
Ryan Giggs is a legend. A living legend. A playing legend. When years ago, he burst into the scene with mazy runs and blistering pace, he was hailed as a phenomenon but people seriously doubted what his contribution to the team would be once he had lost his pace. The past two seasons has been as much about the reinvention of the Welsh wizard as it has been about Ronaldo. Giggs has made the transition from an out and out winger to a playmaker capable of more than ably filling into the left midfield or up front (or even at left back on one occasion). His most sensational displays have come from the center of midfield where he has used his dribbling skills to fantastic effect. He has well and truly shown that what he has lost in pace, he has made up for in guile. Looking at him playing today, you wouldn’t guess that he is all of 36 years of age. Yet, for all his brilliance and guile, his passing into a playmaker has left a huge void on the left flank.
The riddle at the back
With a multitude of injuries and the compulsion to play midfielders at the center of defence has severely hampered Sir Alex’s tactics this season and have made United look very vulnerable. Had everyone been fit, it might have been a lot different but one can only speculate. The treble winning team had Jaap Stam and Ronny Johnsen at the back with a young and brilliant Gary Neville, and the ever dependable Dennis Irwin on the sides. Only one defender has been ever present this term and he has been truly outstanding. The small Frenchman has been the stand out performer on many an occasion this season and has been a constant menace to the opposition going forwards on the left flank.
All things considered though, this season still has the possibility of turning into yet another “treble” year but the possibility is quite remote. Yet, with half a season gone and United yet to peak, you do begin to wonder if they will indeed peak. One thing is for certain though; there are exciting times ahead at Old Trafford and the reaction of Sir Alex to this season’s stuttering and struggling will be intriguing to watch indeed.