Are United a spineless team?

Posted by Mark Payne

Successful teams often have a spine of recognised players who hold the side together and drive their colleagues forward in pursuit of excellence and victory. Great managers, notably Brian Clough, have championed the backbone of a team as being of crucial importance to any successful unit. As United sit nine points clear in the Premier League title race, a look at their lineup gives hope to their rivals.

Jose Mourinho knows a thing or two about building a successful football team. For the past eight years, Chelsea have been monstrously difficult to beat and looked invincible during the peak of his reign. During that period, the names Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, John Terry and Petr Cech could all be read on the team sheet every week.

This is not to belittle the terrific contributions of people like Ricardo Carvalho, who was also supreme for Chelsea, but it was those four who settled the supporters and gave the team a victorious air before a ball had been kicked.

United's 1998-99 treble team was also a flinty outfit. In goal, the titanic Peter Schmeichel stood behind Jaap Stam, Roy Keane, Dwight Yorke and Andrew Cole. Nobody liked playing against any of these players. Even if you got past Keane & Co., you would have a mad Dane dashing at you. If you somehow got around him and scored, Yorke and Cole would punish you for it at the other end of the pitch. Throughout that team there was quality; it is hard to remember a weak link.

This current United side has merit but is certainly not without its flaws. Up front the partnership between Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney is surely the best in the division. “The world maybe,” Roberto Mancini said at the start of the season. Sixty goals in 25 games would certainly add weight to that theory. In the big European leagues, only Barcelona have scored more.

When asked to discuss the midfield, United fans often scratch the back of their heads and say something like, “They're okay.” The lack of a personality is glaring, but most would agree this has been Michael Carrick's best season so far. United retain the ability to transfer defence into attack with speed, and it is the passing of Carrick that enables this. Anderson has flickered this season, as has Tom Cleverley, but the sense they can be dominated remains. Control of this area is still possible for assertive opponents.

This has not been the most illustrious year for United's defence. Seven teams have been more effective at protecting their goal than the league leaders this term, and goalkeeper David De Gea has, in particular, been criticised gleefully. The reality is that instability has sabotaged the unit this time out, much of it self-inflicted.

Fergie’s decision to rotate the keepers at the start of the campaign was ill-advised, and there have been a spate of injuries. Even now a regular fullback partnership has not been set in stone. Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic remain imperious but are both often absent. In this atmosphere, Jonny Evans has managed to grow markedly, as has Rafael. Fortunately, Patrice Evra is having a renascent season and is something of a goal machine to boot.

But none of them like crosses. United have conceded far too many goals this year from in-swinging deliveries, and most opponents set up with a brief to pepper the United box with these passes. It is an effective technique and has seen Fulham, Southampton, Aston Villa and Stoke all score twice against them. Tottenham and Reading scored thrice.

“It is a long season and anything can still happen,” Mancini said this past weekend, and he is right. A nine-point lead at the this stage is definitely a statement of intent, but this United team have vulnerabilities that can be exploited in the remaining 13 games. There is no such thing as a season without surprises and upsets. Long term, Manchester United fans will tell you that unnecessary drama is typical of the club. They are hoping that the next few months have less than usual.

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