Apologies for the extended period of quiet from my side (note, please, that I am not RR, who has done an admirable job of keeping the site going and everyone interested during what has the most boring, repetitive, inconclusive and tedious close season in living memory). When I say that the cricket has been far more interesting than anything to do with football recently, I think I have said all.
In the continuing absence of any concrete developments from the summer, I want to look back on our staggeringly successful last season and draw out some of the reasons why we were so damn good. These apply both to why we’ve gone from being written off in the summer of ’06 to the best team in Europe, and also what we did even better in 07/08 to achieve such heights. Then I’m going to darken the tone slightly by picking up three things which could scupper our chances.
1. Squad depth
Last season, with the exception of centre forward, we had high class cover right across the board. Not only high class cover, in fact, but a lot more than 11 players who deserved and were fighting for a first team spot. This allowed us to cope with all the injuries thrown our way; but more importantly, to have genuine flexibility to mix and match our team to suit the exact circumstances.
2. Weakness of our rivals
Arsenal had a great first XI, but as soon as form, fitness and fatigue scratched that surface they were gone. So, this summer they have sold two first team regulars…as much as we now (patronisingly) applaud Wenger, he really is a masochist.
Liverpool had two great players (Torres and Gerrard), one fouling centre back who the press often call great (Carragher), an amusingly foul-mouthed midfielder (Mascherano – thanks again for that red card), a few has-beens (Finnan, Hyppia, Riise), a few might-yet-bes (Babel, that kid they play at right back), and some journeymen / donkeys (Crouch, Kuyt, Pennant, Kewell)….sorry, did I get carried away there? What I meant was that they were entirely reliant (as opposed to over-reliant) on two players.
Chelski were unlucky with injuries, but that said the African Nations was a fairly predictable drain on their resources and Mourinho bought badly last summer (Malouda, Alex, Ben Haim & Pizarro, none of whom were good enough for their first team). And the upheaval of Mourinho’s departure was entirely caused by their owner.
The good thing is that what little activity there has been so far this summer has made Arsenal’s plight worse, kept Liverpool broadly the same (although Keane could be a good signing) and left Chelsea up in the air (what if Drogba and Lampard leave next week, just before the season starts?)
3. The fear factor’s back
In the depths of our three-year slump, the most damaging development was that we had lost the fear factor. Teams used to turn up not shaking in fear and hoping to keep it down to 2-0, but genuinely thinking they could win. So they had a go, and against our weakened team came away with points far too often. Last season they were 1-0 down in the coach on the way to the game again, and it showed.
4. Everyone taking responsibility
In previous times, when we have had to bring in John O’Shea, Darren Fletcher, Ji-Sung Park and co they have played like second stringers. Like good, old-fashioned triers, but ones who know they’re not quite cut out to be in the exalted company they are in. But last season, they were. Anderson and Nani played like present day stars, not ones for the future. Wes Brown was an integral part of our stingiest ever defence, including a quite sensational performance in the second leg against Barcelona. Hargreaves rose above his disappointments to be our most consistent player in the last month of the season. Park, too, played like a man possessed for that month. Even Silvestre came back into the first team against Chelski and gave a good impression of a regular left back.
Not only did we have squad depth, but the quality, maturity and attitude was spot on right through the squad.
5. Confidence in the tough games
Often the difference between a good season and a great season is performance in the so-called “six-pointers”. But since that doesn’t extend to the Champions League, let’s just use the less snappy phrase “games against other elite clubs”. Whereas in some previous seasons this has been our weakness, this time round we were superb, with only the last minute penalty against Chelski blotting our copybook (even that in a game where we played a below-par team):
Chelski: W 2, L 1
Arsenal: W 1, D 1
Liverpool: W 2
Barca: W 1, D 1
Roma: W 3, D 1
Overall: P 13, W 9, D 3, L 1.
6. Suitability for Europe
Our squad and style of play is now much more suited to success in Europe. With the very honourable exception of 1999, it doesn’t often wash in Europe to have a flimsy defence and rely on scoring heavily. Most of the top sides, particularly in Italy, are too good to be overwhelmed defensively, so keeping clean sheets is much more important. Equally, we had the players to make the 4-3-2-1 system work properly against better teams, with plenty of players all over the pitch who could provide solid defence and then switch effortlessly into fluent attack (Evra, Carrick, Rooney and Tevez to name but four).
7. Prospects for the future
Well, with the exception of Ronaldo, this squad has the potential to grow together for the next five or so years. In fact, last year’s squad had a somewhat raw feel to it in midfield and attack at times. Tevez took a while to settle in, Anderson stepped up magnificently but failed to score a single goal, Nani’s decision-making looks like Ronaldo’s did four years ago and Hargreaves was out of sorts until April. We can expect a lot more from these players and others this coming season.
1. No standout assistant manager
It’s no great secret that we’ve always struggled when Fergie hasn’t had a first class coach working with him. Brian Kidd, Steve McClaren and Carlos Queiroz have all been integral parts of our best sides; their ability to devise cutting-edge training routines and support the squad in a complementary was to Fergie were essential. It doesn’t look like we’re going to start the season with a “specialist” assistant, with various of Fergie’s underlings helping out. That makes me nervous.
2. Reduced return from Ronaldo
No secrets here. With Ronaldo out for the start of the season, and questionably motivated thereafter, we need others to stand up and be counted. Big season for Wayne Rooney, and whichever striker we buy (I’m still confident of Berbatov) needs to hit the ground running. We can’t afford another start like last season.
3. We were lucky with injuries last time round
I mean, I know Vidic was injured for most of the last two months, Scholes missed a lot of games before Christmas and Gary Neville didn’t play at all. But we had most of our key players fit most of the time, and we can’t rely on that again. If Rooney missed injures himself on the first day again, for example, we could be in serious trouble by the time he and Ronaldo return. Equally, our defence wasn’t quite the same without Rio and Vidic at its heart. We have a great squad, but injuries could still screw us.
That’s my lot. Any themes you would draw attention to?
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