We are nearly a third of the way through the Premier League season and it’s probably only now that we are seeing a Manchester United side playing anywhere near what they are capable of.
There was obviously a lot of change at Old Trafford in the summer after what seemed like an eternity with Alex Ferguson in charge, so there was always going to be a period of transition as David Moyes looked to stamp his authority on one of the biggest clubs in the world.
And that transition could certainly have been easier for the new manager, what with the Wayne Rooney saga as well as what seemed like astonishingly amateurish dealings in the transfer market.
In the end, the only major signing made was that of Marouane Fellaini from Everton and I was unsure at the time whether it was a good bit of business. Even now, I’m still far from convinced.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve played against him on numerous occasions and he is a top player who actually caused United a lot of problems in recent seasons with his performances against them.
He is a very unorthodox central midfielder and very effective in the way he plays, but my concern is that I don’t think his style suits United — and vice versa.
Obviously, as the new manager, Moyes was the one taking the criticism early in the season for some very indifferent performances but my own feeling was that the players were simply playing nowhere near their best. It can sometimes happen that players subconsciously take their foot off the pedal and play within themselves, and such is the intensely competitive level of the Premier League now that even a team of United’s ability will fall short in those circumstances.
That said, there had been encouraging signs in the last few weeks that United were starting to look more like a Moyes team, with the manager’s personality coming across in their performances. Sometimes it takes just one game to transform a season and I feel the midweek demolition of Bayer Leverkusen might well have been United’s turning point. Although Leverkusen are sitting second in the Bundesliga, they are not in the same class as Bayern Munich or Borussia Dortmund, yet this was still a performance and result the rest of the Premier League and Europe would have sat up and taken notice of.
Moyes has got to be given huge credit for the way he has dealt with Rooney, who was very much the star of the show in United’s 5-0 win. If Ferguson was still in charge then I don’t think Rooney would be wearing the United shirt this season. But having resisted the temptation to seek out pastures new, he is now looking fitter and, more importantly, playing as well as he ever has, whether that’s in the hole behind Robin van Persie or leading the line as a lone striker as we saw in midweek.
Rooney is priceless to United and I would be very surprised if contract extensions weren’t already being negotiated to ensure he is playing his football for years to come at the club.
The intensity United played with on Wednesday really impressed me. They took the game to Leverkusen and were relentless in the way they closed them down, constantly forcing their opponents into errors. Ryan Giggs, playing just a few days short of his 40th birthday, epitomised the collective spirit of the team. Put very simply, United outworked their opponents, creating the platform for their undoubted class to come to the fore.
I was delighted to see Shinji Kagawa get an opportunity in his favoured position just behind the front man, and he didn’t disappoint. I saw him play at Old Trafford when United faced Fulham at the start of last season and was very impressed.
His movement, awareness and vision were a joy to watch, so I have been very surprised that, at least until now, he hasn’t kicked on from there. He has all the qualities you want from an attacking midfielder and I am keen to see if he uses this match as a springboard to ignite his United career. (That is if, according to some reports, he doesn’t end up leaving as part of a deal to bring in Dortmund’s Marco Reus.)
Despite their sluggish start to the Premier League, I have found it strange that the champions have so often been ruled out of regaining their title by pundits and bookmakers alike. After all, they have retained more or less the same squad as last season, when they cantered to the title. And with United, Chelsea and Manchester City all changing managers in the summer, there was always going to be questions about who could settle the quickest.
I’m constantly hearing Man City have the best squad, and are therefore widely tipped to win the title, but if United maintain the levels they hit on Wednesday then I think they have both the experience and ability to come out on top again.
When you look at the league table they are just one point behind City, three behind Chelsea and seven behind Arsenal. I don’t doubt both City and Chelsea will find form and but I’m unsure whether Arsenal can sustain their early season form. They are playing some beautiful football, as they often have in the past, but if anything happens to Olivier Giroud then they could be in trouble. So far, it’s made for a fascinating league, but I’m sure things will settle.
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