Last season Manchester United rarely looked their team-devouring best. They often struggled against the stubborn brick walls put up by sides they used to rout. They didn’t dominate so much as scrape out the clutch wins. Loads of late goals in tight matches. Loads of slim margins. It wasn’t a season of pure stellar performance, yet points are points and United still won the league.
Most United supporters credit this to athletic diligence. Most of the rest of us credit it to perpetual, well-timed luck.
For me, the two determining factors were:
1) A defense that was less penetrable than the Death Star in Episode IV. (Hey, at least Luke Skywalker didn’t have Edwin van der Sar guarding the thermal exhaust port.)
2) Cristiano Ronaldo’s inexhaustible ability to turn a match around in roughly three-tenths of a nanosecond.
It seemed whenever United were struggling, one or both of these elements came to the rescue. When United’s attackers struggled to find the goals, the back line and a record number of clean sheets kept such needs modest. One was often enough to win. When United fell behind, Ronaldo was there with the decisive spark to bring them back. Most notably against Aston Villa and Tottenham. He scored the equalizer against Villa (setting the table for Macheda’s late winner) and he converted the penalty to set the comeback against Spurs in motion (with a little help from Mr Webb). Ronaldo also scored the goal that put United ahead in that eventual 5-2 win.
So, with Ronaldo gone and the defense struggling with injuries, I looked to the opening fixtures to ratify this theory of mine.
An eked-out win against Birmingham and shocking loss to Burnley made me feel I might have something. By half time in the Wigan match, I was all but certain. A dominant but uninspired United flubbed chances and wasted possession. Their only saving grace was Wigan attackers seemed to forget where they were every time they broke into the attacking third. Get out the GPS, boys: the goal’s around here somewhere.
Then, in the second half, using all his neck muscles, Wayne Rooney smashed my theory to pieces.
Former Wigan Athlete Antonio Valencia curled a beautiful cross into the box. Rooney was ten yards out but he still managed to rise at the perfect time and meet the ball full force. I hate being dazzled by a United player, but it really was a fantastic goal.
And Wigan collapsed.
Minutes later, Berbatov got through the gate with a clever lob pass to himself before smacking the ball into goal.
And Rooney would put the game out of reach (if it wasn’t already) with a patient close-range strike in traffic.
Two more goals went in for the Red Devils. But by then Wigan had nothing left in the tanks. They had staved off conceding for a good stretch, but Rooney undid them. He cracked the safe. He knocked the right rock out of the damn and the floodwaters came a-crashing.
I’d wondered if Rooney would step up his presence with Ronaldo gone, and his Wigan goals look like a sure sign he will. Like, Ronaldo, he is a player who can utterly change the match with little notice. He is the type to make the difference if the rest of the parts are struggling. Injuries and position shifts kept him from being his consistent best the last couple years, but he’s always had the stuff and this looks like his season to prove he can be United’s most influential player.
It is still a long road to May and United have yet to face their toughest opponents so I’m still clinging to hope that they’ll struggle some more, drop some more points and ratify my theory before Ferdinand and van der Sar come back to full fitness. But the second-half onslought against Wigan worries me.
Last season wasn’t won or lost against the best teams. Liverpool beat United and Chelsea twice each and still didn’t win the league. The difference was United’s ability to break down the defense minded-sides and put home that decisive goal while Liverpool struggled with draws against sides like Stoke City. If Wayne Rooney can crack the defenses of the sides who come to play for a draw, Ronaldo won’t be as missed as I’d hoped and United can still fight for the top despite not being at their best.
Damn it, United…