What else could you really expect from Sir Alex Ferguson’s 1,000 Premier League match?
On a waterlogged pitch against a hungry Southampton squad on the verge of a statement win, Manchester United’s most sensational summer acquisition, Robin van Persie, saved the day and his teammates from facing the ire of a disgruntled Sir Alex.
Yet, the two last-gasp goals by Van Persie will cover up what was a truly dreadful performance from United. Just like against Everton and Fulham, Manchester United once again allowed opponents they were expected to win against to completely dominate them.
Just like the follies that plagued United last season, we’ve now seen Sir Alex’s men look flat, uninspired and complacent. Manchester United have now been out-played and out-hustled by opponents who may lack their technical skill but showed more heart and desire on the field.
One can make the argument that besides the first half against Fulham where United emphatically responded to an early Damien Duff goal and the final minutes at St. Mary’s, the Red Devils have been poor and bereft of creativity and nerve.
Granted, Manchester United has certainly not been at full strength as they’ve been stricken with a number of injuries to the center backs. With Nemanja Vidic still trying to regain his form and fitness, the Serbian weathered through with an out-of-place Michael Carrick who was predictably bullied around by the likes of Marouane Fellaini. The return of Rio Ferdinand against the Saints was a major boost but it was obvious that they lacked chemistry as Rickie Lambert and the other Southampton attackers truly got the better of them.
The defense will fix itself as Ferdinand, Jonny Evans and Phil Jones all rush back to fitness. However, midfield issues are something that won’t go away anytime soon for Manchester United.
The inclusion of Paul Scholes into the Southampton match was a clear indicator that United still lacks a creative holding midfield that can win the ball and incisively deliver it to the attacking unit. While Michael Carrick kept turning the ball over as he needed to adjust back to playing in midfield, Tom Cleverley was particularly disappointing as he didn’t move forward enough to support the attackers.
Unlike Scholes, midfielders like Cleverley, Anderson and Carrick have demonstrated that they lack ingenuity and imagination. While Scholes gave a typical man-of-the-match performance where his presence, long range passing and consistency made dividends, United’s other holding midfielders often settle on conservative short passes. United can maintain possession just as well as anyone else in England but besides Scholes, Sir Alex has failed to bring in a maestro who can break down a stingy defense.
Manchester United’s meandering build up play will simply not cut it against the likes of Manchester City or Chelsea who will be able keep the ball and have numerous opportunities to break down the defense. The lack of hustle and will to win the 50/50 balls and to keep opponents on their heels by constantly moving forward will bring on Manchester United’s downfall just like it did last season.
The acquisition of Robin van Persie has already saved Manchester United from humiliating results in the new season so far. As long as Van Persie stays fit (and hoping that a Manchester United player stays fit nowadays seems like a ton to ask for), United will benefit from the Dutch forward’s world class finishing. The return of a fit, hungry Wayne Rooney will form a superb partnership that will be particularly benefitted by ace Shinji Kagawa who can both score and deliver great final balls.
However, this United squad frankly needs to show more spirit and ruthlessness in dominating less-skilled opponents. As the season progresses, United’s players need to stay healthy and build a winning rapport with each other.
Whether Manchester United can reclaim the title will partially depend on whether someone other than Scholes can step up in midfield by relentlessly dictating the match with decisive passing. The remarkable return of Darren Fletcher from his long-term ailment could be very well be a solution to the team’s midfield woes though depending on him to find his form again consistently is a major gamble to take.
Robin van Persie’s Sunday heroics are truly worth savoring but there is no denying that Manchester United has a long way to go before they actually look like a team capable of wrestling away the title back from Manchester City.