During the recent ITV special Keane & Vieira: The Best of Enemies, former Manchester United captain Roy Keane gave his insight into his pre-match mental preparations:
“On [game day], particularly the parts of my body which had been previously injured, be it my cruciate, my hip or previous knocks; they would be aching me. And I know it was just because my body knew it was going into battle and it was almost getting ready. And I’m thinking, ‘Listen…I’m going to suffer.’”
“I used to build myself up to have that hatred and get my body psyched up because I knew I had to be at my angriest to be at my best.”
The legendary Irish midfielder was referencing his feeling towards Arsenal, but anyone who has seen Keane play during his years with United or his national team will tell you that ‘hatred’, some would call it ‘desire’, was on display game-in and game-out. Keane was notorious for his run-ins with opposing players and was the catalyst for some of Manchester United’s best teams in recent years.
Right now, Manchester United appear to be a team in fear of losing. They may not be scared of their opponent, but there is a hesitancy or doubt in their game that hasn’t been there in recent years and Premier League clubs are capitalizing on that. Even former Manchester United defender turned television pundit Gary Neville (who is usually spot on with his analysis) is finding it hard to put his finger on Manchester United’s problem:
“People always want to know the definitive answer. They want to know one thing but there’s never one thing that’s gone wrong when a team loses one match, let alone when they’re on a poor run of form.
“Confidence is low. I was at the game last Saturday against Newcastle and they almost drifted through the performance.
“I always think of United teams going down in a blaze of glory at the end, lots of chances, mayhem in the opposition box, goalkeepers going up but it just didn’t seem to happen and at the moment they’re lacking in belief.
“They’re the same players who were champions last year so that belief, form and standard is in there but they’ve got to get it back because they’re putting themselves under more pressure the more times that they drop points.”
Some fans are pointing the finger at United’s new manager David Moyes. But the signs of United’s stumble have been there since last season under Sir Alex Ferguson.
As pointed out in an earlier article, over the final eight games of the 2012-13 Premier League season, Manchester United only collected 12 out of a possible 24 points. They have basically continued that trend into the new season under different management (22 out of a possible 45 points this season).
Since April 2013, Manchester United has lost to Manchester City twice (home and away), drawn and lost to Chelsea (both matches at Old Trafford), lost to Liverpool (away), and have lost home matches to West Bromwich Albion, Everton, and Newcastle United; while drawing at home to Southampton. During that time, the lone “bright spot” for United has been a draw and a win over Arsenal.
Somewhere along the line Manchester United went from being a team who were capable of building a fifteen point lead over Manchester City, to one that struggles to beat mid-table teams at Old Trafford. There hasn’t been any changes to the squad since last April; it’s the same team. The players just took their foot off the pedal at a certain point last season and haven’t been able to regain that edge.
Of course reasons can be given for United recent decline: the loss of Michael Carrick (and today’s news that they will be without the services of Robin Van Persie), the club’s disappointing transfer window, the transition period between managers; but the bottom line is there are enough players on United’s roster to win games.
Take for example United’s next league opponent, Aston Villa. How many football experts would say Aston Villa’s squad was good enough to beat Manchester City and Arsenal this season? Not many. But the Villains were able to defeat both of those teams because of their focus and determination (and a little luck). Their hard work paid off with two huge league wins over opponents whose rosters are lined with quality/world class players. Aston Villa were able to overcome those odds with the collective strength of their team.
During the ITV special, Roy Keane was asked if he ever “enjoyed winning” to which he replied he never did because he was already thinking about the next match. He would gear himself up for each opponent, play the match, then sit down only to realize that the next competition was right around the corner. For Keane (and most professional athletes), sports are an endless cycle of renewing concentration while demanding more from yourself in order to meet new challenges.
Manchester United need to regain that fire; that hatred for losing and desire to beat their opponents.
There are players at the club who display that characteristic. Look into the eyes of Nemanja Vidic when he’s leading Manchester United out of the tunnel and on to the pitch before a match. His steely glare is fixed on the task at hand and it reflects in his execution during the match. Vidic’s head always seems to find opponent’s searching crosses into the box and his bone crunching tackles are the defender’s calling card.
Wayne Rooney and Phil Jones have also shown tremendous effort on both ends of the pitch this season. But United as a team aren’t matching that level of intensity. There is an old saying that “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” And as of this moment, there are too many weak (or underperforming) links on United squad. It’s not something that will be cured during the January transfer window, it can only be addressed by the players in their locker room.
“I don’t play against a particular team, I play against the idea of losing.”—Eric Cantona.
It really is as simple as that for Manchester United.
Editor’s note: For the latest Red Devils news, opinion and analysis, visit the Manchester United team page.