Manchester United Benefitting from Rivals in Transition
Time and time again this season, it has been said that this Manchester United side is one of the weaker teams the club has had in recent years. The validity of this opinion is highly questionable. After all, teams don’t go 29 league games unbeaten and reach the semi finals of the FA Cup and Champions League, whilst holding a fairly comfortable lead in the league if they’re poor, right? What isn’t as questionable though is that United’s title rivals all seem to be trying to battle their way through transitional periods, while the champions-elect are a much steadier outfit.
Carlo Ancelotti seems to be struggling to formulate Chelsea’s best formation. His side started the season in ominous form using the tried and tested 4-3-3, but since then the Italian has tinkered with his setup, meaning we’ve had the 4-3-3, the diamond, the 4-4-2 and even the interestingly named ‘Christmas tree’ formation. What doesn’t help the Blues is their lack of variety in their players. With the possible exception of Florent Malouda, all of their midfielders are most comfortable centrally, meaning that Ramires and Nicolas Anelka are forced into wide areas where they are not as effective. Now that Fernando Torres is at the club, Ancelotti has tried to find a way of playing with two strikers, but this means either forcing Ramires wide in a 4-4-2, or playing with no width in a diamond or ‘Christmas tree’ formation. Ancelotti will be raising his eyebrow higher than usual as he tries to figure out the solution and get Chelsea back in serious contention.
Arsenal are a team that appear to have been in transition for years now. Arsene Wenger’s policy of persevering with his young players means that this is always a ready-made excuse for the Gunners when the hard times arrive. Wenger himself even used this excuse last week when asked for the reason behind his team’s recent capitulation. One reason he probably won’t admit to in public is the failings of his new centre backs, Laurent Koscielny and Sebastien Squillaci. Everybody knew that Arsenal were lacking a title-winning partnership at the back, and with Thomas Vermaelen perennially injured, Wenger brought in the two French defenders to ease the burden on Johan Djourou. But it hasn’t worked. Squillaci in particular – the more experienced of the two by far – has been lacklustre. Having Manuel Almunia behind you probably won’t help matters either. Arsenal are still several players away from ending their six year wait for a trophy.
Manchester City are not up to the standard of Arsenal or Chelsea just yet, but they are also the team making the most changes. Hundreds of millions of pounds after the takeover, City have not progressed, actually having less points at this stage this season than they did last season. With so many players signed within a year or two of each other, and with no experience of a Premier League title push, it was always going to be difficult for them to challenge. But if you’re Sheikh Mansour, you are expecting more. Much like Chelsea, City are struggling to find the perfect fit for their abundance of riches. Again there are players out of position, and again on the wings, where Mario Balotelli and David Silva are deprived of showing the full scope of their talent. What will not help is the inevitable spending spree in the summer. Stability is what City need now – to continue their indulgence would only be derogatory to their chances.
At the start of the season you might have said Liverpool and Tottenham would be challenging the top three as well, but they have suffered their own problems. Liverpool had a disastrous time with Roy Hodgson at the helm, leaving their season unsolvable. Swapping Torres for Suarez and Carroll will only mean more time taken up as the players get used to them and they get used to each other. With rumours of a summer binge in the transfer market, a new team is forming, one that will need careful nurturing by Kenny Dalglish, or whoever eventually gets the Anfield hot seat. Spurs have had to deal with their first season in the Champions League and this has probably affected their league form. The signing of Rafael van der Vaart on deadline day was clearly not planned in advance, but it has meant a new first choice formation with the Dutchman playing behind one striker; something else the team have had to adjust to.
In contrast to their rivals, Manchester United have no such teething problems. The spine of the side has remained the same since 2006, with van der Sar, Ferdinand and Vidic, Carrick and Scholes, and Wayne Rooney. This blessing means that new signings can fit around this spine and not have a detrimental effect on results. It also allows Sir Alex Ferguson to continue his policy of signing young players and gradually bedding them in to the first team. Without disrupting the core of his team, it is easier to give youngsters a game, knowing that the experience is still there to get results. The likes of Chris Smalling and Javier Hernandez have reaped the benefits from this strategy, each having fantastic debut seasons at the club.
Pundits have always made the point that players need time to settle at clubs, and this season has proved it. It doesn’t matter if you’re Sebastien Squillaci coming to England for the first time or Fernando Torres who has had years of experience in the Premier League, you need settling-in periods, whether they are into a new country or a new formation. Thankfully for Manchester United, their title rivals are all experiencing some form of transition and it might just lead to another domestic double for Sir Alex Ferguson.
Do you agree that United’s rivals are in transition? How can your club solve their problems? Share your opinion by leaving a comment below.
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