Manchester United are a different kind of beast this year. They finished the last Premier League season having conceded 33 goals, a feat only beaten by their arch rivals Manchester City, and apart from a few rarities their opponents netted either zero or a single goal against them. This campaign, there has been much media and punditry attention paid to United’s frailties at the back, with the side often having to kick into gear after half an hour and stage a come-back from a two goal deficit.
Last weekend’s match against relegation battlers Reading was a classic example. By half-time, the score line was 4-3. Some have lamented United’s backline, or cited the fact that Sir Alex Ferguson is yet to have a full roster of defenders this season – Nemanja Vidic is still being nursed into a recovery from serious knee problems, while Phil Jones and Chris Smalling have only recently returned to first team training. I have a slightly different hypothesis – all Fergie really cares about this year is scoring goals, which has often left his defence wide open. It is only November, but the Red Devils have already conceded 21 times.
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The amazing final day of the season last May, which saw United get pipped to the post for the title on goal difference, taught the Scottish legend a lesson. He bought Robin van Persie, the league’s best striker, and now has three forwards who are more than capable of scoring 20 goals per season, which is something Fergie truly believes and has himself expressed. Considering the goal threat at Manchester City, it is no surprise. Balotelli, Dzeko, Aguero and Tevez are a diverse and clinical strike force, and outweigh Hernandez, Rooney and Welbeck, but the addition of Robin van Persie has arguably tipped the balance. The likes of Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham fail to compare in terms of quality and quantity with the two Manchester clubs. Although I agree Spurs have two excellent strikers in Jermain Defoe and Emmanuel Adebayor, the squad is lacking in depth up front.
Van Persie has perpetually proved himself season upon season at Arsenal, but I have been surprised by his fast adaption to life at Old Trafford. The Dutch international has modified his game, and despite some pundits suggesting his style might clash with Wayne Rooney, the two have formed a flourishing partnership. RVP recently put down their successful on-pitch relationship to their similarity as footballers: “I call it a nine and a half because you have two positions, the nine and the 10, and we are both nine and a half.
“We are just helping each other out. We both play behind and a bit higher up. It seems to be working well and I am very happy with Wayne.” It’s a good analysis, with van Persie joint top of the scoring charts and Rooney leading the assists table, but both have performed well at either task.
Hernandez and Welbeck provide Ferguson with some diversity in style up front. Welbeck is young and athletic, and can work the channels. His goal scoring ratio has perhaps been less impressive than it could and arguably should be, but the England youngster is hard working and can show moments of brilliance. Hernandez is a purely natural poacher, his reading of the game and his ability to find space provide his source of goals, but unlike RVP or Rooney it is doubtful he’ll create chances.
With just 78 minutes between each of Chicarito’s five domestic goals, he is the best striker in the league in terms of game-time value. Second place on goals per minute is Edin Dzeko, who is very much Hernandez’s City counterpart in terms of his role in the team but certainly not in style, however he is some way off with a goal every 93 minutes of playing time.
A few articles discussing the United strike force have recently come to my attention. One publication on talkSport’s website has argued that if Liverpool had United’s goals-to-shots ratio, they would be top of the league with various graphs and a tweaked results list to prove it. Another, released by the Daily Mail, argued that United would be tenth without van Persie’s goals.
To be honest, I find this hypothesising rather pointless – If I had spent my youth practicing my kick ups instead of eating crisps and playing video games then I would be a professional footballer instead of continuing to eat crisps while I write about it. The truth is Liverpool don’t have the United strike force to put chances away, they have Luis Suarez – whose biggest flaw is arguably his finishing at times – and furthermore, Manchester United do have the flying Dutchman, which will be the difference by the end of the season.
Many have pointed to United’s forward thinking and defensively lapsed manner this season as a symptom of losing the title on goal difference last year. In some ways it is, but it is not Fergie’s plan to make sure he has more goals at the end of the season than his league rivals – his plan is to out-score his opponents over the course of 90 minutes. It is an uncommon occurrence that the Premiership should be decided on goal difference, and probably won’t happen again for a long time.
Therefore, it is unsurprising that Sir Alex is trying to rack up as many wins as possible. United, currently topping the league table, are yet to draw in the league despite having played 15 games, while second place Manchester city have drawn six times and are yet to lose, but are three points off their local and league rivals.
Playing an open game will always work in United’s favour now they have the best goal-scoring threat in the league, and thus the goals their forwards provide in terms of finishing and creating opportunities, in comparison to other teams’ strike-forces, will be the cutting edge that will win United the domestic title, not by goal difference but by the sheer number of points it will earn them.