Winning the title shouldn’t mask Manchester United’s decline

Manchester United may be a team heading into decline despite a possibly highly successful seasonAs usual, Manchester United will lift the Premier League trophy in May. Bearing that in mind, just the thought of this article could be considered slightly absurd. Even as I write, Javier Hernandez has scored a trademark late winner. Barring a massive upset against Bundesliga mid-tablers Schalke, United will also reach the Champions League final, against the winner of the other, Clásico semi final, and United will back themselves to add European success to their customary Premiership title. Good progress was made in the domestic cups as well. It is a squad that has all of Ferguson’s trademarks; pace – in abundance, technical ability, team unity, youth and experience, confidence and determination. And yet, they are flawed, possibly the most flawed champions that Ferguson has produced.

United have won 5 out of 17 away games this year. When was the last time a title winning team won 5 away games? Never. In fact, the lowest amount of away victories for a title-winning team is 8. United will not reach that mark, and indeed will be lucky to reach 7, as their remaining two away fixtures are Arsenal and Blackburn. Arsenal will want to win for personal revenge, as well as to keep alive their faint title hopes, and Blackburn, embroiled in the relegation fight, beat Liverpool 3-1 at Ewood Park. 24 away points compared to 49 home points, both from 17 games.

The main cause of this has been a leaky defence. Wolves, Blackpool, Fulham, Villa, Chelsea, Bolton and West Ham have all scored two past United’s travelling defence, with Merseyside rivals Everton and Liverpool both netting three goals. 23 goals conceded in 17 games is not good enough, and it’s not a case of United conceding after putting their feet up, they only won against Blackpool and West Ham in that list. Ferguson will argue that he has been riddled with defensive injuries, but really, that’s not a good enough excuse.

Vidic has played 31 games, and Evra 32, so two of United’s three regulars at the back have been nearly ever present. Rio Ferdinand has struggled a bit with injuries, but both Smalling and Evans are regarded highly for reserve centre-backs. In the past few years, the right back spot has been rotated at United, so it is no surprise to see Rafael and John O’Shea sharing the majority of games there between them.

It can be argued that United simply haven’t been good enough in defence, but that doesn’t tally with their unbelievable home record (16 wins and a draw in 17 games). The minnows of the Premier League have awoken to the fact that United are not that special at all, and that there are points available when United visit.

It is hard to see what the real problem is, and evidenced by the topsy-turvy nature of the season, United are not the only team to have suffered from it, but the truth is, teams just are not scared of Manchester United anymore. There is no aura of greatness surrounding the team. There are no players of the calibre of Cristiano Ronaldo or David Beckham. There are no hardmen, no Keanes and no Nevilles. Though far removed now, Fernando Torres’ successive humiliations of Vidic, Evra and Ferdinand may have shattered the League’s conceptions of United.

Nani has developed into a potent attacking force, and his omission from the PFA Player of the Year shortlist was rude – but he has yet to show himself as the player that United will turn to when they need a goal in stoppage time. Wayne Rooney has rediscovered his shooting boots, but is still to hit last year’s highs. Javier Hernandez has popped up with crucial goals, but relies on service rather than manufacturing something himself. Dimitar Berbatov is a minnow basher, and is neither reliable nor trusted by Ferguson in the big games. Antonio Valencia has spent the season injured, and there is very little invention from a midfield consisting Anderson, Carrick and Fletcher. Paul Scholes has declined and Owen Hargreaves would do little creatively even if he was ever around.

It is no wonder that they have been linked with Wesley Sneijder, Luka Modric, Kaka and even Andres Iniesta. United’s attackers lack inspiration, and their defenders have too much to cope with as a result. Ferguson’s previous great teams made other teams genuinely frightened to play them. Roma 7-1, Liverpool 4-0, Real Madrid 4-3, Arsenal 4-0 were the kind of results that made them feared world over. Losing 1-4 to Liverpool and 4-0 to West Ham has not helped their cause. Manchester United need to regain the virtuosity, the dominance and the brutality that made them the greatest team in the world.

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