Manchester United, riding their luck or making it?
Manchester United are a club that can boast some of the biggest names in world football yet remain riddled with inconsistency. This is a squad with remarkable depth and talent across almost all areas, and yet they have so far failed to successfully string together neither performances nor results.
Within an eventful summer transfer window which no football fan will forget, Manchester United signed some of the biggest players in world football. Having brought in arguably the greatest ever to play the game, one of Europe's most promising talents, and a World Cup and four-time Champions League winning centre back in Cristiano Ronaldo, Jadon Sancho, and Raphael Varane, United had one of their best windows in recent memory. Now possessing an incomparable front line with unmatched depth and quality, the season had begun with them joint top of the table after five games going into last weekend.
Nonetheless, when one watches the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City, or Liverpool they can see the tactical systems of their respective managers at play. The performances of these other teams making up the top four have far outshone that of Manchester United, a team which is still struggling to find their best starting eleven and style of play.
Despite registering nine goals across just two strong performances against Leeds and Newcastle, six points of their campaign so far have come as a result of a goalkeeping error by José Sá at Molineux, and Mark Noble's last kick of the game penalty being saved against West Ham.
Equally, being knocked out of the League Cup alongside losing their first match of the Champions League campaign against Young Boys has given rival fans, and Manchester United critics alike, a solid argument to claim that the results which the team have produced in the Premier League did indeed rely on luck in the form of the goals of Ronaldo, none of which have been world-class or even particularly convincing finishes.
Further evidence of Manchester United’s inconsistency was witnessed this weekend as they suffered their first loss of the campaign against Aston Villa, where Dean Smith's men got their buoyant start to the season back on track courtesy of Kortney Hause's 88th-minute goal. Manchester United had 60% possession and 28 shots, yielding an xG of 2.27, yet they failed to have the creativity required around the box nor the clinical and consistent finishing needed to break down the West Midlands side. The Old Trafford crowd were subjected to a maelstrom of emotion in the game's final moments; the calamitous concession of a late goal would have been negated but for Bruno Fernandes missing a penalty in the third minute of stoppage time. This was only his second failure to convert one of the 23 penalties he has taken for the club, and needing to be saved by injury-time spot-kicks certainly has elements of riding your luck for United. Ultimately, however, this was a simple demonstration of the uncomfortable truth; they remain more than capable of simply not turning up on the day.
This, however, seems to be an oversimplification. From the Champions League to the pub teams, luck has always played a part in football. Those fighting for trophies and the best teams ultimately create their own luck. There is being in the right place at the right time, and there is superb positional instinct; it is a disservice to many players to equate the two. At this early stage in the season, Manchester United have frequently had to adapt to allow the introduction of new players, a process that can tint the few months of the season.
Roy Keane said this season will be a ‘rollercoaster’ for Manchester United fans and I am inclined to agree. My interpretation of their start to the season is simply that they are playing the same way they have done for the past three seasons, but with the quality of the new signings introduced.
A team that plays in moments, Manchester United under Ole Gunnar Solskjær have never been the sort which week in and week out string together intricate and dominant passing displays. They are instead a team set up to defend well and rely on their world-class players to produce moments of magic in blistering counter-attacks.
Whether this tactical approach is enough to win their first league title since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013 remains to be seen. Furthermore, whether this tactical approach is indeed reliant on sheer luck is also a potential criticism that may grow. With players like Cristiano Ronaldo in their squad, simply chalking up any success they have this season to luck would be to ignore the fact that the team may indeed simply manufacture good fortune. It seems clear to me that if Manchester United do win any silverware this season, it will be a product of the team gambling on their world-class players to perform in key moments. Whilst being less appealing to watch than the fluent football presented by other teams, Manchester United are a strong side who may still be able to, week on week, manufacture their own luck.
Image cortesy of Abhijit Tembhekar via Flickr