Fast forward. The scene: Goodison Park, 90 minutes on the clock. 3-1. Innocuous looking cross in from the left. Cahill (pretty much the smallest man on the field) gets between the two center backs. Plants a header into the back of the net. 3-2. Nerves. Kick off. Punt up field. Ball lost. Everton attack. Baines delivers another cross. Headed down by Cahill. Arteta strikes. Massive deflection. The net rustles. 3-3. Two points dropped.
See a pattern emerging here? It’s called ‘not closing out a game.’ I, like most United fans was absolutely shocked and speechless when Arteta’s goal went in. And as I watched in horror, Everton made another menacing foray into United’s half and the ref blew his whistle in the middle of the attack. My first reaction – ‘whew! That was close!’ My subsequent reaction – ‘Holy Cow! What just happened there? Why am I happy that it was only 2 points dropped and not 3? I should be angry that we dropped any points at all.’
Well, the dust has settled and the fact of the matter is that we’ve dropped 4 points even as the Chelsea machine has rolled on; crushing all in its wake like a juggernaut. After the agony of losing out by a single point last campaign, the start to this one looked very promising indeed. Newcastle were dispatched in style and then the Cottage debacle happened. Last season, the second game, Burnley happened and to this day, many fans think that those were the crucial three points that eventually lost us the title.
United have traditionally been slow starters but that can no longer be used as an excuse. In the past few seasons, United’s away playing style has changed considerably. Gone are the days when United were the swashbuckling team who, regardless of where they played, were the home team, so to speak. The new style that Sir Alex employs seems to be built on counters. United have approached away fixtures with a packed 5 man midfield and one up top. United have been happy to sit back and soak up pressure and hit teams on the counter with blistering pace. This has been used ever since Ruud left and Ronaldo and Rooney became the fulcrum of the side. Fair play to Sir Alex, it has worked more often than not.
Well, on introspection, this approach has been successful only because of the strong foundations on which it has been built. While packing the midfield, the rear guard action of united has always been par excellence. With Rio and Vidic rock solid at the center, United could afford to sit back and absorb pressure, knowing that they could counter almost anything thrown at them. The defence has looked anything but solid this term and even for large parts of the last. Even in the two wins over Newcastle and West ham, the defence endured quite a few nervy moments. Jonny Evans has been very unpredictable; brilliant one moment and silly, the next and although solid on Saturday Vida has also looked far from his world beating best. United have had to thank the almost 40 van der Sar on more than one occasion.
Another hallmark of Sir Alex’s teams has always been the absolute and utter discipline that is instilled in them. United do not let even one goal leads slip, let alone two goal leads in injury time. Slack defending and an overall lack of defensive discipline has led to 4 points being dropped already and the season is not even 5 games old.
The game really has woken people up. For one, what was thought impossible is now possible. Teams will believe that they can take points off United. The fear factor that United possessed is now certainly diminished. This might not be an altogether bad thing though. This may lead to teams attacking more, and hence leave them more vulnerable. That being said, though, it is not an ideal position United would want to be in. We are used to being the top dogs. The team everybody wants to beat. That aura must not diminish. It simply must not.
Sir Alex, I am sure, would have given the boys a good stern talking to. He would, no doubt, have impressed upon them the need to keep their wits about them. United have played some absolutely sensational football this season already, with Scholes looking to be vintage season and Berbatov looking better than ever. Even without Rooney, the team that looked clueless at times last season has played some breathtaking stuff.
Sir Alex rather famously said, ‘Every game for United is a cup final.’ Never was it truer than in the current scenario. With Chelsea hardly looking like dropping even one point, United must raise their game. It’s time to shape up… or ship out. It’s not the big things that are wrong. It’s the small things, the ‘silly’ mistakes that cost us in the end.
View the trailer of new thriller ‘Buried’ out Sept. 29th