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3 Things We Learned This Weekend

Nothing ever lasts forever

The press appear to have treated Jose Mourinho`s post match assertion that United`s title defence is over as some kind of surprising or inflammatory statement. To some extent it`s understandable, Ferguson`s United has hovered over us all for so long that it`s impossible not to feel like they are on the cusp of revival. It`s like seeing your tormentor locked up in prison. It gives you some peace of mind, but it doesn`t remove the psychological scar for a little while. You still step carefully around every corner, anticipating impending doom every time that you do.

United`s defeat at Chelsea looked eerily familiar for an Arsenal fan. Some good work early on in the game being totally undone by a couple of defensive lapses. Relying on one precocious young talent to carry your entire threat whilst Robin van Persie peers on from the stands unable to assist. Yet even Ferguson`s brilliant United sides wouldn`t have been able to make up this deficit, which now sees them 14 points adrift of the top of the table. If United were chasing just one table topper, then a repeat of Newcastle`s collapse in 1996 or United`s collapse in 1998 could be forlornly hoped for.

But United were always relying on 3 teams collapsing in the event that they did put a formidable winning run together. The worry for Moyes now is that they are firmly in a battle for a top 4 place and their 3 rivals for 4th, Everton, Liverpool and Spurs, don`t look especially vulnerable either. You`d probably back United`s quality over those three in the next 4 months, but United`s destiny, even for 4th, is not in their own hands at this moment in time.

Tonight Thank God It`s Them, Instead of You

Whilst Arsenal, City and Chelsea have turned into unstoppable winning machines, at the bottom end of the table, the busy Christmas schedule seems to have separated wheat from chaff rather drastically. There are currently 7 teams averaging a point per game or less now. Some managers are probably not under as much pressure as they might otherwise be simply because the media is having a hard time keeping track of them all. Chris Hughton, Sam Allardyce, Mauricio Pochettino, Michael Laudrup and Mark Hughes oversaw some poor seasonal form, as did Alan Pardew prior to an away win at Upton Park on Saturday. Whilst Rene Meulensteen, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Pepe Mel haven`t even been able to make their dead cats bounce.

In this environment, Tony Pulis and Gus Poyet have been able to quietly oversee a revival in their survival prospects. I wrote on these pages just a couple of months ago that Palace and Sunderland`s limp surrender would have a consequence on the title fight. It appeared that many poor teams would have something of a busman`s holiday at the season`s conclusion with only one relegation spot to avoid. Palace and Sunderland`s reanimation has given cause for the likes of Norwich, Swansea and West Brom to become fearful again, with the knowledge that the bell could toll for them if they continue to slack.

Self control

Many predicted a rout as Arsenal took on one of the Premier League`s lesser lights Fulham on Saturday. Your sage writer, possessed of wit and good looks, predicted a routine 2-0 win. Arsenal have won by this score line in 3 of their last 4 games, and 7 times in their last 9 home games (draws with Chelsea and Everton the only exceptions). This is a more controlled Arsenal than past incarnations.

Arsene Wenger alluded to the confidence that the defence radiates out towards the team after the match on Saturday. Past Arsenal teams would probably have tried to win this game 6-0 and would have probably won 5-3 in trying to do so. (Who can forget Cesc Fabregas` brain-dead decision to launch a stoppage time corner into the Spurs penalty area at 4-3 some years back?) Arsenal don`t do that now because they don`t have to, at 2-0 they feel confident that the game is over and that there is no need to over extend thereafter.

A good professional job and onto the next game is all that is required. It is of course fun to hand out the occasional 5 or 6 goal thrashing, but you`re just as likely to over commit and put the result in doubt in trying to do so. You`re also likely to over extend and jeopardise immediate fixtures. After beating Southampton 6-1 last season, Arsenal lost 3 of their next 4 games. They didn`t win any of their next 3 games after beating Spurs 5-2. They didn`t win any of their next 3 after beating Newcastle 7-3.

Of course it would be too simplistic to attribute the lulls followed by these thrashings last season entirely to over exertion, there will be a number of factors. But they certainly held little long term benefit and weren`t the boon to confidence they are often portrayed as. Much better to win often than to win well occasionally and clean sheets tend to be better at instilling confidence than goal gluts. Though maybe Manchester City, with their expensively assembled attack, might beg to differ.

Click here to join in the debate on the club forum.

The Journalist

Writer: Tim Stillman Mail feedback, articles or suggestions

Date:Monday January 20 2014

Time: 10:43AM

Your Comments (oldest first)

Change to most recent first
I have the feeling that ManU are suffering the consequences of some short term decisions in near past. Wenger suggested that he thought Fergie might retire at the end of last season when he bought RvP at the beginning of the season. There's a team rebuilding needed there that might take 2 or 3 years to restore to their previous competitive level. Interestingly Wenger suggested that the struggles in the 2nd half at Villa and the one paced play in the first half against Fulham owed a bit to over caution. Nonetheless there's a greater maturity on the pitch now and it does seem that the senior players are working out the pattern of play for themselves to some extent. So far they're getting it about right.
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20/01/2014 11:27:00

"Tonight thank god it's them instead of you" - you said it, Tim.

Maturity is the difference. The squad overall is the same age or younger, but more of the first choice players are the older ones. I'll just see if that para thing has worked before I carry on...

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20/01/2014 12:22:00

Oh well. Anyway, regarding ManU and SAF, I am wondering more and more why Moyes was appointed. When you consider the size of the club in question, that they were on a high - League champions, recent treble winners... They could have had any manager in the world (except Arsene, obviously). I assumed that it was because Moyes had shown he could manage a budget and buy well within it, but now I am wondering if that would have been enough.
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20/01/2014 12:26:00

wel, noting much bt i want arsene to get a striker nd a winger...
Raymond Nwaigba
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20/01/2014 12:34:00

Someone in the Utd hierarchy probably decided they saw a young Ferguson in Moyes. It might even have been old red nose himself. Its early days yet but times are different now, and managers are barely given time to get to know their teams. I guess there's too much at stake. A team like Utd can't afford not to be on the main stage. And like us they cant afford to make too many expensive mistakes.
Wyn Mills
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20/01/2014 14:58:00

I don't think you can lay all that much at Moyes's feet. If you look at ManU's transfer policy over the last 3 or 4 seasons you'd have to question whether he was buying just to keep the show on the road for another season. Maybe if he's having to keep up with City and Chelsea it's hard not to do that if you're seen as the top dog club - but I think it has come at a cost.
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20/01/2014 15:00:00

I think it’s becoming clearer and clearer that Ferguson knew there was a big rebuilding job ahead and didn’t want to hang around long enough to do it. With RvP he bought himself a retirement present. There was almost a beautiful simplicity about it, lose the league on goals scored one year, so buy the golden boot winner and win it at a canter a year later. The problem for United is that I think they’ve appointed an average manager to do a job that requires world class nerve and skill. But now they’ve appointed him, they pretty much have to give him 2-3 years because that’s what the task demands as a minimum. The impact the Glazers will continue to have on their finances is going to tell too. As we know, it’s difficult to build a new squad when your rivals are so well heeled. This does have a tang of Souness and Liverpool about it.
Little Dutch
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20/01/2014 15:06:00

I recall, at the time we were looking to replace GG, someone saying that following GG would be a much tougher task than following whoever followed GG. Maybe Moyes is set up to be United's Rioch and whoever follows Moyes will not carry quite the same burden.
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20/01/2014 15:21:00

Have to say it must have been chastening as a United fan to see that team yesterday. Without RvP and Rooney, they're very ordinary (though I really like the look of Januzaj, he's already a brilliant player, and you feel Kagawa is wasted there). I agree with your comment about Arsenal's new found control of games. You look at City and, like Barca, they can afford to be so attacking when you have players of their talent. When Wenger was trying to do that with us, we just didn't have the same quality. He's probably realised that it's more important for the club to win something first and then focus on winning with style (although we're hardly negative). What I don't understand is how teams like City and Barca are able to create so much space and score so many goals when teams sit back. They have similar size pitches to us, but it always seems teams find it easier to sit back and deny us space at our place. Anyone with better knowledge than me that can enlighten me?
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20/01/2014 15:25:00

I must confess that that's why I thought United would hire Mourinho. He'd be good for a year or two, maybe a cup or two, he wouldn't be put off by the shadow of Ferguson and he'd ***** off after 2 years anyway, leaving the way clear for the next guy. That said, United need to be rebuilt and don't have the biggest budget in the league, so one can see why they might have been sceptical about Mourinho. Vin, I'd say it's just what you get with that level of player. Look at Cesc and Ozil this season. Make no mistake, Ozil will be the first player opposition teams talk about when they play us. They'll want 2 men on him at least at all times. Same for Febregas. Yet both always seem to be in acres of space.
Little Dutch
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20/01/2014 16:12:00

Not sure that any of our tactical knowledge is better than anyone else's but with enough theories we may get close enough to make it worth theorising. In recent seasons our problem has been a lack of attacking experience. Theo had taken some big steps forward over the last season and a half, Wilshere and Ramsey were, and still are, learning their craft. There isn't quite the automatic passing and movement and decision making that mature players, especially those who have played together for a while, have. That's certainly true of Barca (though worth noting that they manage to do so without conventional strikers) and the City team is largely one that's been together for a couple of seasons and more. If we can keep the team and its key players together for another season or two we may well see it become easier for us to pull teams around - though we do a decent job of it even now. That said a player that can do it for himself, a Henry, RvP, Suarez, Messi et c., can't do any harm. Difficult to find them but we have made some in our time.
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20/01/2014 16:21:00

Thanks, guys. Both your points make sense. I also seem to recall someone saying somewhere that the rest of the team aren't on Ozil's wavelength yet and he sees things before they do. Watching on Saturday, you can't help but lament the loss of Walcott and really makes me yearn for another speed king as much as another striker to help give our game more variety. It's also true that Pellegrini has inherited a team that's already adapted to the PL - and of course won it.
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20/01/2014 16:41:00

"Moyes is set up to be Utd's Rioch", been my thoughts exactly (although I didn't draw the Rioch comparison, it's a fantastic one) I reckon a few managers out there wouldn't have fancied following the slurry one.
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20/01/2014 17:44:00

The Man U story is really an interesting one. The Glazers are truly the wild cards in all of this. The coverage on transfer business in notable publications like New York Times and the Wall Street Journal recently tend to concentrate solely on and highlights the absurdities of player-contracts in Europe (not really contracts according to their interpretations) and the money-transfers to clubs. You get the sense that the EPL American owners are looking for angles, any angle at all to torch the foundations of the money outlays and their clubs' complicity in the absurdities. Glazers are perhaps looking forward to the FFP more than they let on and they are also the most vulnerable in terms of the running out of avenues to 'bail' the club if things don't turn out as anticipated. Taking the club public is certainly a mixed blessing; the market would tolerate financial prudence for a little while as the rebuilding goes on. What is not clear is what happens if the rebuilding requires longer than 3 years and demands close to a decade and the FFP proves a farce? The market would surely step in, the Glazers would bail out, and a Sovereign Fund from the MidEast or somewhere would buy all the shares.
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20/01/2014 18:07:00

NYArse - that's an interesting analysis. Where united are so lucky is they do have a robust brand that you feel will always see them through.
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20/01/2014 22:34:00

Gooner_Vin, United surely are colossus when it comes to brand recognition (ref: commercial success). However, in the long term a self-sustaining model works only if there is a relative stability especially in player wages. The market (for players) Arsenal faced was the worse anyone could have imagined. This is one of the reasons why qualifying for CL became a necessary and ostensibly sufficient condition for us, and Wenger never stopped reminding us of such.
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21/01/2014 00:30:00

You just feel United are just a couple of signings away from fighting their way into the champions league places. The trouble is who would sell their best players to them (of course, they would need top top quality for that) in the winter? From experience, I would choose not to write them off or underrate their chances of a fight back until it is mathematically impossible for them to make top 4; it is now impossible for them to win the title, though. I also agree Fergie knew the extent of re-building required and he went for van Persie, to get something of a retirement trophy. Now, Moyes has to carry the can. I guess I am of that bruised few who keep having the feeling United are on "the cusp of some revival" at some point; but that would depend on if and who they buy this window.
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21/01/2014 01:13:00

Football is played in the head as much as on the field. Fear factor is a very underated concept when playing matches. United were able to win matches before stepping unto the pitch due to the opponents always expecting a pasting, hence a mental sense of inevitability. This season, united under moyes has lost most of that fear factor, they are made to work harder for wins. This concept also explains why we play so timidly against united in recent seasons despite having a much better midefield. The same reason city are on a roll at the etihad, cos they don't play particularly different, but they have a reputation of crushing teams there hence the mental victory over their opponents. We also had similar fear factor with the invincible squad when we drove fear into the opposition.
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22/01/2014 07:39:00

Anyone else worried about JM selling Mata to Utd. And we face them.. :-/
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22/01/2014 19:54:00

Why should we be more worried playing them at home if they sign Mata than City should be playing them away? Their squad is more than another attacking player short anyway.
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22/01/2014 22:39:00

Very true Amos.
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24/01/2014 16:09:00


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