1333: Premiership: Manchester United
by : Antony Melvin
Manchester United have won through November in a manner that should presage a championship challenge. As a club they were written off before beating Arsenal, but defeat a week later at Portsmouth perhaps demonstrated their new found lack of timing. In seasons past, we all knew, the Arsenal result would have been a base camp and not the summit itself.
But after that Portsmouth game - Harry Redknapp's last league win as Portsmouth manager - United finally started to play. They were a shade lucky to beat Sparta Prague by four goals to one, but were then a shade unlucky to fail to beat a supine Manchester City who cleared a couple of the line. But then the grinding results of old started to happen, Crystal Palace brushed aside 2-0 in the Carling Cup, dominating possession in Newcastle in winning 3-1, a routine 2-0 over Charlton Athletic, followed by a regulation 2-1 win over the French Champions Lyon and a peerless second half performance to crush West Brom 3-0 at the Hawthorns.
The only two linking factors about the six wins and a draw that United achieved in November was the domination of possession achieved and the return to form of Ruud van Nistelrooy.
In each of the seven matches Manchester United had more than 60% of possession - and in several of the games this was closer to 70%. This much possession eventual dominates the opposition thinking and they usually crack. It must be five years since a United side has had a run of domination like that, and suggests that the new gameplan, an Italian style 4-2-3-1 based on three players floating behind a front one and deep defending, is stretching play confounding opposition coaches. This new style also assimilates the old-fashioned United idea of flooding the box with players when the chance presents itself, with the final goal at the Hawthorns demonstrating this as four United players combined in the opposition six yard box during open play.
Seven goals from the 5 games he played in November were also ample return for van Nistelrooy. Manchester United have won 9 of the 14 games that van Nistelrooy has played in this season, and won 7 games of the 8 that he has scored in - demonstrating just how important he is to the Manchester team. But more than that he maintains the shape that United crave, he is big and strong, with an impressive first touch and a decent turn of speed. He doesn't score free-kicks or from outside the box so he relies on creating space where there shouldn't be any. As such he is the best penalty area striker in the world and also very impressive with his back to goal.
So United have rediscovered possession and goals and are building a run that should see them as title contenders in the spring. Another injury to van Nistelrooy would probably de-rail their challenge but if the team formation starts to yield results the individual components can be varied as Jose Mourinho is demonstrating in west London.
But before anyone gets carried away it's still difficult to see past Chelsea as champions-elect. They have a team that plays well together and Jose Mourinho seems to have built a team spirit and shape that means that players simply slot into their allotted roles. If there is an injury or suspension a different player simply slots into the the space. The lack of potency up front has been solved by the form of Arjen Robben leaving them with no obvious weakness.
United are firing, Chelsea are motoring and Arsenal will recover soon to deliver the expected top three at the end of the season. A month ago the debate excluded United who sould, seemingly, struggle to finish in the top four - but the form from the 2003 Champions has been such to turn the title race into a three horse race. Now we have a situation where there is more than a little doubt as to the positions that the 'big three' will assume at the end of the season, and in a season of transition this is all United could really hope for.