Saturday, 10 September 2011

Four games. Four Wins: Just how good is this Manchester United team?

Four games, eighteen goals, twelve points.

That is the story, so far, of Manchester United's season.

It means they are top of the table, level on points and ahead on goal different with their city rivals, Manchester City.

Both teams have set a blistering pace to the start of the season, with the other usual contenders struggling to keep up.

Liverpool stuttered against Sunderland and lost against Stoke.

Chelsea have looked unconvincing.

And Arsenal? Well, the less said about them, the better.

United are traditionally slow starters to a season- normally kicking into gear after Christmas and powering on into May, claiming the title and any other silverware that happens to be lying around on the way.

This season however, they have started in fifth gear. A shaky opening performance against West Brom aside, a 5-0 victory against a talented Tottenham, 8-2 demolition of an under strength albeit equally aged Arsenal team and a 5-0 thrashing of a resiliant and vastly improved Bolton team, sounded a message to the rest of the league, and Europe beyond.

But how good are United?

I mean, really, how good are they?

Well, with the additions of Phil Jones and Ashley Young, they are certainly better than the championship winning team and Champions League finalists of last season.

David de Gea has had a slow start, but he will undoubtedly prove to be a great signing- people forget he is only twenty year old- young, especially for a goalkeeper.

Young, in particular has been in fine form- dragging United to a victory against West Brom, being equally impressive against Spurs and excellent against Arsenal.

Phil Jones though, shouldn't be overlooked- against Bolton, starting at the unfamiliar right back position, he ripped apart the far more experienced Paul Robinson, setting up two with a fantastic delivery and mazy run respectively, whilst also contributing to a clean sheet.

United seem to have a more youthful look about them this season- not only with De Gea (20) replacing Van Der Sar (40) and the addition of Jones (19). But academy players Cleverley (22) and Welbeck (20) back from loan periods have come straight into the first team and impressed. Not to mention Chris Smalling (21) doing so well at right back he earned two England caps.

I haven't even mentioned Wayne Rooney.

Two hat-tricks in his last two games- a goal in every Premier League game this season- need I say more?

The style of football United are playing is not only effective, but beautiful to watch- Nani's goal in the Community Shield was full of inter-play and passing Barcelona would have been proud of.

And so we come to it.

The elephant in the room.


Are they better than the European Champions?

Well first things first- United are better than City.

Despite City's impressive start to the season (and it has been incredibly impressive), I expect them to fall away at some point during the season.

Mental toughness is United's biggest weapon- and that has been earned through experience, not bought.

As the winter sets in, Sergio Aguero gets a taste of the English weather and Yaya Toure jets off for the African Cup of Nations, I can see City falling away- not by much- but I think points will be dropped.

So back to Barcelona.

The bane of Ferguson (and probably the reason he's staying on).

In last season's Champion's League final, United were schooled.

It was a performance that illustrated the gulf between the Catalan club and the best of the rest.

So now.

Have United closed the gap?

The short answer is yes, I believe they have- although Barcelona have undoubtedly strengthened, I think United have done slightly more- not to mention the gradual evolution of their youth players.

But still, I don't think United are as good as Barcelona.

United are good, Barca are better.

Despite throwing away of 2-0 lead today and coming away with a 2-2 draw, Barcelona just seem to be on another level to everyone else- even the seemingly unstoppable United.

The gulf in class so massive last season, it may take a few years before this crop of Fledglings can challenge Barcelona's dominance of Europe.

But challenge they will.

Experience is key, and I see a couple more lessons in Europe needed before Ferguson can get his hands on that famous trophy for the third time.

So how good is this Manchester United team?

They'll probably win the Premier League this season.

They're better than last year.

But they're still only the second best team in Europe.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

England: Dethroning the Golden Generation.

For over ten years the English public has talked of the "Golden Generation". A group of incredibly talented footballers, all the the pinnacle of not just the domestic, but the world game.

With the likes of Gerrard, Beckham, Ferdinand, Owen, Lampard, Terry and Cole; surely it would only be a matter of time before we had our hands on a major international trophy.

For over ten years we said this.

Ever since that night in Munich, which has been forgotten by everyone on earth except the English, we have expected success to fall at our feet.

But has it?

The short answer is, no.

The England national team with basically the exact same group of players, this "Golden Generation", has struggled to get past the quarter-final stages of any given tournament.

And now, as legs have become weary and minds slower, these ones are fading into the background, and a new crop is slowly emerging.

England's feeder club of the last twenty years (sorry West Ham), Manchester United, are leading the supply of fresh, talented faces.

The likes of Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley are joined by Joe Hart (who some forget is still relatively new to all this), Adam Johnson (who I believe should start every game for club and country), Jordan Henderson and Andy Carroll.

Jack Wilshere is now established in midfield.

Not to mention slightly older players but who have been brought in to produce a fresh look to a stale team sheet- the Gary Cahills, Ashley Youngs and Scott Parkers.

In the past, the English arrogance of expecting to be the best has had a very detrimental effect on the English team.

Whereas other nations look at us as a country who are not quite in the elite, we view ourselves are leading the world game.

Sure, our domestic competition is without rival, but this does not translate into a top class International team, are slowly, very slowly, we are beginning to realise this.

We seem to think being in the final eight of a competition is a poor result when, in reality, that is probably exactly where we deserve to be.

It is true that for a long time, the best players in our best domestic teams were English: Beckham, Lampard, Owen. But that is not enough- England needs to be a team, not a group of spice boys attempting to inflate their own ego every time they step across the whitewash.

It seems that for a long time, the English players were basically taking part in an elaborate game of one-upmanship with each other; their club careers more important to them, so they used the international area as a way of showing the world why they are better than their club rivals.

With this new influx of players though, although from the best clubs in England, they seem to be more about the team. There doesn't seem to be any big time Charlies- they look to be a group of young players who want to do one thing: Win.

I'm not saying the "Golden Generation" didn't want this.

But it was clear they wanted a lot of other things, too.

WAGS, wages, sponsorship deals anyone?

Without lunging into the stereotypical England fan's speech of "this could be our year", it will say this: this new generation, may not ever win the World Cup, but they could well but a bit of heart and meaning back into the England shirt.

I would settle for a semi final slot in the European Championships next year- we certainly won't win it- Germany, Holland and of course, Spain we see to that.

But as long as we don't fold like lambs to the slaughter instead of the Lions England players should be, I'll be satisfied.

The team of the next ten years will more than likely have a very distinct Ferguson spine running through it; Smalling and Jones at the back, Wilshere, Cleverley in the middle and Welbeck, Young up top supporting the best player of the last fifteen years in Wayne Rooney. This should only mean one thing: victories.

But for now, be content. And let's just see what happens.