There are many things that have been synonymous with Manchester United during the time Sir Alex Ferguson has been in charge, such as free-flowing attacking football, two wide men, a strong defensive unit, late goals and Paul Scholes’ late runs into the opposition penalty area. Many of these were in evidence against Manchester City in last weekend’s derby at times providing a timely reminder of what United under Ferguson are capable of.
The performance was not great but at this stage of the season all that was required was a win and that is exactly what United gained. Sir Alex has instilled into all of his players the temperament required for the big occasion which was clear to see throughout the United team whereas its evidence amongst the City players was at times distinctly lacking. The City fans may have felt that the pre-game carnival atmosphere as a reminder they have now arrived as a Premier League force but much of the effect of this was to galvanise United and increase the pressure on City. The United players often respond to the big occasion in the best possible manner – the atmosphere prior to the match will simply have served as a reminder of how big this occasion could well prove.
One such player who thrives on the big stage and who has scored countless important goals for United in huge encounters is Scholes and the ‘Ginger Prince’ was able to deliver with a sumptuous header. It was not, however, just Scholes’ goal which was to prove decisive in this encounter with the 35-year-old putting in the performance of the day. Scholes was able to orchestrate everything which was good about United’s play in the first-half especially. The Salford-born schemer has ability unrivalled by anyone in the Premier League to find time and space in the most congested of midfields enabling him to continually receive the ball and develop United’s passing game. United may not have looked like opening up City until the end of the first-half but the way they held the ball and continually switched it looking for that opening was far superior to the passing shown by their city rivals. Scholes was at the heart of this and had completed over 30 passes by half-time completely overshadowing one of Fabio Capello’s first choice central midfielders – Gareth Barry.
One of the biggest criticisms of United’s performance at Eastlands was the final ball was often lacking. Too many times when the play reached the edge of City’s box the last pass was poor enabling City to clear. This is where United dearly missed the Paul Scholes of old. Scholes may have rolled back the years to make a late run into the City box to connect with Patrice Evra’s cross but when playing in the deeper position he so often finds himself in, it is difficult to affect the play higher up the pitch. Ryan Giggs often found himself as the closet player to Wayne Rooney but was unable to re-create the partnership which proved so successful before Christmas often giving the ball away with needless flicks. In the opinion of this writer the link between the midfield and Rooney is an area which must be strengthened before next season.
United are certainly back in the title race thanks to Scholes performing the Steve Bruce role from 1993 but they will have to improve on certain aspects of their performance if they are to take maximum points from their next game at home to Spurs. Too often City were able to stretch the United back four either getting in behind them or pulling them out to the channels and in truth it was only down to some poor decision making from Barry and Craig Bellamy that United did not find themselves behind. This will have to be tightened up against a Tottenham side reveling in high-profile encounters and determined to have a say in the final stages of this Premier League season.
The Tottenham match and Chelsea’s Anfield encounter are being billed as possible title definers and this well may be the case. Despite being a season full of inconsistencies for United there is one thing which cannot be doubted – the experience of both their manager and squad when it really comes down to the crunch. On current evidence it may be difficult to say the same about Chelsea with one of their most experienced players having a real negative impact on the side. If this continues then we could see United win it at the last in their customary fashion of old. However, this should not detract from a season that has been far too inconsistent and where at times the old heads have had to salvage matches. Having signed a one year contract extension Scholes will be around for another season but it is a big ask to replicate performances in the mould of last weekend’s on a consistent basis. Champions or not, Fergie will have his work cut out this summer.