When Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United side was thrashed 6-1 by rivals Manchester City at Old Trafford in late October the talk, naturally, was of moving on. United needed to get beyond the freak result, establish some measure of stability, and, most of all, tighten up at the back. To some extent the Reds managed to do that domestically, winning xx and drawing one of xx games up to and including last weekend’s victory over Aston Villa. The football wasn’t pretty, but Ferguson’s side did a solid job of building a rennaisaince.
Then came FC Basel and United’s Champions League exit on Wednesday. Blame the result on bad luck; blame it on lack of quality. Whatever the cause, and whomever the culprit(s), United simply had to take steps towards recovery on Saturday when Wolverhampton Wanderers visited Old Trafford. Indeed, Mick McCarthey’s side was surely the perfect tonic for a bruised United, having failed to win at the Theatre of Dreams for more than 30 years and, more recently, having lost seven of the last 10 in all competitions.
True to the script Sir Alex wanted United thrashed a meek Wolves side, which caved in all too easily. Goals from Wayne Rooney and Nani will have boosted the Reds’ confidence – and goal difference – as the home side racked up an easy 4-1 victory on Saturday. True, McCarthy’s side possesses nobody of Xherdan Shaqiri’s excellence. Nor Marco Streller, Alexander Frei, Nicolás Gaitán, and Pablo Aimar, who have each caused United so much pain in Europe this season. But a win, in the circumstances, is a win nonetheless.
No wonder Ferguson wrote off Wednesday’s loss as bad luck – however disingenuous – and praised his side’s performance against the Midlanders.
“I was well pleased with the performance, our attacking play was terrific and we could have scored a lot more goals,” the United manager said.
“Goals are what we are about really, and today was a fillip in terms of pushing us on in the league. We are coming up to an important part of the season now and a win like this puts us in good fettle. On Wednesday we worked our socks off and didn’t get a break. Today we worked our socks off and we did get the breaks. There’s no question that what happened on Wednesday was a massive disappointment, but some of the young players will be able to learn from that experience. Some of them have not suffered a bad defeat before, and in the long term it could be good for them.”
Moving on from Wednesday has become a theme, with Ferguson rightly eyeing a favourable fixture list during December as United’s opportunity to close the gap on Manchester City in the Premier League. Indeed, more than one player confronted personal demons against Wolves, with out-of-form Rooney scoring twice, and Nani recovering from an inconsistent spell for bag a brace.
And in Phil Jones, the 19-year-old defender Ferguson has pushed into central midfield, the Scot has a determined performer who suffering in the St Jakob-Park cauldron last week, only to recover more than a semblance of pride against Wolves
“The manager said the most important thing was to move on, and that’s what we did,” 19-year-old defender Phil Jones said.
“We moved on quickly and showed what we are capable of. The fans were 100% behind us and that’s exactly what we needed. Everyone at the club was incredibly disappointed on Wednesday, but there’s no point dwelling on it. It’s gone, and now there are other things to play for. It’s a credit to the lads. It was a terrific performance after the disappointment of midweek but we have picked ourselves up quickly and gone again. It was a spirited performance and hopefully we can push on from here.
“Wayne was brilliant again. Just because he hasn’t been scoring doesn’t mean he hasn’t influenced the game because the things he does off the ball are terrific. People don’t take that into consideration, but he has been playing terrifically well for us. Nani was also terrific.”
While United successfully ‘moved on’ against McCarthey’s tepid outfit there are far greater challenges to come. After all, United has failed in the club’s two toughest challenges of the season to date – at home to City, and qualification from the Champions League.
The Reds will surely confirm the renaissance in fixtures against QPR, Fulham, Wigan Athletic and Blackburn Rovers during December. Yet, January begins with a visit to Newcastle United, followed by the FA Cup fixture against City at Eastlands. Then there is the visit to Arsenal, before back-to-back games against Chelsea and Liverpool in early February.
And whatever the structural imbalances in Ferguson’s squad it is highly unlikely that the Scot will dip into the transfer market this weekend. More unlikely still that the Glazer family will dig deep to sign the kind of high quality central midfielders that are so patently required.
“It is very difficult to buy players in January,” Ferguson said.
“You don’t just want to buy any player simply because it gives you another player. If you are going to buy, you want to buy someone who can make a difference. We have only had maybe four or five signings in my time here in January: Louis Saha, Andy Cole, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra. It is not a consistent route for us to buy in January, simply because of all the disadvantages. There are a lot of issues there and there is nothing in my mind at the moment.”
With Anderson too often injured and always inconsistent, and Tom Cleverley unlikely to be fit until well into the New Year, Ferguson is left to find his best combination in midfield. December should provide the boost to confidence United’s 69-year-old manager seeks. But the real challenge will come in the New Year, with the tougher fixtures to come. Will United’s familiar failings raise their head again?