Wednesday, April 02, 2008

On United (Oh, My Tender Sensibilities)

I hate Manchester United. Have for as long as I can remember (Though I'm pretty sure Ryan Giggs was my first ever football crush. Teenage me had very odd tastes.), and I wasn't even yet paying attention when they caught Kevin Keegan's Newcastle, and he never got to love beating them. (I shudder to think of the levels of my impotent rage if I'd have known that was going on at the time.) And Sir Alex Ferguson is probably my least favorite person in football, just pipping Francesco Totti and Pavel Nedved for the honor. It's his intellectual arrogance, I think -- the way he's constantly suggesting that he can control himself effortlessly, while simultaneously causing everyone he faces to crumble before his mental strength. (Reason #1 I love Jose Mourinho is his ability to shatter that conceit, but that's another post entirely.)

All of which makes it very hard for me to say this, but I don't think any team has impressed me this season like United did last night in beating Roma at the Olimpico. It wasn't even close to a flawless performance -- their defense looks incredibly confused on early set plays, Anderson was embarrassingly bad, and they were pinned back in their end for a long stretch at the start of the second half -- but there was so much good that those huge flaws were somehow easy to ignore. And by "good" I don't just mean Ronaldo and his spectacular skill. I don't mean Rooney's bullheadedness, or his still surprising flashes of football intelligence. By "good," I mostly mean their workrate; their incredible, cliched, will to win.

In my short memory, I can't recall a team like this -- the kind that's at the top of every highlight show, has as its leading scoring the biggest preener in football (Poor, fallen Robbie Savage.), and features celebrations ranging from flips to proudly brandished pacifiers -- playing with the sort of barely controlled desperation United display. They're hugely confident, yes, and they know that, at some point in every match, the pretty one out on the wing will get them a goal, but there's no casualness in them at all. They're not playing the ball around, waiting for Ronaldo to do his thing. Instead, against Roma, they absolutely ran their legs off, often playing with 11 men behind the ball. And they weren't just putting in token appearances in the defensive end, either -- Rooney digs the ball out in his own end countless times every match, and Park Ji-Sung was a like a little terrier, buzzing around ferociously when Roma had possession, refusing to give up on the ball.

It makes me gag a little bit to admit it, but United were thrilling to watch last night, and it was because of their pleasure in the fight far more than it was their goals, or their gorgeous, one-touch midfield play. Which, somehow, makes it much harder to take -- I keep telling myself SAF has nothing to do with that determination and desire, but at this point even I am starting to suspect that I'm lying through my teeth.

If they both go through, I can't begin to think how Barcelona will survive the assault.

[As usual, Brian articulates football better than anyone else, the bastard.]


Brian said...

Martha, thanks for the compliment, but this is the best post on United I've seen in a long time. You're absolultely right about their lack of casualness. They have that capacity that only comes to great teams of being able to be patient for as long as they need to without ever losing their sense of purpose. Milan used to play that way, but this year they seem to have gotten so patient that their purpose loses its edge. For United it's like the combination of youth and experience on the team has dropped them at exactly the right point on the continuum between calm and desperate.

Martha said...

Watching Milan when they used to play that way is what brought me to Serie A in the first place, Brian, and I love your description of how they're playing this year -- with all the patience, but forgetting that they now lack the ability to administer that killer blow.

And thank you so much, I really appreciate your generosity. I suspect watching United only periodically makes their distinctive traits stand out in starker relief for me than it does for those who see them every week.

Linda said...

...but there's no casualness in them at all. They're not playing the ball around, waiting for Ronaldo to do his thing.
Substitute Ronaldo for Messi/Bojan/Ronaldinho, and that's the exact opposite of what happens at Barca. *sighs*

Brilliant post.

Sam said...

It's true, it's true. You know it's true.

There are times in the half-waking dawn light when my mind is blissfully blank and the first thought comes, unbidden: "Fuck! Manchester United is probably winning somewhere."

Martha said...

Thanks, Linda. And you're so right about Barca -- I've been watching them a lot lately, and inevitably feel a desperate need for a nap about 30 minutes into the match. That's never a good sign.

Sam, United winnning 24/7 (give or take) is a horrible reality of our time. We can only hope that things will have changed after we're gone.

Why Soccer Is Beautiful said...

Martha, I came here through another site and my feedback is the same for you as for Brian at The Run of Play: excellent writing on your parts, not convincing footie analysis though. Fact of the matter is that Sir Alex is justifiably hateable and not a great tactician. He is a motivator - through fear and a team builder - through purchases. United beat a very good side in Roma last week. Roma were the better technical side. The difference? Not tactics, not team. Just players. United have deadly players this season. And also the deadliest player in the world just now: Cristiano. In some ways United were lucky to win that match in Rome last week. At times, Roma stretched them beautifully. And yet it is still true that United could have won by more. A classic Fergie team. And he wonders why he hasn't won more European titles over the years. It's down to the manager. And BTW, this is how outlandish Fergie's teams can be: can you believe people are calling Cristiano a winger! The man has no position! And that just goes to my point: United are NOT a TEAM. They are a spirit which contains great individual powers. They are not a proper unit and they have no real tactics. I think Capello would laugh at the way Ferguson builds his team. And yet they could be champions...

Martha said...

Thanks for your thoughts, WSIB, I appreciate your perspective. I'd argue, though, that the fact that United don't play a traditional 4-4-2, or adhere to rigorous positions in no way means they're not playing a system in which they're very well-drilled. United aren't running without purpose, they know exactly how to react depending on where the ball is, who it's with, whether they're going forward or defending, etc.

A friend recently called it total football and, while I don't think it's quite that open and flowing, he has a point -- it takes work and understanding to allow someone like Ronaldo the space he requires; it's not an accident that his team team support him so well.