The usual hand-wringing and pram-smashing occurred after the 3-0 defeat to Everton on Saturday. That's all well and good, and to be expected: Manchester United fans are no more clever than any other set, so reacting to defeat with dignity and sense is hardly likely. Similarly, the recent improvement in results, coupled with the mistaken idea that United were somehow unlucky to lose at Chelsea, meant people had put too much weight on the game against Everton. There are certainly reasons to be downhearted, and perhaps worried about the run in, but largely the turn of the year and the results that have followed indicate that little has changed. United will almost certainly qualify for the Champions League, but there is far more work to do.
A few weeks back, a certain handsome football journalist was getting pelters for pointing out that Manchester United were not quite ready yet. Yes, Manchester City ultimately did not play well and so were well beaten, but it's worth considering how the victories against Spurs, City and Liverpool had come about.
All those teams came up against United with the intent to attack. Mauricio Pochettino has a Spurs side with a fairly terrible defence. A capable ‘keeper — one who might end up at Old Trafford should David de Gea depart in the summer — in Hugo Lloris, but ahead of him Jan Vertonghen is the most impressive defender. Oh dear. However, he has Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen, with the busy Nabil Bentaleb and Ryan Mason in midfield. Essentially, Spurs are an attacking team and their squad makes sense for them to be so. As a result, as Michael Carrick showed Marouane Fellaini and everyone else, that allows them to be vulnerable on the counterattack. It was through that approach that United started their goalscoring, opening up further chances.
Against Liverpool, the home side were ready to batter a team loathed by their support. Liverpool were (it now turns out) at the end of an excellent run of form where they were scoring goals and relatively improved in defence. They tried to press United but it was the away side, with a first-choice eleven and a settled defence that understood where it was required to stand, which was able to pick off its opponents. Think back to the Juan Mata goal in the first half: Ander Herrera found our ‘false right winger' (copyright, Louis van Gaal and tactics nerds) in behind a stretched defence.
With the success against Manchester City, there was something similar. United were battered initially, but at home and with room to attack, they ultimately found their way to success. Now, the approach was not the same in every match, and there's no reason to denigrate United for winning in the easiest and most obvious way. What should be noted is that both Chelsea and Everton played differently.
Both those defeats came against sides who were happy to sit back. Everton might have done that only because they got an early goal that United should have defended better, but clearly Chelsea were content to play for a point and take any chance that might be given to them, as it was by Chris Smalling and Radamel Falcao. United saw most of the ball in both of these games, and they played as they had in previous matches, where the crowd became frustrated. Essentially, United played a great deal on the wing, and played a fair few balls into and around the penalty area, at a slow pace. Ashley Young, Luke Shaw, Antonio Valencia, Mata and Fellaini were all back to their old ways of ineffectiveness. Indeed, it wasn't just them, as Wayne Rooney could not occupy the central defenders to cause them problems, as there was no room to run into when he was in attack, and in midfield he reverted to his old, unimaginative ways. Herrera and Daley Blind were perfectly able not to embarrass themselves, but it was clear they weren't enough to break down massed defences.
And that's why we shouldn't panic: because this is nothing new. Before everyone got giddy about a few performances, it was obvious that United's first choice was not good enough to win the league. It didn't have the pace, quality or intelligence to be truly special. With Valencia barely capable in defence, Chris Smalling still Chris Smalling, Paddy McNair a child and Luke Shaw yet to settle, goals were always likely to be conceded. Without Michael Carrick or an even better central midfielder who can track attackers, the defence was exposed even more without him, and the ball was played slowly in attack. With Ashley Young on the left wing, crossing was predictably poor, and Rooney is still only an effective striker when given clear cut chances, the magic deserted him a long time ago.
Before United played Spurs, and before United played Everton, all these weaknesses were still there. With the rumours and news about Mats Hummels, Nathaniel Clyne and other defenders, and Memphis Depay, Ilkay Gundogan and other midfielders, and Danny Ings and other strikers, it's clear that Louis van Gaal and Edward Woodward are under no illusion about necessary improvements across the pitch. United are good enough to qualify for the Champions League without these players this season, but let's not pretend United are suddenly a side we can yet rely on.