13 games played since January. 34 points from a possible 39. 11 wins, one draw and one loss. Seven clean sheets. 29 goals scored. Eight points clear at the top of the Premier League and now 1/33 odds on favourites to retain the title.
Does a bear shit in the woods? Does the Pope wear a funny hat? Will United be a stronger team after January? There are very few guarantees in the Premier League this year, such is the competitive nature of the league, but there is one thing that any punter can confidently put his money on – the United swing.
There is something about SAF and the business end of a football season that goes together like bread and butter. He blossoms when the pressure mounts and excels when the possibility of failure looms. United have always turned a screw as soon as January comes around.
Premier League performances since January
2010/11 Won 12 Drawn 3 Losses 4
2009/10 Won 13 Drawn 3 Losses 2
2008/09 Won 17 Drawn 1 Losses 2
2007/08 Won 13 Drawn 3 Losses 2
This year it seemed that, for all the merit and worth of the team, we just wouldn’t have the depth of squad to pull the same level of performance again this season. At one point, we had 13 first squad players on the injury table and we had been plagued by major setbacks. Vidic ended his season against Basel, our entire midfield has spent periods on the injury list which even led to Park and Rooney making up our central midfield pairing at one point.
Cue the return of Paul Scholes.
Arguably the best January “signing” ever made in the Premier League? Patrick Viera tried to claim that the move was desperate but what a move it was. In a United team that has looked mediocre many times this season, the injection of class and experience was what we needed to spur this title push.
Since he has returned this season, he has lost possession just five times in 769 minutes and completed 751/813 passes. It was the resuscitating pulse that the lackadaisical United required. He has helped to transform a team that waivered throughout a topsy turvy season into odds on title favourites in a matter of months. Few players can claim to have had such an impact in years gone by.
Although to simply talk about Scholes would be a complete ignorance to the upsurge that has rippled through the whole team, noticeably in the defence. The defiant David De Gea struck at the heart of his critics with some divine displays that has culminated with five clean sheets in his five appearances. The 20-year old shot stopper has well and truly brushed off the stigma of settling into the team and looks worth every penny of the £17 million price tag attached to him.
He has been helped, in no small part, by the stalwart partnership that has emerged between ex-villain Jonny Evans and old-timer Rio Ferdinand. The central defensive pairing have created an understanding that is breathing confidence into the team. Rio has become an extremely static defender, which plays to his strengths, and it allows Evans a more “free roaming” role in the fact that he can go forward when needed. Yet, Evans greatest asset this season has been his improved discipline and timing, rarely giving the ball away. When Vidic got injured for the season, I thought we were doomed for another year of seeing Carrick playing centre-back but Evans has done an incredible job in not only covering the hole left by the captain but in making himself indispensable in the process.
If Evans and De Gea have been the spine behind our defensive improvements, then Rooney and Valencia have spearheaded the attack. Our talismanic striker has now netted an impressive 29 goals in 38 appearances in total this season and sits only five goals off his record haul set in 2009 with six games to play. Considering Robin Van Persie is the best striker in the world this season, Rooney is only four goals behind him having played three games less.
Ever since he got his new barnet, Rooney has found a confidence that has only been matched by his consistency. Although, saying that, I do feel that he is still dropping too deep in order to get himself involved. Imagine how many goals he might have scored if he got on the end of a certain tanks crosses more often than he does.
Antonio Valencia, for me, is the player of the year for United. To return from a career threatening injury earlier in the season, to then get injured again and still come back stronger is simply outstanding. He has to be a machine, right? The power and pace that Valencia brings to United is frightening to watch, let alone defend.
He has 12 assists and four goals in 17 appearances (4 sub) this season. In comparison, David Silva has 12 assists and five goals in 27 appearances (3 sub). He has been simply sublime and a consistent threat every time he gets the ball out on the right wing. I always feel like he is going to do something with the ball and the last winger I felt that with was Ronaldo. Whereas Young, Nani, Giggs and Park are interchangeable on the left wing, nobody gets ahead of Tony when it comes to massacring teams down the right wing.
This was supposed to be a season of transition. VDS, Neville and Scholes all retired. We brought in Jones (20), De Gea (21) and Young (26) to make a team blooded with youngsters. We were building for the future, for a new United. Thoughts of a title were a distant and obscure thought in the first half of the season with big spending City seemingly running away with the title. However, we don’t know the meaning of subsiding, backing down, giving up. Ryan Giggs has said title would be huge and why wouldn’t it? Keeping City from poking their head into the Champions locker room will have to go down as one of SAF’s greatest achievements if only for the manner in which it might already have been achieved.