By: Zach Sabo
I’m going to kick this off by proclaiming myself a United supporter, and this is no knee-jerk reaction. Despite starting off undefeated for the first five and a half months of the season and having been at the top of the table for a considerable amount of time now, this team will not be kissing the Barclay’s Premier League trophy at campaign’s end.
It’s hard to characterize the beginning of the season for this team. Yes they were undefeated, but they certainly were lackluster in more than a couple of their early fixtures. It became status quo for this United team to drop two points late in the match, an outcome I came to expect over my bowl of Lucky Charms every weekend.
- August 22, 2010 - United gains the lead in the 84th minute off an own goal from a Fulham defender, only for that same defender to equalize for the Cottagers in the 89th.
- September 11, 2010 - United has a two goal lead on Everton in the 90th minute. Tim Cahill scores to bring them within one, followed by Mikel Arteta two minutes later to steal two points from United.
- October 16, 2010 - United gets out to an early lead against West Brom at home with goals in the 5th and 25th minutes. A West Brom free kick takes a lucky deflection off United defender Patrice Evra, who was credited with an own goal in the 50th. In the 55th, a rare Edwin van der Sar error leaves the ball right at the feet of Somen Tchoyi, who taps in an easy equalizer.
- December 28, 2010 - United again squander a lead in the 89th minute, this time at Birmingham City. Nikola Zigic disrupts United’s defense in the box (handball) to keep the ball alive for Lee Bowyer (offside), who beats van der Sar to steal two more points from United.
Had United been able to hold on to these wins, they would be eight points richer and currently sit at the top of the table with 68 total. They would be 11 points clear of second place Arsenal, 15 ahead of the other Manchester team, and 17 ahead of Chelsea (even after consecutive losses to Chelsea and Liverpool). Instead, they are just three up on Arsenal, who have a game in hand and a favorable schedule the rest of the way, including what may be a decisive showdown against United on May 1st. Six of their final 10 matches are against teams in the lower half of the table. United, on the other hand, have an uphill climb if they wish to reclaim the golden patches. Six of their remaining nine matches are against teams in the top half of the table (four of which they failed to beat the first time around), including an away trip to Arsenal and a home visit from Chelsea in consecutive weeks.
On top of squandering late leads, United have not been good away from home this season. They have earned only 20 of a possible 45 away points thus far. Out of their 15 road matches, only four of them ended in victory. Eight of their nine draws and all three of their losses have come on the road. Unfortunately for United, they still have four remaining away fixtures on the schedule. Even their positive notes are of suspect. It’s true they have the league’s leading scorer in Dimitar Berbatov, but if you look closely he is rarely in form for multiple games at a time. He gets his goals in chunks, including hat tricks against Liverpool and Birmingham, as well as a five goal game against Blackburn. That’s 11 of his 19 goals in just three games. He actually doesn’t score more often than he does, netting in only 9 of 24 games this season, and he's currently in the midst of a six game goal drought. Berbs also tends to take advantage of the league’s bottom feeders. He has scored in only one of United’s nine matches against the league’s six top squads (Arsenal, City, Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool, and Bolton).
One of the biggest differences between United and Arsenal are age and experience. Arsenal are always loaded with young talent, and this season, contrary to recent years, it’s advantage Gunners. Their players are gifted, driven, and hungry. They finally have a solid defense to go along with their creative, explosive attack. Only Chelsea and Man City have given up fewer goals than Arsenal this year, even without central defender Thomas Vermaelen who was injured in the third match of the season. Striker Robin van Persie has been red hot of late, midfielder Cesc Fabregas is arguably the best playmaker in the game, and Theo Walcott provides energy and pace for the club and is virtually impossible to contain on the wing. The Gunners also play with great chemistry, a quality United is desperately lacking at the moment. With every turnover, missed opportunity, failed attempt at goal, and misplaced pass comes blatant signs of displeasure and malcontent among the United players.
United’s signature over the years has been their closing ability. They get hot at the right time, as the old adage goes. This season, however, they’re doing exactly the opposite. In their last six matches, Manchester United have three wins and three losses. They have earned just nine of 18 points (approximately 1.5 points per game) during this span, tied for ninth best in the league. Everton, Bolton, Spurs, West Ham, Liverpool, Chelsea, and Arsenal all have earned more over their respective fixtures, Arsenal with the most at 14 (approx. 2.33 PPG). If this trend were to continue, Arsenal would earn a total of 23.33 more points this season (on average), finishing with 80.33. Contrarily, United would earn just 13.5 points and finish with 73.5, almost seven full points behind the Gunners (how’s that for some Soccernomics?).
United have a lot of work to do in order to stave off Arsenal for this year’s title, and for now I remain hopeful (pessimistic) that they will be able to turn things around before the Gunners run away to their first title since the Invincible year of 2003/04. Both teams are in the driver’s seat; if either of them run the table here on out they will take home the title. However, based on recent form and remaining schedule, Arsenal fans have reason to feel a twinge of nervous excitement...United fans, merely nervous.