Manchester United produced the most exhilarating 25 minutes of their season during the first half against Sunderland on Saturday—fizzing passes between red shirts, galloping forward in numbers and operating at an intensity that had their visitors completely overwhelmed.
Sir Alex Ferguson still needs to tighten his defence and harden his team's mental resolve, but we are beginning to see signs he has solved United's identity crisis. There are also signs he has come upon a tactical solution that fits the modern game, while staying loyal to the romantic visions of Ferguson sides gone by.
United's recent victory at Manchester City owed a debt to width and blistering counter-attacking. Ferguson reverted to type, with Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia freed to roam the flanks, and constructed a team that probed for City's weak spots and found them.
The success of Ferguson's team at the Etihad will have huge bearing on the rest of their season—in the sense it will light the way tactically. Had United been out-manned by a City team designed to congregate and conquer centrally, Ferguson's gamble would have looked foolish and his selection outdated.
As it turns out, Ferguson found a way back to the wing-play that has defined his teams during his 26-year reign at Old Trafford and it worked like a charm. Some called it 4-2-3-1, others 4-4-2. Whatever the label, it was about pace and width—it was an ode to Ferguson's devastating teams past.
City were out-played; their manager Roberto Mancini out-thought. And all those who have questioned Ferguson's tactical nous this season and last—myself included—were left only to concede that the 70-year-old master (he'll be 71 on New Year's Eve) still knows a thing or two about how to set his team up.
In Young and Valencia, Ferguson has found wingers for a new age—strong and direct, defensively astute and fit enough to deliver at both ends of the pitch. Being quick and elusive is no longer enough, which may go some way to explaining Nani falling out of favour.
Meanwhile, Michael Carrick's influence has never been so profound. The 31-year-old is a quiet yet commanding presence at the base of United's midfield—where he patrols with intelligence, breaks down attacks and sets them in motion going forward.
He might not be as noticeable a catalyst as Wayne Rooney, but when Carrick went off against Sunderland, United lost their purpose.
Tom Cleverley's education is fortunate to continue under Carrick's gaze. The 23-year-old's neat and energetic contribution would be hyped to high heaven were he from any other country. Cleverley is looking very much at home in United's midfield of late.
There will continue to be calls for Ferguson to sign a warring midfielder in the mould of Roy Keane, but United's manager is no longer convinced there's a battle to be won. Maybe the fans are more out-dated than their ancient manager?
"In the modern-day game, you don't need tacklers the same way you used to," Ferguson told reporters in June. “There's no call for it. It's about anticipation and reading the game."
It was in that same interview he hailed Carrick as "key" to United's success this season—and as a match for any central midfielder in the Premier League. The man he signed from Tottenham, for £14 million in 2006, is proving to be both.
Both Carrick and Cleverley have benefited enormously from the introduction of Robin van Persie to United's lineup. The Dutchman's movement is without equal in the ranks of Premier League forwards and his fluid role in United's attack has stitched everything together.
Rooney is also thriving. He's found a foil in Van Persie and is relishing his deployment as the attacking conductor ahead of United's midfield. Rooney leads the Premier League with seven assists (whoscored.com) and his wandering is making him very hard to mark.
The success stories don't end there. Rafael has produced some of his best performances at right-back this season, while Rio Ferdinand has offered convincing evidence he is not quite the spent force he is made out to be.
Yes, United have leaked too many goals, but the return of Nemanja Vidic comes with the club he captains sat atop the Premier League and safely through to the Champions League last 16. United's defensive weaknesses—as worrying as they might be—have not cost them yet.
If Vidic can help Ferguson tighten up and his team become more ruthless, anything is possible for United this season.
In the last two games we've seen a glimpse of just how good this United team can be. For 25 minutes against Sunderland, they looked a force capable of knocking down any opponent on the planet—and I count Barcelona in that.
Consistency, composure and concentration may be all that stand between Ferguson and the unveiling of his last great team at Manchester United.
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