Gung-ho Man United recall Keegan's Newcastle



As I'm sure the more attentive amongst you will have spotted, I've made various sweeping statements over the last couple of weeks about the current success, set-up and solidity of 2012-vintage Manchester United.

Initially I used their terrible (by their standards) defensive record as a way to highlight the absence of midfield bluster that's beset England's top teams in recent years. A lack of a physically imposing and tempo-dictating central presence makes them more susceptible and easy to get at than I can ever recall seeing them, and means even the most modest of creative outfits can pass their way through them. It's a bit like making sure all your windows and doors are locked in a home with only three walls and then wondering why there's a draught.

But even if Alex Ferguson replaced Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley with Lothar Matthäus and that massive troll thing from the Lord of the Rings, it probably wouldn't stop them flailing around like a pelican in an oil spill when trying to deal with set pieces.

Jonny Evans looks like he's won a “day as a footballer” in a church raffle; the goalkeeping looks as safe and steady as a Nascar accident; and Patrice Evra and Rio Ferdinand might just be two regular people who've turned up as United players for Halloween and now feel too awkward to correct anyone. Going into December, Manchester United currently boast only the 12th meanest defence in the league, having conceded a face-twisting 21 goals. That's almost double their nearest challengers, and nine more than Stoke. Even Sunderland, teetering over the rickety ledge of the relegation places and looking about as water-tight as a budget garibaldi boast a better record than that.

And yet, for all this slapdash haphazardry, United still find themselves racing away with the league title. The key is that it really hasn't mattered how many goals they've conceded, or how big a head start they allow the opposition, they're supremely confident of their ability to fire their way back in front. Their record of 37 goals - nine more than any other team and nine more than they had this time last season - is what's given them the edge.

Thanks in equal measure to dullard pundits and those blokes who make the montages you see before title-deciding matches, it's impossible to go down the “if you score three, we'll score four” avenue of thought without instantly seeing a headphoned Kevin Keegan angrily pointing down a camera and saying something about loving Stuart Pearce. But, as you sat there watching the basketball match that was Reading vs Manchester United on Saturday evening, the similarities between the current Red Devils and Keegan's entertainers were startling.

The Newcastle United team of the mid-nineties was founded on almost no solid tactical plan, and the focus on each individual attack was simply with whichever man had the ball. Get the thing, go forward with it, and worry about the consequences if we don't manage to score.

These days it's all system, transition, shape, transition, approach, phase, another transition, Peter Crouch, overlap, decoy, zonalmarking.com, match-fit, Guardian chalkboard, transition, twitter, goal - but Keegan took a team with no clear style or structure to within a gnat's nad of winning the title. They gave away some horrendous goals in the process, but the very defenders going tit over teeth in their own box were the ones grabbing the ball and charging headfirst at the opposition to make amends. Watching Johnny Evans lose Sean Morrison - and all sense of time and space - for Reading's third but then breezing past the opposition midfield in search of a winner was astounding.

In an age of Hollywood remakes, it's not too much of a stretch to imagine Wayne Rooney as a sexed-up Peter Beardsley or Michael Carrick as a 21st century Rob Lee. If Rio Ferdinand had gone in for Movemeber I wouldn't even need to make the Philipe Albert comparison. Of course, the sides have their differences, but the current Premier League leaders play such an enthralling brand of kamikaze football that you genuinely watch wide-eyed and open-mouthed, and have no idea what's going to happen next. Of all the great teams I've seen, only Keegan's Newcastle were similar.

Back at the start of the season I predicted that this could be a terrible year for Ferguson's side, as they had a squad that was being slowly eaten away by age, loss of form, lack of quality, and shaky confidence. At the time, Robin Van Persie's arrival was still merely a rumour, but I pointed out that whilst that might hold things together in the short term, it wouldn't address any one of the myriad issues that needed to be dealt with.

RVP duly arrived, and Manchester United now sit top of the league. However, they've fallen behind in over half of their league games this season, and without the goals of their new striker they'd sit 14th. Whether or not this short termism is a calculated stop-gap to help rebuild the side, or the accidental consequence of a desperate recruitment solution I honestly don't know. But if the first 14 games are anything to go on, it's going to be entertaining to watch.


If you fancy Man United's gung-ho approach to pay off, back them for the Premier League title at 1.85 with Unibet.