Can Man United Emulate Arsenal's Invincibles?
Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson is unsurpassed in modern times as regards his achievements. Indeed many would argue that he's is the best of all time. However despite 11 league titles, two domestic doubles (League and FA Cup) and a treble (league, FA Cup and Champions League), there remains one achievement that arch rival/friend/manager (delete as applicable) Arsene Wenger has that eludes Ferguson and you won't find it in any honours list.
The Arsenal boss guided his team to an unbeaten season in 2003-04, a stunning feat never achieved in the modern game and only ever done once before in the top division and that was way back in the first ever season in 1888-89 when Preston won 18 and drew 4 of their 22 games. A full 115 years later, the Gunners won 26 and drew 12 of their games and that record rarely looked in danger although draws against Man United and away at local rivals Spurs could have easily gone against them.
To emphasise just how huge a deal this was, it's worth considering that no club had ever really come close to an unbeaten season prior to this with only Leeds in 1973-74 and Liverpool in 1987-88 having a chance as both went 29 games from the start of the season before losing in somewhat hurtful circumstances with Leeds losing 3-2 at Stoke after being two goals up whilst Liverpool slumped to defeat at the home of arch local rivals Everton.
Arsenal in 2003-04 ripped through the league although amazingly only Thierry Henry (30) and Robert Pires (14) reached double figures as regards league goals but this was a typical team effort with the volatile Jens Lehmann in goal and the likes of Kolo Toure, Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole personifying rocks at the backs, then scoring against them was tough as they conceded only 26 all season. Midfield was dominated by Swede Freddie Ljungberg and Frenchman Patrick Vieira whilst Dennis Bergkamp and, to a lesser extent, Jose Reyes, were difficult to handle alongside the two aforementioned leading scorers.
It's also worth mentioning that they didn't go out of either the FA Cup or Champions League until April, indeed in the space of four days, they slumped out of both, so there was no argument as regards lack of games due to early cup exits. At the time, experts felt that an `invincible` season was impossible and then stated that it would never be equalled, yet suddenly just seven years on, it could happen again.
In this most open of seasons, Man United have stuttered their way through the opening stages of the campaign, losing seemingly unloseable leads and drawing games they would usually be expected to win but they remain unbeaten and have made their way to the summit of the table with a game in hand so is it possible that they could just go 38 games unbeaten?
In their opening 16 games, they blew a lead twice at Fulham, blew a two goal stoppage time lead at Everton and almost did the same at home to Liverpool. Add to that a failure to beat West Brom at home, when they again lost a two goal lead then this hardly looks like an unbeatable squad of players but they haven't played well all season, with the possible exception of the demolition of Blackburn, yet they remain without a league defeat so is this the mark of The Invincibles 2 - Fergie Strikes Back?
The Christmas period is traditionally when United step on the gas and go into overdrive and if a certain Wayne Rooney finally starts playing to a fraction of his potential, then they will step up a gear anyway. Rooney's off the field problems seemed to affect both his and the club on the pitch but these should be sorted now and it's only a matter of time before he hits form again which will turn potential defeats into draws and potential parity into victory, indeed it's a little worrying for the ABU (Anyone But United) brigade that Rooney has yet to have a decent game this campaign.
They are starting to tighten up at the back with just one goal conceded in their last three league games and that was when they were 7-0 up, and even the Carling Cup humiliation at West Ham could ultimately be a blessing in disguise as they cannot be that bad again and they will have a couple of games less to cope with in January and, lets be honest, the Carling Cup ranks four of four in the list of priorities for, not just United, but many of the top clubs.
Midfield looks strong although the loss of Ji-Sung Park to the Asian Cup will be a blow. Nani is starting to show signs that he is a major handful and although he's not in Cristiano Ronaldo territory yet, he's still a massive asset for assists and scoring. The likes of Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick and even Andersen are the sort of players who rarely get praise heaped upon their but do a decent job.
Up front, Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov are a massively potent strike-force when they are on form and with Michael Owen, Javier Herrnandez and Ryan Giggs as `back ups`, as well as youngsters Gabriel Oberton and Federico Macheda, then United once again have a squad which shines with quality and is the envy of most, if not all, other clubs. They have strength in depth and are continuing to grind out results whilst not playing well which in itself is the sign of a quality side. They may not have the awe-inspiring slickness of the 1999 Old Trafford vintage or indeed the Arsenal side of 2004 but can they actually do the seemingly impossible and emulate the North London side?
At the time of writing, United have one league game before Christmas and that - away to current Champions Chelsea - could well be their toughest test of the rest of the 22 games remaining! Chelsea are struggling of late and United will be delighted to be playing them at this time but Chelsea will be up for it. If United avoid defeat at Stamford Bridge, then the busy Christmas/New Year spell sees them face Sunderland (H), away games in the second city at Birmingham and West Brom and then home to Stoke. None are easy, but you wouldn't look at any of those games thinking United will lose.
Assuming they get past these next five games, then I feel the unbeaten season is easily on for them. They will have boosted their confidence as they enter their usual good spell of the season and whilst everyone at the club will publically distance themselves from all talk of going all 38 games unbeaten, deep down and secretly they would love it if they matched Arsenal's incredible achievement.
Sir Alex will probably go down in history as the best manager any English club has ever had. If his team does go through the entire 2010-11 season without losing in the league, then that statement will not even be open to debate. As a Leeds fan, part of me hope that United don't do it, but as a football fan, I would actually love to see history made again and I think they just might do it.
Gary Dowden (15th December 2010)