Football: The way to play United's visonaries

Click to follow
LOOKING at the Premiership table this weekend I can only agree with the bookmakers, the only worthwhile bet is who is going to finish second? With the hard- fought point from the Newcastle fixture, Manchester United's domination of the championship appears complete before the half- way stage is passed.

Their position now is in stark contrast to the scene I witnessed at Old Trafford four years ago. The image is recalled and vivid in my memory because of the draw for the third round of the FA Cup which was on television last week. On the afternoon of that day in 1989 Crystal Palace played a poor United side and beat them 2-1. The crowd at the start of the match was sparse by United standards, and the stands deserted by anybody's standards at the final whistle. As is often the case at the end of a match, the single shouts of abuse are remembered more than the collective bawl. The target of abuse on that day was undoubtedly United's manager, Alex Ferguson.

After the game I had a drink with Alex in the intimacy of the Old Trafford equivalent of the Boot Room, and his glazed expression showed that the criticism was getting to him. Alex has since confirmed that this indeed was the lowest point of his United career to date. But for the rest of that 1989-90 season his team spluttered into effective action only in FA Cup matches, culminating in their final victory against a far superior team from south London.

The transformation from that season to this has been dramatic. In the whole of that FA Cup-winning season United won only 48 points in the League. This present side achieved that total after only 19 matches. The uncertainty of costly purchases then has now been replaced by the free expression and maturity of players who know they are good.

Four seasons ago you could out- think them with a tactical switch. Their lack of confidence in each other meant you could outplay them. If neither of these worked, you could bully them and they still had enough 'flowery' players not to put up too much resistance.

The problems of beating them this season are entirely different. The last resort of bullying obviously does not work. How can you physically overpower Pallister, Bruce, Ince, Keane, Cantona and Hughes? You will end up mauled yourself.

Do you think up a new tactical strategy to take advantage of a perceived weakness somewhere in their team? Over the past season and a half they have played against every formation and nothing has stopped them.

Their only setback has occurred in Europe against Galatasaray, the Turkish champions, when Uefa rules meant that they could not field their strongest team. Defeat also meant that United could concentrate on the domestic programme, thus depriving the rest of the Premiership of the possibility of too congested a schedule in the all-important latter stages of the season.

The prospect of outplaying them hardly seemed possible given the quality of their squad, until the game at Newcastle. The young pretenders showed that the only way to get the better of United is to play pure football against them. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the only team to beat United this season in the League have been Chelsea, and we all know their preferred style of play.

I lay no claim to having found a chink in United's armour, just an indication of the best way to play against them. On Saturday they could have been forgiven for losing, given the size of their lead in the table and given the severe conditions in a hostile environment. Yet they earned a point displaying characteristics they have not had to show too regularly since that 1989-90 season.

The lasting memory for me from Saturday was Ferguson standing in the dug-out for all the second half, berating his team to greater efforts, just as he had done four years ago for totally opposite reasons. His drive and determination are constant and the main reason why the bookmakers have stopped taking bets on them. What price Newcastle for second?