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Return of the Comeback Kings

by Omar Soliman

Cast your mind back to the tail end of last season when United still had a healthy lead going into the run-in. Before it all went horribly wrong but specifically midway through the second half of the 4-4 draw with Everton. At the time, United were 3-1 up after going a goal down and seemingly on their way to a valuable three points. Happy days, until I read a statistic put in front of me.

On the six occasions that United had fallen behind in a league match that season, they had failed to come back to win once. That afternoon the tally would be increased to seven. In fact, the only comeback win last season was in the Community Shield. No matter how sweet beating City was after gifting them a two goal lead it mattered for nothing come what May.

Whether fallibility at the back, a lack of spirit or simply a lack of experience were possible explanations, the statistic seemed misplaced. The concern not necessarily with the fact that United had fallen behind so often, rather that they had failed to fully recover a single time. Comeback wins tend to be a trademark of successful teams and a never-say-die attitude instilled from the manager.

That not one win was garnered from losing the first goal seemed staggering. Already this season United have fallen behind on four occasions, coming back to win three times. Little has changed with the personnel aside from a few summer signings so why the upturn in fortunes?

Shinji Kagawa celebrates after scoring against Fulham at Old Trafford on August 25, 2012. Photo: Shaun Botterill (Getty Images)

For one, Shinji Kagawa’s signing is already looking key, not simply for his offensive attributes but issuing a tactical rethink too. With the Japanese playmaker acting as a number ten he largely forgoes defensive duties to provide an out ball as a link between midfield and attack. While he found it difficult to pose an influence against a harrying midfield like Liverpool’s his inclusion remains crucial for ball retention, finding pockets of space in dangerous positions and creating chances.

While many still highlight the lack of a midfield destroyer, United can now afford to be overrun in midfield if Kagawa can remain an attacking option further upfield. Anyone who can still recall the title decider against City last season (no-one would blame you if it remains missing from your memory) would see Park Ji-Sung try and fail to play a similar role largely due to his limited forward play.

Kagawa’s deployment is a slight variation yet tailored to his technical ability and a feature of United’s play that could prove all the difference in big games away from home. Instead of simply chasing the game and being picked off on the break, United can afford a more patient approach.

What also helps is having a potent striker as a point of attack, someone like Robin van Persie. In the Dutchman, you not only get proven experience in the Premier League and Champions League but someone who can seemingly conjure up a goal out of nothing. Take his goal against Fulham for example; while some strikers may be inclined to have taken a touch, attempted a shimmy then taken a shot at goal, it took one sweet volley from his trusted left foot to score. Chasing a game limits chances yet having van Persie simply means that one chance may just change the game.

Points gained from losing positions could have made the difference last season yet throughout Sir Alex Ferguson‘s trophy-laden reign, the comeback win has become a trademark. The manner of the victory breeds confidence and plants cancerous doubts into opposition minds that one, two, maybe three goals is not enough. Doubt pushes defences back leading to chances in the final few minutes and a vicious cycle comes into play. Already United seem to have regained their mojo if the early signs of this season are to be believed.

While that aforementioned statistic may have only become widely known as the season reached its climax, you can bet opposition managers noted it as a basis on their tactical preparation. With the fallibility put to rest and a tactical rethink brought into play from two technically blessed forwards, the comeback kings have returned.

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