England. Top four. Top two. Aston Villa.
There’s a definite United-of-old feel about the last couple of games and despite the long international break, the game at Anfield created a buzz that remains audible around Old Trafford. The worry is that Manchester United aren’t going to hit the ground running and impose themselves in quite the same way after the break and that’s perfectly logical.
Top two is a real prospect and when it gets to this stage of the season, confidence can play a huge part. You’re running out of opportunities to play the averages and it becomes more about who wants it.
The repeated negative that is thrown at the notion that United can finish second is the tough, challenging and difficult fixture list that they’ll have to battle through. Yet, under Louis Van Gaal, the bigger games have been where United flourish. Ten points from five games against the top five teams is unrivalled this season.
Van Gaal is a tactician, a strategist, a thinker. He likes to drill deep into his opponent’s style and neaten the edges of his own philosophical approach, but the Dutchman has struggled away to the weaker sides. It will take him time to adjust to the Premier League and the teams that aren’t universally recognised. For now though, his strength lies in the devil that he knows, the big sides.
Yes, there are some tough games throughout the run-in but that leaves it all in United’s hands. They can treat each game like a cup final and really believe that it is. That energy, that belief and that hunger that has become increasingly more tangible after the games against Spurs and Liverpool has to be utilised.
The international break has also sparked the debate that so often re-surfaces on the terraces of Old Trafford. Carrick or no Carrick? It’s this very debate that embodies why England will perpetually struggle at the highest level. Football is a team sport, not an individual one. Every consistently successful football team has a compliment of players.
All attacking teams require players who are willing to sacrifice, the type is completely dependent on style of play. High pace, counter-attacking sides need a heavy ball winner, a tackler, a strong presence. Someone who can impose themselves mentally and physically when the game is wide open.
Those that play with more control, fluidity and possession require a player that can read the game, a player that is disciplined in possession that allows other players the freedom to create, attack and score goals. If all of your midfield quartet/quintet are headline-grabbers, then you’ll find yourself exposed.
Carrick is the Dark Knight in a side that wants to control games. He doesn’t strive for headlines or net-busting 40 yard strikes. He strives for composure, for colleague freedom, for the greater good.
Just because he isn’t shouting from the rooftops, doesn’t mean he isn’t there. The puppet is nothing without the puppeteer and when the strings become invisible, the magic begins.