Rooney the Key to United Revival
In a bar-room conversation last Saturday night with a rabid Liverpool fan - one of the ambulance-troubling type, the chip on whose shoulder required planning permission - about the relative merits of his team and the current Manchester United side - I, much to his chagrin, posited the old chestnut that the league table doesn't lie.
Stripping away the layers of prejudice in his arguments, there was one central, troubling kernel of doubt: didn't Liverpool play United off the park only six or seven weeks ago, and can United really have improved that much in such a short time? Was their impressive run of league form since then merely the inevitable statistical manifestation of playing a who's who of Premiership duffers, the cream of which was a Bolton side collapsing faster than an Italian coalition government?
The convincing defeat of Arsenal on Sunday duly followed. Arsenal, the team for which we had all emptied our larder of superlatives, as they breezed by Europe giants with bravura over recent weeks. Despite the resting of Thierry Henry, surely the manner of this victory showed that United were in fine fettle and returning to the grandeur of old?
Perhaps, but improved they certainly have. So what has changed in those intervening weeks?
The majority of the mud slung at United after their FA Cup elimination at Anfield was related to the puniness of their midfield, the catchweight nature of the contest between their middle four and Liverpool's muscular equivalents being central to their timid demise.
But is their midfield much more impressive now? On Sunday they played Ronaldo, Giggs, O'Shea and Park, as opposed to the quartet of Ronaldo, Giggs, Richardson and Fletcher at Anfield. Are the lugubrious Irishman and the fleet-footed South Korean the reason for the newly formidable United? O'Shea has actually been quietly impressive of late, reading the game well, in addition to demonstrating his natural ability.
But Arsenal are not noted for physical domination of midfield anymore and Cesc Fabregas was visibly fatigued by the burden's of the recent weeks' successes. Indeed if anyone had earned a rest from Wenger's starting eleven it was the 18-year old.
Defensively, United were not particularly punished for their lack of possession at Anfield in February, but that may have been more to do with the miserable scoring form which would lead to Liverpool's elimination from the Champions League a few weeks later. A few weeks previously, however, they had shipped four in losing at Blackburn, and, going back to the derby defeat by Manchester City - and, if you like, even further back to the home defeat by Blackburn in September - have suffered from a soft centre in front of their own goal, particularly in the shape of a lack of decisiveness in dealing with balls into the box.
Nemanja Vidic's impressive display on Sunday, which included a number of crunching tackles and solid clearances might suggest that this vulnerability has been addressed also. The big Serb certainly appears to possess the required traditional centre-half qualities to accompany Rio Ferdinand's more genteel talents.
But all this amounts only to trimmings. Staring in the face, the answer to why United are suddenly playing like the champions they will, rather probably, not become: Mr Wayne Rooney. Gosh, that wasn't blindingly obvious. The guy who scored the first and set up the second and was at the core of everything good his side did - what perceptive analysis!
Yes it is obvious, but just as the 20-year old carries England's hopes of winning the World Cup, so too is his current effervescence at the core of United's revival. Rooney went through something of a lull during the first six or seven weeks of 2006, as if made sluggish by excessive consumption of Christmas pudding.
He is operating now at full capacity, however, and the explosiveness that hallmarks his game was never more present than on Sunday. What makes Rooney a great player is different to what defines Ronaldinho's genius. The Brazilian astounds us with his seemingly unthinking execution of the impossible; the performance of skills and manouevres which are simply not in the repertoire of any other player, and seem intrinsically related to his physiology and his lithe frame.
Rooney's talent, on the other hand, is in the perfection of his execution of textbook footballing skills. There is little that Rooney does that is in itself specific to him - no Cruyff turn, or Zidane roll - but his control, vision, powerful running, passing and shooting are all consistently completed to a standard way above those around him. Take his goal on Sunday: flawless control, followed by an unstoppable shot. Or his famous goal against Newcastle at Old Trafford last year: a volley, no doubt, but one that no-one playing today could similarly produce.
As a tangent to the aforementioned pub discussion, it was asked where exactly United were superior to their old foes. That debate is easily ended by simply pointing to the identity of the Red Devils no.8, and his presence in current form weighs heavily in the favour of arguments for both club and country.