Might and Glory: The story of United and the rest

by Sebastian Hassett on Sep 05, 2011

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Yes, it's true, I can say it. I was there. When Ashley Young put Manchester United 2-0 up against Arsenal last Sunday with a brilliant, curling right-footed shot that pierced the top corner, I felt I'd already witnessed something special. Little did I or anyone else know what was to come.

The Red Devils produced one of the greatest performances in the history of the club; one which will be mentioned in newspapers and magazines for months and probably immortalised in song somewhere and maybe even in film. It was that kind of day.

As it stands, there's something very unique about Manchester United's current situation. Last season, they were ever so slightly derided by observers who felt they were champions by default; an absence of contenders making them the best of an abject bunch. Think about it: Chelsea spent three months in the wilderness, Arsenal lost their heart after Christmas, Liverpool never fired a shot and Manchester City were still finding that delicate balance between bank balance bliss and check-your-egos-at-the-door.

No question United were fortunate but even more important was that they realised it. Sir Alex Ferguson knew recalibrating was required so he made three critical signings — Young, who provides an underrated mix of pace, poise and precision, was the most exciting — but Phil Jones and David De Gea may offer a decade of outstanding defensive service.

Rest assured, Jones is a fine footballer. On Sunday I was struck by his willingness to play so high up the park - a danger at first glance but when you are capable of feeling the play as well as he is, the risk is lessened. These are early days but his passing was reminiscent of a classic libero, picking the ball up deep and surging towards the midfield, making intelligent, smooth passes all day.

De Gea's start has been less than auspicious but he made a massive contribution against Arsenal by saving Robin van Persie's penalty that would have levelled the scores. That might be the catalyst to bring the Spaniard up to speed.

Those signings, along with the gradual blooding of Jonny Evans, Danny Welbeck and the excellent Tom Cleverley has given Old Trafford all the fresh blood it needs to feel rejuvenated without rebuilding.

It is the ultimate tribute to a manager who can keep tuning his squad over a prolonged period without losing ground. Ferguson's skill is not so much in tactical wizardry or inspirational team talks — it is having the rare ability to not just analyse the body of the team but feel its pulse. He knows when it is time to move a player on, either from the first team or from the squad entirely. The retirements of Gary Neville and Paul Scholes were handled with great dignity.

Last Sunday's match was United at their very best because of the magnitude of the stage. Arsenal were on the ropes leading into the match and, while hampered by injuries, they needed to show the world they were capable of matching it. Instead, United crushed them. Mercilessly. Relentlessly.

There was a certain manic behaviour about Fergie's side. The longer the game went, the more feverish they became. Players were making lung-busting runs and demon-like tackles despite a four, five and six goal buffer. The crowd was baying for a live kill that seemed to infuse their players with a well of limitless energy. It was as gruesome as it was glorious.

United are in the box seat to win the title this season, for the respective transitions at Chelsea and City still seem incomplete. Perhaps I underestimate City - their 5-1 win over Spurs was unfortunate to be overshadowed by United's eight-goal spoiler. If Roberto Mancini can create squad harmony, he has a chance, but it's a big if with Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli still on his books and several other big names barely getting a look in.

Finally, a quick word about Arsenal. The only thing they can take heart from is their fans. They were tremendous, singing from the opening touch to the final whistle, and never in anger or fury. They are tiring of seeing their club lose ground on those around them but their support remains unconditional, as it should.

But as good as they were, this season looks to have more disappointments in store. This year, the title is almost certainly heading to Manchester, most likely down Sir Matt Busby Way.