independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Fab four keeps United in tune

Attacking quartet a throwback to historic treble-winning side

When Manchester United swarm forward in the red blur that all sides fear, the Old Trafford congregation's roar becomes a simple chant that sums up the club's DNA: "Attack, Attack, Attack, Attack, Attack!"

In the summer Alex Ferguson, smarting from losing the title to Manchester City on goal difference, decided this would not happen again and £24m was spent on Robin van Persie who, with Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck, have formed a quartet that is drawing comparison with the famous four of Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer that fired United to the Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup treble in 1999.

"It's been pleasing from the Manchester United point of view that you've got four strikers now that are capable of scoring and, if one is not scoring, the other is always going to chip in," says Yorke, now a Sky Sports analyst. "Reverting back to our four strikers in my time, this is about the best four they have [had]. And bearing in mind they lost on goal difference last season, I don't think Sir Alex wants to make that mistake again."

Yorke, described by Ferguson on Friday as the best striker in Europe during that treble season, led the club with 29 goals, as Cole collected 24, Solskjaer 18 and Sheringham five. So far Van Persie has 13, Hernandez nine, Rooney five and Welbeck two. "I'm sure the manager is pleased with the progress of all the strikers," adds Yorke. "Every one is looking pretty confident and the competition for places is hotting up – Chicarito [Hernandez] is scoring, trying to put himself in the team. That's really what you want as a manager. It puts the onus on the rest."

This season's side cannot stop conceding and scoring: 15 times in 23 outings this term and 10 times Van Persie and company have smashed home the goals to rescue the team and win.

United's 37 league goals are nine better than Manchester City's as Ferguson's side motor into the Etihad Stadium today for the first of this season's Mancunian squabbles. Roberto Mancini's side can boast the division's best defence, the 11 goals allowed from the opening 15 matches 10 fewer than the United rearguard, whose shaky performances Ferguson has called "Cartoon Cavalcade" defending. From the Scot down to his players the mantra is that it has to stop as Van Persie and his cadre cannot continue to dig out results.

This rollercoaster ride makes United the Premier League's must-see show, a throwback to the sides for whom going behind was a precursor to an inevitable onslaught. Cole says: "It's looking like that at the moment. But I keep on saying, 'Let's not do it that way. Let's get ourselves in front first and score a few goals, beat teams four or five from that position instead of coming back'. If you look at what they've got up front at the moment, they're going to score, they're going to create chances.

"I can see why the manager is saying we're possibly going to score 100 goals this season [for the first time], with all that firepower. If everyone's playing well, creating chances, scoring goals, you're going to have a great opportunity to do so."

United returned their highest Premier League count of 97 goals in the 1999-2000 season. The current squad are on course to notch 94. Overall they have 52 in 23 matches in all competitions, the most since Yorke, Cole, Sheringham and Solskjaer managed 53 after the same number of games in 2000-01.

As Ferguson continues his attempts to plug a porous defence the Scot has developed a diamond formation that allows at least three of Van Persie, Welbeck, Hernandez and Rooney to start, with the latter operating at its tip. Yorke says: "It's quite easy when you have somebody like Rooney who can play [up front] or off the front two, in the diamond or a little bit wide [though], ideally, Rooney is more effective down the middle of the park influencing the game."

Welbeck has been the fall guy of the four, allowed only six league starts and scoring once. "Danny is probably thinking he's down the pecking order and needs to get back into the mix," Yorke says. "He hasn't had an opportunity to play down the middle which is his best position: that is the nature of being at Man United."

Hernandez benefited from a first break in three years during the summer, recapturing the potency of two seasons ago to become a game winner for United, as he proved as a half-time substitute at Aston Villa in November, scoring twice when the side trailed 2-0. "I've been very impressed," Cole says. "He's been patient, so you've to take your hat off to Hernandez, he's been fantastic, a great attitude."

Van Persie's instant impact has also limited Welbeck's opportunities, though the England man strikes a realistic note. "It's a great motivation to see somebody with so much class come into the side and score," Welbeck says. "But it's not just his goals that have been pleasing – it's the way he's played all round and the assists he's got. Robin's a world-class striker and that's of great benefit to me, as I can watch him week in and week out."

Whether in the diamond shape or the more favoured 4-2-3-1 Ferguson's instinct to go for the kill has borne fruit. When three of his gang of four are fielded at the same time the return is 24 goals from 850 minutes' game time – a strike every 35 minutes.

At the Etihad this afternoon Ferguson again addresses the selection headache all managers would like. "Whatever options they're going to play with, it looks like they're going to score goals. That's the most important thing," adds Cole. "When you're one of the top teams and you want to win the Premier League, ultimately you want boys up front who are going to win you the match."

Manchester City v Manchester United, Sky Sports 1, 1.30

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