Two defeats in season-defining games is just short of disaster for a team with Manchester United’s ambitions. In the aftermath the temptation is to seek blame in officials, as was the case on Saturday against Chelsea, or solace in the imminent return of the club’s leading player Wayne Rooney. Neither is the answer.
In truth United’s season has not turned on either Rooney’s injury nor the erroneous, if baffling, decision by Simon Beck not to flag Didier Drogba on Saturday. Ten defeats in all competitions speak of a squad in transition seeking a new direction.
The real question is not whether officials make the right calls in United’s forthcoming games or how quickly Rooney’s ankle heals but whether Sir Alex Ferguson can build another great side in the coming months. In a season of Premier League mediocrity, the question is relevant whether United wins the Premier or Champions Leagues come May or not.
After all if progress is the name of the game then United did not meet the side’s humbling defeat at the hands of Barcelona last year with a statement of intent.
At the season’s outset, with Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez moved on to pastures new, inevitable relative decline was already set, despite the eternal optimism of fandom. That United’s senior players – Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, Edwin van der Sar – were another year older, another season towards retirement, only amplified the fact.
It is also remiss to focus too heavily on United’s horrendous injury list this season, although clearly a factor in some of the side’s results. United faced an uphill task maintaining the standards of the past whether remaining injury free or not.
But results speak loudest and Ferguson knows that a focus on injuries and referees leads only to a misleading explanation for United’s inconsistencies this season. In truth the Scot must also do some serious thinking in the summer months about the squad’s personnel and structure.
The United squad sits on the boundary between mediocrity and success. Ferguson almost always steers the club towards the latter. Indeed, it is the Scot’s ability to continually transform his squad from generation to generation that is perhaps his most fitting epitaph.
But none of the United’s legendary quartet has conclusively been replaced from within. While Nani’s progress post-Christmas is encouraging the Portuguese winger is a long way short of the standards set by Giggs over the past 20 years.
Meanwhile, Anderson’s pretensions to Scholes’ throne and Ben Foster’s desire to replace van der Sar are on hold – probably permanently – although at least hope remains that right-back Rafael da Silva’s progress will not stop at injury’s altar.
There is no certainty whatsoever that the understudies will ever reach the promised land.
United will also need to plan better for injury next season than this. Owen’s inevitable breakdown and Ferdinand’s long-history of back trouble, together with his advancing years, mean that Jonny Evans and Federico Macheda will become central to United’s cause. Whether they meet the standards of their forbears or not will play a huge part in United’s future success.
Ferguson must also make long-term decisions on the players for whom the jury is out. Dimitar Berbatov in particular will sweat on the summer market. Darron Gibson has also done little to convince the doubters that he is Scholes’ natural successor and Owen Hargreaves, out of contract in the summer, will need to prove his long-term fitness.
Mistakes were made in the transfer market last summer, particularly with Ferguson’s gamble on Michael Owen. While the former England international was the Scot’s second choice – behind Real Madrid bound Karim Benzema – the free transfer acquisition placed too much reliance on Wayne Rooney in a system built around the former Evertonian.
It does not suit Owen, Macheda, Berbatov nor Danny Welbeck to play through the middle without support.
Over the summer, should Ferguson spend any of United’s £75 million overdraft facility, tactical thinking will play almost as important part as any acquisition’s quality.
If Ferguson persists with the lone-striker system next season Berbatov and Owen have no place in the first eleven and will forever be consigned to the role of first reserves.
But if Ferguson buys he will do so in the face of yet more unprecedented spending across Europe. Manchester City, Chelsea and even Real Madrid – after all the ‘project’ has failed – will spend yet more millions that United cannot possibly compete with, Red Knights or not.
Whatever the final outcome this season United’s supporters are rightly proud of the team’s achievement. After all, with five matches remaining in the Premier League, Chelsea must face both Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur away from home. Meanwhile, United has a winnable Champions League quarter-final match tomorrow night.
With the Carling Cup already in the bag the season could yet be very successful.
In the face of aging players, sales and injury Ferguson’s overwhelming desire to win has seeped into the DNA of his squad. Indeed, this squad may well have over-performed this season despite 10 defeats.
The worst crime would be for the club to sit on its laurels and fail to recognise the deep chasms that lie beneath the wallpaper. Ferguson knows this but how many hands are tied behind his back?