In this most unpredictable of seasons Manchester United’s final game played both to form and quality. Barcelona’s superiority, especially in the centre of the park, was hardly surprising given United’s failure to upgrade central midfield last summer. Indeed, the Reds progression to Premier League champions, by a substantial margin to boot, and the Champions League final was surely an over-achievement driven by Sir Alex Ferguson’s enduring brilliance. Ferguson rejects the inference, but United has surely regressed since the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez in summer 2009, along with ageing limbs and injuries to other key players.
Yet, the Scot’s ability to draw more from his squad than the logical sum of its parts means there is much to celebrate this season not least the unexpected and remarkable 19th domestic title, achieved against the backdrop of an outstanding home record where Ferguson’s men dropped just two points.
Old Trafford’s impenetrable fortress witnessed victories over key rivals Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, confirming United’s domestic superiority. Moreover, the Reds also played some of the division’s best football at Old Trafford, hammering Birmingham City and Blackburn, while scoring 49 goals in the process.
Away from home United’s patchy form brought just five Premier League victories, including a barren period from August to late October when Ferguson’s men finally beat Stoke City 2-1 at the Britannia Stadium. That the record is the worst of any domestic champions since the mid-1970s is irrelevant of course but a weakness that Ferguson will surely want to address over the summer. After all, relegated Blackpool won as many games away from home as United.
More worrying perhaps was the sometimes dire performances on the road, where the side’s lack of imagination came to the fore. Ferguson’s lack of a genuine defensive midfielder seemed to count against United, despite the now famed determination. Defeats at Liverpool, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Chelsea, and Arsenal during the run-in could have severely damaged United’s chances.
The Reds’ weaknesses during a period of transition have not been exposed by domestic rivals, leading to the accusation that United is the least worst winner this season. Chelsea’s aging squad and bizarre mid-season transfer splurge worked against Carlo Ancelotti’s ambitions. The Italian has paid with his job but the suspicion remains that club policy is largely driven by a fickle owner, who will hire yet another new manager this summer.
Arsenal’s problems in central defence, midfield and at goalkeeper were a direct result of manager Arsène Wenger’s negligence in last summer’s transfer market; a problem that the Frenchman has finally acknowledged. It is perhaps too late to keep star players Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabragas beyond the summer window.
United’s eventual failure in the domestic cups owe much to Ferguson’s experimentation and the FA’s willingness to create policy on-the-fly. The Red’s 4-0 defeat during at snowstorm at West Ham United in November did Gabriel Obertan, Bebe and Darron Gibson no favours. It proved the one bright spot in an otherwise dismal season for the Hammers.
Meanwhile, United’s run to the FA Cup semi-final, including victory over Liverpool at Old Trafford, affording supporters another day out at Wembley. It is hardly a novel experience, of course, but one spoiled by the FA’s bizarre disciplinary processes. Rooney claims he will “never get over” the two match ban handed down for swearing.
It is in Europe that United has truly exceeded expectations, despite the humbling defeat to Barça at Wembley. Save for Saturday’s 3-1 loss, United remained undefeated in Europe, with Ferguson’s men retaining a record of clean sheets away from Old Trafford up to Saturday’s fixture. Negative tactics have helped but Ferguson has certainly found a way to win away from home in European competition.
It has also been a season in which Ferguson has faced many off-the-field challenges. Rooney’s October revolution, coming so soon after newspaper allegations that player slept with prostitutes brought the media’s full glare to Old Trafford’s doorsteps. The incident marked a new low in Ferguson’s relationship with the media, which has at times descended into all out war.
Rooney’s improved spring form has bought forgiveness from supporters but few will need reminding of the fickle nature of player loyalty, whatever that means in the modern game.
The season has also seen the successful integration Javier Hernandez, Chris Smalling and Fabio da Silva into the United squad. The Mexican’s impact has been significant, with 20 goals scored in an outstanding first season in England. Meanwhile, Smalling has demonstrated composure and a genuine physical presence during 33 matches for the first team. By the season’s end Fabio had supplanted Rafael in the first team, although 2011/12 was also a season of progression for United’s number 21.
This progress bodes well for the future, although Ferguson must surely be mindful of the weaknesses in United’s squad, so brutally exposed by Barcelona. Multiple retirements – Edwin van der Sar, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes – and Owen Hargreaves’ release means that the summer market will dictate whether United must run to progress or simply stand still next season.
Sir Alex Ferguson – in the face of squad degradation, off-the-field trouble, an FA suspension and a hamstrung budget Ferguson has certainly over-achieved. Spoilt perhaps but the United faithful demands the best. This is certainly not the best side of Ferguson’s 25-year tenure at Old Trafford. Yet a superb Premier League title, FA Cup semi-final and Champions League final is better reward than most pundits and many fans could have predicted. Ferguson is United’s greatest asset, even if he continues to defy logic by supporting the Glazer regime at every turn. Momentarily jeered by the Old Trafford crowd for thanking the Glazers during his post-season address. 9/10
Edwin van der Sar – 46 appearances, 0 goals – van der Sar’s consistency is matched by the great Dutchman’s enduring excellence. There is little doubt the former Ajax star could carry on in a United shirt but age and family priorities have prompted retirement at the age of 40. Yet to the end, van der Sar has ensured defensive confidence rarely matched by United’s ‘keepers since Peter Schmeichel’s retirement 12 years ago. A great season to cap off a fine United career. 8/10
Tomasz Kuszczak – 10, 0 – there are few that will shed a tear for the Pole when he leaves Old Trafford this summer. Kuszczak’s inability to provided any consistency in four years at the club ended with a hapless performance against Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park. 4/10
John O’Shea – 32, 0 – United’s utility player rarely excites but his consistency – consistently average critics might argue – adds something to Ferguson’s options. O’Shea has been superseded by the da Silva brothers but will continue to provide useful cover in the coming years. 5/10
Rafael da Silva – 28, 0 – despite losing his place in the United side, first O’Shea in the autumn and then his brother Fabio in the spring, the Brazilian youngster has made encouraging progression this season. Fewer rash tackles and better defensive positioning mark a step up in class from the former Fluminese right-back. Missed out on the Champions League final. 6/10
Fabio da Silva – 25, 2 – Fabio’s United career has been disrupted both by injury and his brother’s role in the United side. But a late season injury-free run in the United side has provided compelling evidence of the defender’s potential class. Is likely to fight his brother for a place in the United side next season. 5/10
Patrice Evra – 48, 1 – a disappointing season by Evra’s very high standards, arguably the worst of his five and a half year United career. The Frenchman’s enduring class still manifests but Evra has increasingly been caught out of position defensively and, anecdotally at least, seems to offer less going forward. United supporters will hope that the World Cup hangover has subsided by August. 6/10
Rio Ferdinand – 29, 0 – the Londoner is hugely important to United but for the third season running injury has decimated a campaign. Ferdinand’s class during the run-in was central to United’s Premier League success but it is not without reason that Ferguson considered moving the defender on last summer. An injury-free pre-season is essential should the 32-year-old not find his position under threat. 6/10
Nemanja Vidic – 47, 5 – perhaps a surprise choice as Ferguson’s new captain last summer but what a decision it has proven to be. The Serbian’s lead-by-example style has brought the most consistently outstanding season from the giant central defender. How Ferguson must be grateful for tying the 28-year-old down to a new four-year contract last August. 9/10
Jonny Evans – 21, 0 – a disappointing campaign from the Northern Irishman who has far more to offer than this. Evans has been consistently poor against the high ball and physical opponents this season, and seemingly lacked confidence for much of the season. Returned to the side only to see Red for a crude tackle on Bolton’s Stuart Holden. Needs to man up over the summer. 4/10
Chris Smalling –33, 0 – an excellent début season from the £10 million former Fulham defender. Smalling’s composure, physical presence and growing maturity mark the player as a future star. Of course, the 20-year-old still needs to learn the game, evidenced by his sometimes poor positional play. 6/10
Wes Brown – 15, 0 – there seems little chance of Brown forcing his way back into Ferguson’s plans, with the smart money still on a transfer out of the club this summer. Naturally gifted but rarely fit, Brown cut a peripheral figure at Old Trafford this season. 4/10
Antonio Valencia – 20, 3 – bar a traumatic broken ankle in September, Valencia would have played a far greater part in United’s season. Still, the determined Ecuadorian forced his way back into the side in the spring at Nani’s expense, providing a series of strong performances. Ashley Cole will not soon forget the roasting handed out at Old Trafford. 6/10
Nani – 49, 10 – outstanding in autumn and winter, Nani lost his place to Valencia during the run-in. But this should not deflect from the Portuguese’s outstanding campaign, the most consistent and productive of his United career. Why then is the player open-minded about a move away from Old Trafford? 8/10
Park Ji-Sung – 28, 8 – it is hard not to consider Park the ‘coward’s winger’. After all the South Korean’s qualities have little to do with his technical ability and far more about the 30-year-old’s tactical discipline. More productive in front of goal than in previous years. Deserves his place in the United squad but at the loss of how much quality? 6/10
Ryan Giggs – 38, 4 – the Welshman’s enduring value was highlighted in a series of outstanding late-season performances in central midfield – from flying winger to playmaker who can still dictate the tempo of a game against all but the very finest. Exposed in the Champions League final but then so was United’s entire midfield. 7/10
Gabriel Obertan – 15, 1 – United’s forgotten winger who, after two years at the club, will surely be on his way this summer. No closer to a breakthrough and the impending arrival of Aston Villa’s Ashley Young will only accelerate Obertan’s return to France. 3/10
Paul Scholes – 33, 1 – the Ginger Ninja’s outstanding early season form tailed off during the winter months. Scholes’ brain worked to the end but physically the 36-year-old had deteriorated badly, to the point that the midfielder’s famed ‘time and space’ began to erode. Will be hugely missed but retirement will preserve his legacy. 5/10
Anderson – 30, 4 – another frustrating season from United’s €30 million Brazilian. An excellent performance in the dead rubber against Schalke and a goal against Blackpool on the final day are seemingly exceptions that prove the rule: Anderson’s contribution is flitting at best. Look back far enough and the 23-year-old can be influential, but it is in the distant past. 5/10
Darron Gibson – 20, 2 – it is hard to pinpoint the thinking behind Ferguson’s continued faith in the Irishman, who shoots at every turn but with very little accuracy. He boasts neither the range of passing skills, technique, nor pace to succeed at the very highest level. A hyper-critical assessment perhaps, but then this is United and standards are high. 4/10
Darren Fletcher – 37, 3 – the Scot has become a key asset in Ferguson’s midfield over the past three seasons, especially as Owen Hargreaves fought a losing battle against injury. Yet, this was not the finest of campaigns for the Dalkeith-born midfielder, even before a springtime virus laid the 26-year-old low for the best part of two months. Fletcher remains a valuable member of the United squad whose performances over the past nine months are just a touch below those of previous campaigns. 6/10
Michael Carrick – 44, 0 – the Geordie’s performances markedly improved this season in comparison to those of the past two campaigns. At times Carrick’s use of the ball and excellent defensive instincts have contributed fully to United’s success. Yet there is the nagging feeling that Carrick’s ability to influence is in reverse correlation to the opposition’s quality. See exhibit A: Barcelona. 7/10
Dimitar Berbatov – 42, 22 – by far the Bulgarian’s most productive season at Old Trafford. Without the striker’s autumn contribution United could not have won the Premier League. After all, Berbatov scored more winning goals this season than any other striker. But with a record that is skewed towards performances in games against lower-ranked opponents it is still hard to resolve that Berbatov is fundamental to United’s chances. 8/10
Wayne Rooney – 40, 16 – truly awful pre-Christmas, yet outstanding during the run-in. Ferguson’s decision to return the striker to his natural position at ‘number 10’ proved a masterstroke both for the player and the team. But it’s hard to forget Rooney’s October revolution, nor the series of truly dreadful performances before the year turned. 5/10
Javier Hernández – 45, 20 – it is hard to recall a début season being more impactful given the full context. Transplanted from central America to the Premier League aged just 22, ‘Chicharito’ not only changed the way United play for the better but has scored vital goals to boot. Hernández, as Gary Neville argues, should go on to score “hundreds of goals” for United. 8/10
Michael Owen – 17, 5 – “Michael has proved to be a top footballer,” Ferguson said today on handing the former Liverpool striker a new contract. How the mighty Blackpool, Southampton, Scunthorpe and Bolton Wanderers rued the striker’s contribution this season. A symbol of Glazernomics if ever there was one. 3/10
Federico Macheda – 12,1 – the Italian will return to United after a less than auspicious loan spell at Sampdoria, with whom he was relegated from Serie A. Yet, with seven strikers on the books it is hard to imagine the 19-year-old remaining at Old Trafford next season. 3/10
Anders Lindegaard – 3, 0 – two cup appearances before knee injury curtailed his season. Will serve as back-up to David De Gea next season.
Ben Amos – 2, 0 – cup appearances against Wolverhampton Wanderers and Valencia this season. Needs to head out on loan once again for his the sake of his own development next season.
Gary Neville – 4, 0 – retired at the right time if his appearances against Stoke City and West Bromwich Albion are anything to go by. Low key end to a great career for this one-club man.
Owen Hargreaves – 1, 0 – five minutes match time before inevitable injury ended his United career. That was four minutes more than the previous season.
Ravel Morrison – 1, 0 – far more will come from Morrison than this brief substitute appearance in the Carling Cup.
Bebe – 7, 2 – not one of Ferguson’s finest decisions. Barely a footballer, let alone a United player worth £8.3 million. Value?