Barely 12 months on from the glory of a 19th league triumph the season has ended in disappointment on five fronts: beaten by Manchester City in the Premier League, knocked out of two European competitions at a premature stage, and defeated early in the domestic cup competitions too. Trophyless for the first time since 2005, Manchester United’s players and staff will depart for their summer holidays with much to ponder.
While a year ago bold terrace chatter was centred on how to match Barcelona after a Wembley chasing that lives long in the memory, the mood among United’s support today is of a far lower key. Defeat to Roberto Mancini’s City may have come by the narrowest of margins, but it is hard to argue with the conclusion. After all, for large parts of the campaign Sir Alex Ferguson’s side flattered to deceive; results achieved seemingly not through stylish football, but the force of the manager’s will.
Yet, the campaign began in such positive fashion – defeating City in the Community Shield at Wembley, running up a cricket score against Arsenal at Old Trafford, and securing eight league victories on the bounce before defeat. Ferguson’s side played some delightful football in the process, with Tom Cleverley and Anderson weaving pretty patterns in the centre of the park.
It didn’t last of course, with Cleverley injured at Bolton Wanderers in mid September, before City spanked United for six the following month. Ferguson’s side recovered, but the spirit of adventure was broken as the manager led a re-think of United’s open, attacking strategy.
Then, Anderson succumbed to injury once again, along with a dozen other first team players, leaving Ferguson to field Park Ji-Sung and Rafael da Silva in central midfield in the calamitous 3-2 loss at home to Blackburn Rovers in December. Old Trafford’s physio room has never seen anything like it.
Through the winter United ground out results, facing down an injury crisis of Biblical proportions while remaining in touch with Mancini’s outfit. Indeed, while defeat at Newcastle United sparked talk of another form of crisis, United secured a remarkable run of results post-Christmas that first ate in to City’s Premier League lead, and then put clear blue water between the clubs. It proved a false dawn.
Meanwhile, in Europe Ferguson had seemingly believed all the post-Wembley talk of surpassing Barcelona and sent out a scratch side to face Benfica at Estadio da Luz, securing a fortunate draw in the opening Champions League group clash. It proved to be a pattern though, with United taking to the competition with such conceit that a group exit was thoroughly deserved. Benfica and FC Basel are not among Europe’s elite, but Ferguson’s side was taught the hard way that the opponents had earned more respect.
The disastrous exit from the Champions League was compounded by a horrific triple knee injury to captain Nemanja Vidić during United’s defeat in Basel that appeared to sum up a season of injury calamity.
Ferguson, though, was not to be turned from his course, treating the Europa League with the same disdain as its bigger brother. Ajax was surpassed despite the Dutch side’s bright performance over two legs, only for United to be thoroughly humiliated by Athletic Bilbao. Committed, technically gifted, and adventurous, the Basque side was everything United was not. So much for conquering Europe, the Reds were relegated to the continent’s third tier.
Meanwhile, back at home Ferguson used the Carling Cup not to blood youngsters as many had hoped – with Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison drawing particular attention from supporters – but to offer minutes to fringe players including Park, Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Owen. Defeat by Crystal Palace at Old Trafford followed in November in a match where Ferguson fielded nine internationals – as slipshod and muddled performance as any this season.
In the FA Cup United beat City at Eastlands in January, but only after the Blues’ captain Vincent Kompany has seen red for a crude lunging challenge. United’s 3-2 victory told only part of the story though, with City dominating much of the second half despite being a man light. If anything while United progressed, City ended the match with renewed belief. The Reds welcomed Paul Scholes back into the fold in what proved a pivotal day.
Then, in the fourth round United travelled to Liverpool amid the storm created by Luis Suarez’ racial abuse of Patrice Evra. Liverpool’s Andy Carroll inspired battering of United’s callow goalkeeper David de Gea won the home side victory as United tumbled out of the FA Cup for another year.
Two weeks later Ferguson’s side met the Merseysiders again, this time at Old Trafford in the Premier League, and this time with Suarez and Evra meeting for the first time since the Uruguayan used the word “negro” seven times in a race-inspired tirade of hatred. After United secured victory Evra danced for joy in front of the Liverpool striker, who had refused to shake the United captain’s hand.
With Ferguson’s side out of four cup competitions the schedule was surprisingly light in the spring, allowing Scholes to find imperious form alongside Carrick in central midfield. Ferguson’s defence stopped leaking goals, and Danny Welbeck formed an impressive partnership with Rooney in attack. Antonio Valencia was simply dazzling in attack.
Yet, the good form couldn’t last and much of what would come to pass in April and May bore the old signs of complacency. Defeat at Wigan Athletic was, quite literally, unprecedented; throwing a two goal lead away against Everton simply criminal.
While Ferguson’s players bore the brunt of supporter criticism, the manager’s decision-making for once failed to pay dividends. Resting Scholes at Wigan disrupted United’s rhythm, while the decision not to throw an extra body into midfield with 15 minutes to go at home to Everton proved desperately short-sighted. The Reds’ negative tactics and subservience to City at Eastlands was simply not ‘the United way’. So much so, in fact, that it is still barely forgivable. It is on that day that United’s hegemony was broken and City’s long wait for domestic superiority ended.
And so to the final day drama, which almost ended with United as Champions. Yet, in truth, for all the media talk of the ‘finest Premier League season’, it was little more than a remarkable end to an unspectacular United campaign.
Hope will grow in the coming weeks though: that Ferguson will refresh his squad with new faces, and that injured stars will return good as new. Hope always springs eternal. Whether Ferguson and his pay-masters will dash it on the rocks of value is another concern altogether.
Sir Alex Ferguson – so many contradictions in the great Scot’s season. After all, with a weaker squad than for some seasons, and with key positions not strengthened during the summer, United’s 89 point Premier League haul is a fine achievement. Indeed, with an injury crisis to boot, Ferguson has dragged far more than the sum of the parts out of his squad, pushing City’s £500 million team to the very limit. Yet, whether by misjudgment or design, United sacrificed a European campaign during the process – defeat bedded on a dubiously arrogant view of the opponents. Then, during critical games over the final month Ferguson made more mistakes, not least Scholes’ absence at Wigan and the negative tactics deployed at City. Moreover, the United manager is unlikely to address the root cause of his squad’s limitations this summer. The Scot may be reinvigorated by City’s challenge, but unless he is allowed to invest, he will only find next season harder still. 7/10
David de Gea – 39 appearances, 0 goals – it took little more than a game against City in the Community Shield last August for the young Spaniard’s critics to crawl out of the woodwork. Early season mistakes, while 20-year-old de Gea was finding his feet on English soil, were always inevitable. So too was the media over-reaction. Yet, from adversity de Gea found a new strength in the spring, finishing the campaign strongly and eliminating any doubt, at least from those of a more rational perspective, of the youngster’s enduring quality. 6/10
Anders Lindegaard – 11, 0 – had injury not struck just as de Gea reached his lowest ebb, it may well have been Lindegaard, and not the Spaniard, who took charge between the sticks during the run-in. Solid, if unspectacular, Lindegaard could be an outstanding number two. The challenge for the Dane, with de Gea’s quality no longer in doubt, is whether he wants to warm the bench for lengthy periods next season. 6/10
Patrice Evra – 47, 0 – not the finest campaign from United’s experienced Frenchman, but then surely an improvement on 2010/11. Evra’s attacking verve returned in the second half of the season, especially once vindicated by the Suarez verdict in late December. We may never see a return to Evra’s outstanding form of 2008-2010 when the Frenchman was the world’s finest left back, but Ferguson will squeeze at least another season out of the 31-year-old. The question is, is Evra on the wane? 6/10
Phil Jones – 41, 2 – the youngster’s barnstorming start to the season gave way to injury, burn-out and inconsistency at the business end. There is much more to come from Jones, whose natural talent and physical assets mark the former Blackburn Rovers player out as a future star. Ferguson’s temptation to tinker with Jones’ role can’t help though. Needs to hold down a place in one position, but which one? 6/10
Rio Ferdinand – 38, 0 – the veteran’s injury plagued years are now behind him. Who would have predicted it after three season’s of back injuries? And with Vidić injured in December, Ferdinand’s form has been key to holding United’s defence together. Made mistakes, not least in the 4-4 draw with Everton, but a key player this season. 7/10
Chris Smalling – 30, 2 – not the season of progression Smalling would have hoped for after such a promising campaign in 2010/11. Injury, and Ferguson’s decision to shift the former Fulham player to right-back have not helped though. Will want to challenge for a permanent place in central defence next season. 6/10
Nemanja Vidić – 10, 0 – simply outstanding prior to injury against FC Basel in December. How would United’s season have turned out with the Serbian fit? Supporters will, of course, never know. Yet, turning 30 and coming back from a triple knee injury places a large question mark over the defender’s future career. Will miss the start of next season and may never be the same again. 6/10
Jonny Evans – 40, 1 – breakthrough season from the Northern Irishman who has shown such composure first to fill in for Ferdinand, and then take over from Vidić. Gone are the concerns about Evans’ ability to compete physically, and what’s more the Irishman’s levels of concentration have increased ten-fold. Evans’ disappointing performance in the draw with Everton does little more than demonstrate how far he has progressed. 8/10
Rafael da Silva – 18, 0 – it could, should, have been a breakthrough season for the Brazilian. Although Rafael started the campaign on the sidelines with injury, he performed strongly in the spring. Concentration levels were better, and defensively the youngster was far less of a liability. Yet, Rafael’s disastrous performance against Everton was ruthlessly punished by Sir Alex. 6/10
Fabio da Silva – 15, 0 – after finishing the previous campaign in Ferguson’s Champions League final line-up, Fabio’s progress has once again been hampered by injury this season. A loan away, possibly to Benfica, will make or break Fabio’s United career. 5/10
Ryan Giggs – 33, 4 – undoubtedly the legendary Welshman’s worse campaign in a United shirt, with a series of worryingly poor performances in central midfield. Gary Neville retired once the performance levels dropped below the acceptable. Giggs, by contrast, has taken another year’s contract. 4/10
Park Ji-Sung – 28, 4 – Park’s United career will now be defined by the calamitous inclusion in Ferguson’s selection for the derby at Eastlands in April. The South Korean hadn’t started a game in four months and it showed, with a performance of mediocrity bordering on the embarrassing. Good servant though Park has been it is hard to define his enduring value to United. 4/10
Michael Carrick – 41, 2 – Carrick’s finest season in a United shirt since 2008, with the Geordie outstanding in the centre of midfield after returning to Ferguson’s team in November. Near perfect pass completion stats, with a positive distribution that bust many a myth. Held United’s midfield together at times. Rant’s player of the season. 9/10
Luis Nani – 40, 10 – another positive season from, at times, the most frustrating player in Ferguson’s squad. Brilliant and wasteful in almost equal measure. One goal in every four appearances is acceptable from one of Ferguson’s key attacking players, with a strong assists contribution too. Yet Nani has not progressed from an excellent 2010/11 campaign. 7/10
Paul Scholes – 21, 4 – there’s no doubt that Scholes’ return to Ferguson’s squad in January came at the right time for club and player. Shorn of so many midfielders, Ferguson’s was an act of desperation amid tight budget concerns. Yet, matches against City and Everton aside, Scholes has been outstanding for Ferguson once again. Rolled back the clock, although unlikely to repeat the feat across a full campaign next season. 8/10
Ashley Young – 33, 8 – a productive season from the former Aston Villa man, who has contributed some outstanding goals and far better set-piece distribution than in previous campaigns. A very public row about diving was unfortunate, as was a severe mid-season dip in form followed by injury. Young is a quality player, but probably not the signing United really needed last summer. 7/10
Antonio Valencia – 38, 6 – Valencia’s exclusion from Ferguson’s line-up for the April derby was simply inexplicable given the Ecuadorian’s outstanding spring form. Valencia’s may be an old-fashioned form of wide play amid the prevailing taste for inverted wingers, but it’s certainly effective. Must be one of the first names on Ferguson’s team sheet next season? 8/10
Tom Cleverley – 15, 0 – such a positive start to the season for the youngster seeking his breakthrough campaign at Old Trafford. Yet the promise was shattered at Bolton in mid-September when Kevin Davies’ late tackle put Cleverley on the sidelines for six months. Could not break into the first team when returning to fitness. 5/10
Darren Fletcher – 10, 2 – another illness hit season, with the Scottish captain taking a long-term break from the game in a last-ditch bid to save his United career. His long-term condition is such that he may yet be affected once again, even if the midfielder makes a first team return as hoped next season. 5/10
Anderson – 16, 2 – the burger-eating Brazilian brought hope, for about a month, that after nearly five years at the club he would finally justify the €30 million transfer fee. Sadly, Anderson is always an injury waiting to happen and missed much of the season once again. Likely to be given yet another chance at Old Trafford though as Ferguson seeks to make the best of a small summer budget. 4/10
Wayne Rooney – 43, 34 – it comes to something when Rooney scores more than 30 goals in a season, yet was not United’s best player. It’s not that Rooney hasn’t been outstanding at times – he has excelled in a far deeper role – but there was also inconsistency of performance. Critical to United’s chances next season, assuming he hasn’t come to realise the scale of the ‘other’ Manchester team’s ambition. 8/10
Javier Hernández – 36, 12 – a difficult second season you say? Well, yes, although there are plenty of caveats for the diminutive Mexican striker. Last summer’s Gold Cup, followed by injury on pre-season, and further spells on the sidelines have not helped Chicharito’s rhythm. Neither has Rooney’s partnership with Danny Welbeck in attack. There’s plenty more to come from Hernández, but he needs to improve his all round game. 6/10
Dimitar Berbatov 21, 9 – what a sad end for the outrageously talent Bulgarian, who has been ostracised for large parts of the season. Having scored more than 20 league goals in the previous campaign many hoped that the former Tottenham Hotspur would put any lingering doubts about his United role behind him. It wasn’t to be, with Ferguson seemingly losing trust in the striker. 5/10
Danny Welbeck – 39, 12 – breakthrough season for the England international who formed a fine partnership with Rooney in attack. Welbeck’s all-round game, vastly improved first touch, and awareness have catapulted the Longsight-born striker into Sir Alex’ first team ahead more celebrated rivals. Needs to improve his finishing if he is to become a striker of the very highest class. 7/10
Tomasz Kuszczak – The Pole in Goal spent another season of slavery on the Old Trafford sidelines before departing on loan to Watford in January.
Ben Amos – four games in a frustrating season for Amos. Must seek loan football elsewhere next season.
Bébé – spent the season on loan with Besiktas, where the £7.4 million misfit first suffered a serious knee injury and then was consigned to the reserves after a breach of team discipline.
Paul Pogba – much vaunted French midfielder is set to leave United for pastures new after
failing to break into the first team this season being offered a lucrative contract at Juventus.
Michael Owen – United’s resident oxygen abuser has picked up another year’s salary. Well earned for being Ferguson’s in-house tipster.
Federico Macheda – another frustrating season beset by injury for the Italian youngsters. Will either be sold or loaned away during the summer