What to make of a season that ended with the Premier League trophy being returned to its frequent resting place at Old Trafford? Certainly, regaining English pre-eminence is success by any measure. Yet, while the drama of Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement masks everything in the narrative of the campaign, premature defeat in three cup competitions, especially the Champions League, leaves a just modicum of anti-climax come the season’s the close.
Indeed, the Premier League was captured with such ease that it is tempting to wonder what might have been in Europe, or perhaps the FA Cup, which Manchester United hasn’t captured in almost a decade. Regrets can wait for now – certainly over trophies lost – with Ferguson having captured more than 30 during his time at the club. It is, after all, a campaign that will be remembered primarily as Ferguson’s glorious last.
But amid the tears over the Scot’s departure – and celebrations over title number 20 – it is easy to forget quite how shambolic was United’s start to the campaign. Defeat on the opening day at Everton was followed in rapid succession by chaotic defensive performances in victories over Fulham and Southampton. The latter brought a comically missed penalty and then a hat-trick from expensive new acquisition Robin van Persie.
But it wasn’t so much United’s early season results that drew concern than the propensity to ship goals in such quantity. Three goals conceded in home defeat to Tottenham Hotspur as September drew to a close proved to be a pattern too often repeated, rather than a defensive watershed.
True, injuries to Jonny Evans, Nemanja Vidić, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling left Ferguson’s back-four in constant flux during the autumn. But there was a larger, structural, problem too, with Michael Carrick often exposed by a lightweight midfield, and an almost suicidal attacking ethos from wide positions. It was a philosophy much changed after the Christmas break; Ferguson had little other choice.
Yet, the European campaign started in positive fashion, with the Reds claiming victory over CFR Cluj and Braga twice to seal early qualification for the knockout stage that had eluded Ferguson’s team a year before. Defeat to Galatasary and then Cluj in dead rubbers mattered little, although served as a pointer to the fragile complacency that crept into the Reds’ play towards the season’s end.
Whatever United’s defensive weaknesses the side’s ability to rack up points through the winter proved decisive. Defeat to Cluj in early December, with a much-changed side, was not repeated in any competition until Real Madrid won at Old Trafford in controversial circumstances in February.
Meanwhile, rivals Manchester City lost to United, Sunderland, and Southampton during the same period as Ferguson’s side created a healthy league lead. It proved to be an advantage too great for City to claw back this time.
However, the domestic cups proved far more disappointing than the league campaign. United’s youngsters lost to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the Capital One Cup, although Ferguson’s bravery in using his substitutions to blood ever more inexperienced players should have brought greater rewards. That the west Londoners also removed United from the FA Cup in one of the Reds’ most insipid displays of the campaign proved a season low-light.
And whatever United’s frustration on the road to Wembley it paled into comparison with Ferguson’s much-publicised anguish over Madrid’s victory at Old Trafford. Nani’s controversial red card, followed by two rapid-fire Madrid goals, dumped Ferguson’s side out of the competition and ended the Scot’s hopes of a final European fling. Ferguson’s pain in defeat was surely only amplified by the Reds’ positive performances home and away against Los Merengues.
The consolation was substantial at least with the Premier League secured by mid-April; a full four games from the finishing line. In that the campaign will be remembered fondly – for the decisive victory over City.
Yet, Ferguson’s side has rarely reached the heights of performance to go alongside those excellent results. In the great Scot’s last season the abiding memory is of a team that captured glory through substance rather than style. Much like Ferguson’s team of the early 2000s this side is perhaps just two high-quality acquisitions away from greatness. It is quite possibly an Eric Djemba-Djemba away from mediocrity as well.
Premier League victory should lead to another crack at Europe next season, although Ferguson’s retirement and significant back-room changes may undermine that lofty ambition.
Sir Alex Ferguson – Fergie’s final season brought victory at least for the 71-year-old. The Scot was determine to retire “a winner” and that ambition came in emphatic style. Yet, this final team is one of function above all else; a side not good enough to play with freedom lest a brittle defensive unit cracks under the pressure. It is a side that scored less, conceded more and gained no more points than the previous year when City captured the title at the death. This despite van Persie’s expensive capture. In misty-eyed reminiscence this season will be remembered fondly. Just not for the quality of football. 7/10
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David de Gea – 41 appearances, 0 goals – a tremendous season of growth for the Spanish youngster who by the campaign’s close was voted the PFA’s goalkeeper of the season. That assessment, in truth, is based on growth from the autumn onwards, but the 22-year-old is certainly now one of the best in the Premier League. Now far more confident under physical pressure and less prone to error, de Gea can thank outgoing goalkeeping coach Eric Steele for the strong improvement in performances. 8/10
Anders Lindegaard – 13 appearances, 0 goals – the Dane began the campaign challenging de Gea for Ferguson’s attention. He ended it having been offered the sympathy vote by the retiring Scot. In truth Lindegaard has only himself to blame; a calamitous performance against Reading in December consigning the Dane to the beach for all but two games between Christmas and April. The former Ålesund player returned for the final the matches of the campaign, but only due to Ferguson’s mistaken belief that the player required 10 Premier League appearances to earn a medal. 5/10
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Rafael da Silva – 40 appearances, 3 goals – the Brazilian’s finest campaign yet in four years at Old Trafford. Rafael’s natural attacking instincts are now allied to a greater sense of positional awareness and superior discipline. Where the youngster was once guilty of letting his impetuousness dominate, a sense of maturity is slowly growing. The red card received against Chelsea is ammunition for the few critics remaining, but where Ferguson was once loathe to trust the former Fluminense player, Rafael is now solidly United’s first choice right back. 8/10
Patrice Evra – 43 appearances, 4 goals – much criticised following a dip in form during the 2010-12 campaigns, the French left-back was near his best in the campaign just concluded. Foraging runs, encouraged by Ferguson’s decision to afford his full-backs plenty of freedom during the first half of the campaign, enabled Evra to contribute four goals and five assists in the Premier League. It was by far Evra’s best haul for the club. Add just three defensive errors all season and the Frenchman is perhaps the ‘best of the rest’ in Ferguson’s squad. 7/10
Alexander Büttner – 12 appearances, 2 goals – it took, perhaps, two appearances to work out Büttner’s essential problem – he’s not a full-back, and certainly not one able to perform at the very highest level. After all, defenders are normally required to defend – a requirement far outside Büttner’s skillset. But there’s plenty of willing and an attacking mindset that could yet prove useful against lesser opponents. It’s hard to foresee a long-term future for the Dutchman at Old Trafford. 4/10
Rio Ferdinand – 34 appearances, 1 goal – logic dictates that injury and age should have ended Ferdinand’s time at Old Trafford before now. Yet, the 34-year-old will stay into his 12th campaign as a United player – surely one of the very best central defenders to have graced the club. Indeed, Ferdinand’s form in 2012/13 was central to United’s cause – an outstanding, largely injury-free contribution, especially in the second half of the season. Ferdinand has his critics, but his performances have been without peer for more than a decade. 7/10
Nemanja Vidić – 23 appearances, 1 goal – the Serbian is not yet back to his very best and it is tempting to speculate that the 31-year-old may never regain the powers of old. Two serious knee injuries have taken half-a-yard from the player’s pace, although all the old defensive instinct remain. The summer’s rest may yet invigorate Vidić, but it remains an open question whether he can still play with Ferdinand, especially when each needs to drop a little deeper than in the past. Needs to stay fit after two injury disrupted campaigns. 6/10
Jonny Evans – 30 appearances, 4 goals – injury disrupted the defender’s season at a time when the Irishman is coming into his playing peak. Yet, mature performances and a new sense of confidence mark a very solid campaign. Evans is now firmly established in the defensive triumvirate including Ferdinand and Vidić. Fitness permitting, Evans should take over as United’s first choice central defender during the coming season. For now, the 25-year-old will be happy with a solid campaign. 7/10
Chris Smalling – 22 appearances, 0 goals – there is so much potential that will remain unfulfilled if the former Fulham defender cannot complete a season without time in the physio room. Injury affected his campaign once again, although Smalling can at least look back on some creditable performances. Yet, with Ferdinand and Vidić ageing there is a significant opportunity for Smalling to claim a regular starting place in new manager Moyes’ team next season. Can the 23-year-old remain fit enough to realise his considerable talent? 6/10
Phil Jones – 24 appearances, 0 goals – the bombastic defender ended the campaign with Ferguson lauding his potential to become ‘the best player in United’s history’ – a claim that can be put down the post-match giddiness, or an over-eager sampling of the Brunello di Montalcino Riserva ’64. After all, Jones spent much of the season on the treatment table, in common with many of his defensive colleagues. But a very strong finish to the campaign augurs well for the new season, where the the former Blackburn Rovers man will want to nail down his favoured role in central defence. 6/10
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Antonio Valencia – 40 appearances, 1 goal – it is hard to reconcile the player of 2012/13 with that of a year ago. After all, Valencia’s truly outstanding displays during United’s unsuccessful run-in last season saw the Ecuadorian attack with pace, confidence and genuine menace. On current form Valencia offers none of that and it is hard to foresee how or when the player of old will return. Yet, there is some hope, with the 27-year-old offering some improved performances late in the campaign, although there was little left to play for. 5/10
Ashley Young – 23 appearances, 0 goals – mediocrity thy name is Young. Ferguson’s temptation in signing Young surely owes it place to price, with the winger’s contact running down at Aston Villa, enabling the Londoner to arrive without the usual ‘English premium’. But Young has offered little in two seasons to suggest anything more than a squad place is merited. Add injury and poor form to the limited game and Young made very little impact in the campaign just concluded. 5/10
Nani – 21 appearances, 3 goals – a hugely disappointing campaign from United’s most naturally talented wide player. During the Reds’ unsuccessful run at the title in 2012/13 Nani contributed 10 goals and 13 assists. The numbers this season, impacted by injury and a dispute with Sir Alex, is three and five. Nani had always been inconsistent, but his numbers told a story; the Portuguese wins United games. Without the goals and assists Nani becomes a liability – just one reason is why Ferguson kept him on the bench this season. 4/10
Ryan Giggs – 32 appearances, 5 goals – the irrepressible Welshman just doesn’t know when to quit. But that’s enough about Giggs’ love life. On the pitch Giggs continues to contribute, especially through a patch of outstanding form in midwinter. True, he gives the ball away cheaply in central midfield and no longer has the legs to play wide, but in his 40th year it is remarkable that the player is still performing at all. Giggs is likely to play a peripheral role in Moyes’ high-energy direct brand of football, but he has earned the rest. 6/10
Michael Carrick – 46 appearances, 2 goals – another outstanding campaign from United’s only reliable midfielder. Carrick allies sound defensive instincts with a world-class possession game – recycling possession rapidly to convert defence into attack. United simply could not have won the Premier League without him – a fact finally recognised in song from the terraces. Carrick should benefit from Moyes’ apparent desire to strengthen United’s central midfield. 9/10
Anderson – 25 appearances, 2 goals – “Andersron” said the shirt in one of Albert the kitman’s more infamous moments. Back in August, with Anderson recovering from yet another injury, hope remained high that the Brazilian could get fulfil the potential that his talent suggests is possible. Yet, the campaign again proved to be a false dawn. In truth Anderson’s best performances for United are now five years thence. The club should cut and run, but does the new manager believe he can finally unlock the secret to the midfielder’s under-performance? 5/10
Paul Scholes – 22 appearances, 1 goal – one last hurrah too many, perhaps, with Scholes playing only a peripheral role in his final season as a professional. Injury disrupted the campaign of course, but by the New Year the 38-year-old maestro was firmly on the fringes of Sir Alex’ team in any case. Still, few United fans will think any less of the Ginger Prince for playing one season too many. After all, it has been a real pleasure watching him these past 20 years. 5/10
Tom Cleverley – 32 appearances, 4 goals – is it ok to use the bastardised cliché – ‘a season of two halves’ – about Cleverley’s performance this season? For much of the campaign the Basingstoke-born player seemed to be fulfilling supporters’ lofty expectations. Deployed in a deeper role, Cleverley’s ability to retain possession and then speed up the pattern of United’s play offered much to the midfield dynamic, even if the defensive side of his game needs some work. But then the wheels fell off amid unconfirmed reports of an unprofessional attitude towards his profession. There is much in the locker, but can Cleverley seize his chance under new management? 6/10
Shinji Kagawa – 26 appearances, 6 goals – there is magic in those dancing feet, although injury and Ferguson’s propensity to deploy the playmaker out of position severely impacted on Kagawa’s contribution this season. It is a scenario that prompted Borussia Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp to claim that his “heart cries” for his former charge. Does Moyes have the courage to deploy Kagawa at ‘number 10’ next season? The answer may determine whether United ever realise the Japanese player’s true value. 6/10
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Wayne Rooney – 37 appearances, 16 goals – has the former Evertonian suffered a more traumatic campaign in United’s colours? True, the numbers stack up, with 16 goals and 13 assists claimed from a deeper role than in the past. But the sparkling performances of old have largely deserted the 26-year-old. In truth Rooney is at a watershed moment. He should have grown into one of the world’s finest players. He didn’t. But is there still time, and can it happen at United? Many, including Sir Alex, now harbour doubts on both fronts. 5/10
Javier Hernández – 36 appearances, 18 goals – remarkably the Mexican ends the season as United’s second top goalscorer, behind van Persie. The return is phenomenal given the low number of starts afforded the 24-year-old this season. Will that accolade satisfy a player who surely desires a more regular starting role? An answer in the negative leaves the new manager with just one season to use or lose the prolific striker – an outcome that would represent a terrible waste of talent. 6/10
Danny Welbeck – 40 appearances, 2 goals – the Longsight-born player has become an enigma; a striker that doesn’t score, a winger that can’t play wide, a squad player who is invariably picked for the biggest games. Welbeck has excelled at times this season, most notably in United’s draw with Real Madrid at the Bernabeu. The youngster possess a rare, multi-faceted talent and a physical presence that is a real asset in the modern game. Yet, with just two goals Welbeck’s output is shockingly poor. True, the United trainee is typically deployed out of position, but the quality of his finishing is also just short of the mark. Room for improvement on an excellent natural base of talent. 6/10
Robin van Persie – 48 appearances, 30 goals – an outstanding campaign from the Dutchman who joined United for £24 million last summer. Yes, expectations of the former Arsenal striker were high – as they should be for the lofty price. But van Persie’s experience, gravitas and goals has squarely contributed to United’s success this season. In fact United couldn’t have secured the Premier League without the 29-year-old’s considerable talents. More, the Dutchman has won over the fans off the pitch. van Persie does, says and seemingly thinks all the right things. Rant’s player of the Season. 9/10.