Manchester United’s season closed with a win over to Stoke City yesterday afternoon; the bittersweet taste of success tempered by the title heading to London after more than 1000 days in Manchester. If the season’s outcome was somewhat inevitable after the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo then at least the side’s shortcomings are clear.
Remedy is perhaps a creative midfielder, some thought away and better luck with injuries away. Whether Sir Alex Ferguson has either the financial means or desire to invest in the transfer market is moot.
United’s league form has largely frustrated. Five defeats before Christmas threatened to derail the Reds’ campaign. In earlier seasons so many pre-Christmas defeats may have ended the title bid. This time round competitors’ inability to find any consistency kept the race close.
Some of United’s performances before the year’s turn – think Aston Villa at home and the catastrophic loss to Fulham at Craven Cottage – were hampered by injury to key defenders including Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans and Nemanja Vidic.
Indeed, injury has been a season’s theme, with a dozen players missing at least a month this campaign. Perhaps relying on squad over-filled with aging stars and those with a history of injury means that the crisis should have been far less surprising than it seems to many supporters, unprecedented in scale though it was.
The end of 2009 was not wholly gloomy. One of the season’s highlights came in the autumn – the stunning 96th minute Michael Owen winner against Manchester City at Old Trafford. Owen’s acquisition on a free transfer worth it for that moment of magic alone, although the former Liverpool forward contributed little else. Former United favourite Mark Hughes called foul over the official’s timekeeping. He was proven wrong and departed his job before January was out.
United coasted through a Champions League group that brought few highlights. Defeat to Besiktas at home in United’s fifth game necessitated a stunning performance against Wolfsburg in Germany with a back three that included Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher.
As the year turned, defenders rehabilitated and Edwin van der Sar returned to the side, United’s performances picked up, save for the humiliating FA Cup third round loss to Leeds United at Old Trafford in January.
It was however, United’s Carling Cup semi-final two-legged victory over City that sparked some life into Ferguson’s campaign. Victory over Villa followed in the final at Wembley, although Vidic’s foul on Gabriel Agbonlahor could have brought yet another dismissal for the Serbian.
Victory in Milan in the Champions League first knockout round and then again at Old Trafford brought even greater belief, while David Beckham’s decision to don a green and gold protest scarf sparked a storm of media coverage. When has the former United midfielder not?
It proved a false dawn though, with defeat at Everton in the Premier League, at home to Chelsea in April and the tame draw with Blackburn Rovers derailing United’s domestic season. Referees failed to help United’s cause but failure is an internal problem to address.
Ever greater disappointment came in Europe, with four goals shipped against a Bayern Munich side high on attacking endeavour but very low on defensive talent. That the Germans faced a distinctly average Olympique Lyonnais in the semi-final, with Barcelona beaten in the other half of the draw, only adds to the sense of frustration at Old Trafford.
An opportunity lost in a season of far too much mediocrity.
If United’s current side is far from a Ferguson vintage then a great deal of credit is earned for the team’s response to the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo and recovery from a severe injury crisis. Ferguson’s drive has, if anything, taken his team to greater heights this season than the squad should have achieved.
Indeed, United has scored more goals in the Premier League than last season and conceded fewer than any of its competitors over the course of the campaign. In all competitions United hit the back-of-the-net on 115 occasions, 11 more than Rant predicted at the season’s start, although the side’s 86 in the Premier League fell someway short of Chelsea’s 103.
The question that United supporters will now ask: what has management learned from a season that has failed to hit the peaks of the previous three and how the squad will progress from here?
The worry is that the board’s short-term goal may no longer be domestic and European superiority, even if Ferguson is absolutely focused on returning United to the top.
The board, burdened with £716.5 million of Glazer debt must cut costs and reduce transfer market spending. The American’s bond prospectus outlines just where the majority of United’s free cash will head for the next seven years – into debt repayment and mysterious management fees.
This season’s disappointment may – in the face of competitors’ planned transfer market assault in the coming summer months – become the norm.
It means United will rely heavily on the unproven talents of Federico Macheda, Mame Biram Diouf, Gabriel Obertan and Javier Hernandéz next season.
It is to Ferguson’s eternal credit that United came so close this season. Now he’ll need to squeeze even more out of the squad if United is to return to the top.
Sir Alex Ferguson – 7/10 – Ferguson’s assertion that he alone chose not to spend vast sums available from the sale of Ronaldo on established stars left United vulnerable to an aging squad, with unproven youngsters and cheap acquisitions. The serious charge that the Scot migrated his side to a tactical formation reliant on – or perhaps because of – Wayne Rooney’s form and fitness is proven; disastrously so once the Scouser succumbed to groin and ankle injuries late in the season. Worryingly Ferguson is talking up next season’s prospects without changing the make-up of his squad or adding additional class. His assertion that nobody bar Lionel Messi or Ronaldo would improve his squad is miles wide of the mark. Ferguson is still the master but he is working on limited resources. The frustration is that he won’t admit it.
Edwin van der Sar – 7/10 – another solid season after an injury and illness effected start. Will spend one further campaign at the club before retirement in June 2011.
Tomasz Kuszczak – 6/10 – an able deputy through the Autumn months, although only finances will dictate a permanent spot past van der Sar’s retirement.
Ben Foster – 4/10 – given his big chance at the season’s start, the former Stoke City ‘keeper largely disappointed with some high-profile mistakes and confidence sapping nervousness.
Gary Neville – 6/10 – remarkable comeback from the United veteran, whose determination is a lesson to the squad’s younger members. Poor against Bayern Munich and Chelsea in crucial games exposed his advancing years.
Rafael da Silva – 5/10 – injury has disrupted the youngster’s season with the Brazilian regressing this campaign. Positional naivety and a tendency to pull back speedier opponents must be stamped out.
John O’Shea – 6/10 – solid and dependable when fit. The Irishman will never generate headlines but a vital member of Ferguson’s wider squad.
Patrice Evra – 9/10 – another outstanding season from one of only a few genuine world-class talents at Ferguson’s disposal. Untied fans will hope that rumours of a transfer to Madrid this summer are without foundation.
Wes Brown – 6/10 – 29 games is one of Brown’s better efforts over a carrier blighted by injury once again. Solid at right-back or the centre of defence, Brown is still an important squad member.
Rio Ferdinand – 5/10 – the Londonder’s career is now at a crossroads. Ferdinand’s class is without doubt but injury has severely affected his form and appearances over the past 18 months. It looks chronic.
Nemanja Vidic – 6/10 – afflicted by a mystery nerve problem and a suspicion that the Serbian is no longer committed to the cause. Denials of a summer departure are not helped by an agent who continues to hawk the defender around Europe.
Jonny Evans – 7/10 – a new four-year contract rewards another season of progression from the Irishman. Frustrating late autumn ankle injury caused a mid-season dip in form but Evans is now a genuine contender to permanently take over from Ferdinand.
Antonio Valencia – 8/10 – an outstanding début season at the club. Grew in confidence as the campaign progressed. He is no Ronaldo, of course, but Valencia’s long-term Old Trafford future is assured.
Darron Gibson – 5/10 – Ferguson is convinced but aside from the midfielder’s shooting, his distinct lack-of pace, wastefulness in possession and inadequate technique are worrying.
Nani – 7/10 – talk about a season of two halves. Poor before Christmas, Nani nearly left the club in January. Ferguson kept faith and Nani has excelled during the run-in. Further progression next season and Nani will become a hugely potent weapon.
Paul Scholes – 7/10 – still technically the finest midfielder of his generation. Give time and space Scholes will still dominate a match in a way no other midfielder can. Sadly he is rarely given such time and space these days. Will retire next summer.
Ryan Giggs – 6/10 – excellent in the opening weeks of the season, the Welshman’s performances have deteriorated post-Christmas. Worrying tendency to lose possession.
Anderson – 5/10 – billed as the Brazilian’s last chance by Rant, he’ll probably be given yet another one to prove he isn’t the expensive jack-of-all trades and master of none that many suspect.
Michael Carrick – 5/10 – by far the worst of Carrick’s four seasons at the club. At fault for two of Bayern’s goals in United’s Champions League exit. Regressed badly and may leave in the summer.
Darren Fletcher – 8/10 – that United have so rarely missed Owen Hargreaves’ dynamism is largely down to the Scot’s energy this season. One of the most improved players in the modern era and a certainty in Ferguson’s first eleven.
Gabriel Obertan – 4/10 – injury delayed the Frenchman’s debut before a run of promising cameos. Failed to make the side post-Christmas and at 21 must progress next year.
Owen Hargreaves – ? – less than 30 seconds of action. At least the former Bayern Munich player is now fit. We think.
Ji-Sung Park – 6/10 – dependable and energetic, United’s ‘defensive attacking midfielder’ is a little short on class but high on consistency and endeavour.
Wayne Rooney – 9/10 – a wonderful season from the Scouser, who has adapted to yet another new role in his six years at Old Trafford. PFA/FWA awards fully deserved for 34 goals this season. The striker failed to score post April injury against Munich.
Dimitar Berbatov – 5/10 – frustrating and brilliant but no longer in equal measure. The Bulgarian’s talents too often wasted or eliminated in a tactical system that does not suit him. He’s not lazy; he just doesn’t fit at Old Trafford.
Mame Biram Diouf – 4/10 – loads of goals in the reserve team point to a bright future but it hasn’t manifested itself yet. Injury has hampered his progress in six months at the club to date.
Federico Macheda – 4/10 – persistent injuries and reports of an attitude problem have limited the Italian’s progress. Much more is expected from the teenager next season.
Michael Owen – 5/10 – nine goals, including goals in the Carling Cup final and the derby, before succumbing to the utterly inevitable long-term hamstring injury the player’s history always suggested he would.