Manchester United’s title capitulation in the past fortnight has been a long time coming. United’s 11 defeats in all competitions a measure of the side’s inconsistency in the face of key player departures, injuries and an aging squad. While talk of a complete squad overhaul is wide of the mark, Sir Alex Ferguson’s crucial end-of-season planning begins now.
That planning will, of course, be hampered by the stringent financial environment fostered on the club by the Glazer family. It will also take into account revised ambitions that now extend – as Ferguson admitted on Friday – to “maintaining the current level.”
As a minimum United’s owners need the club to qualify for the Champions League in 2010/11. United’s supporters want a 19th title and a genuine assault on the Champions League.
It is with no little irony that United has amply replaced the goals scored by Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez this campaign. Wayne Rooney’s outstanding form, together with an even spread of goals around the squad means United has scored nine more goals in the Premier League to date than in the entire 2008/9 season.
But the side’s reliance on Rooney, who has scored 34 per cent of United’s Premier League goals this season, has come to haunt Ferguson in the title run-in.
Over the season’s course United’s defensive injury crisis has hit home in key matches; defeats to Aston Villa and Fulham around the New Year are strongly linked to Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic’s long-term absence at that time.
Given that seven defenders and Edwin van der Sar have missed at least part of the season it is a minor miracle United can boast the best defensive record in the Premier League.
But the suspicion at the season’s start that United was just a bit too short in quality to win either the Premier or Champions League this season has been born out. There is absolutely no satisfaction in it.
If United is to regain the Premier League title in 12 months time and mount a serious challenge for the Champions League, Sir Alex should consider the following questions:
- How to solve a problem like Edwin – Edwin van der Sar will play one final season at United. The great Dutchman’s presence and largely error-free application of the goalkeeping art provided additional security through the winter just when Ferguson side needed it. But is that good enough? Beaten at the near post by Samuel Eto’o in the 2009 Champions League final, van der Sar could also have done better for Bayern’s goals home and away in this season’s quarters. Formerly a world great, van der Sar is now showing his age. Ferguson is reportedly interested in Schalke’s Manuel Neuer at around £10 million. Olympique Lyonaise ‘keeper Hugo Lloris is the fantasy choice but at huge expense.
- Offering Wayne Rooney support – growing evidence suggests that United will not buy an established international centre forward to offer United’s talisman either support or back-up. Dimitar Berbatov’s unsuitability for the role of lone forward – ditto Michael Owen – means Ferguson will enter the new season still reliant on Rooney’s ability to play the role in the biggest games. Commence praying for an injury-free season in 2010/11.
- Seven into one won’t go – Unless Ferguson changes his current thinking about United’s tactical formation Rooney, Berbatov, Owen, Federico Macheda, Mame Biram Diouf, Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernández will compete for one spot in the side. Cynics might say that Ferguson’s current tendency to stock up on unproven talent above established class is Benitez-esque.
- What formation? – Ferguson’s apparent devotion to the 4-3-3 formation in United’s toughest fixtures mirrors tactical trends around Europe. The formation is anathema to many United supporters but a decision made by the Scot many years ago. But if United heads into the season bent on playing Rooney alone up-front, is disaster is an injured ankle waiting to happen?
- The dearth of midfield creativity – For 15 years Ferguson’s team selection boasted the outstanding talents of Paul Scholes as its creative heartbeat. Widely regarded as the best of his generation by fellow pros, Scholes’ contribution is now hugely fitful. Yet United without a youthful Scholes is a side without central midfield creativity. To replace Scholes at his peak will cost United upwards of £30 million that Ferguson doesn’t have. To match Barcelona’s midfield brilliance might cost £60 million.
- Planning for injury inevitability – 12 senior United players spent a month or more in the treatment room this season. The unprecedented level of injury at the club can, in part, be written off as bad luck. But injury to certain players is utterly inevitable next season. Owen, Rio Ferdinand, Edwin van der Sar, Gary Neville, Scholes and Ryan Giggs will break down. Age and a tendency to injury effects each.
- What now for Berbatov and Carrick? – Two years of Berbatov at United has taught fans that the Bulgarian record goalscorer is a wonderful talent who cannot deliver on the biggest stage. Few United supporters now believe that Berbatov is the answer to the club’s redemption next season, even if like Rant they are huge fans of the former Tottenham Hotspur striker. Meanwhile, Carrick has suffered his worst season in a United shirt by some distance. The pair’s future at United is surely in doubt.
- What of the supporting cast? – Are Anderson, Darron Gibson, Jonny Evans, Wes Brown, John O’Shea, Macheda and Park Ji-Sung good enough to haul United through another injury crisis next season where they failed this time around?
- Trust in youth? Rafael da Silva, Macheda, Gibson, Anderson and Evans offer much promise, if fulfilled to differing levels in the first team to date. Ferguson trusts the quintet and each is likely to play more than less next season. But with key members of United’s squad aging Ferguson must also decided how to blood the next generation of youth – look for progress from Joshua King, Tom Cleverly, Will Keane, Davide Petrucci, Paul Pogba and – hopefully – Ravel Morrison. It is worrying that just four players in the past decade have made it out of the academy to become regular starters for United.
- The wide men – Antonio Valencia has delivered a highly impressive first season at United, despite the pressure of ‘replacing Ronaldo’. The Ecuadorian’s increasing confidence in the United shirt bodes well for a solid career at Old Trafford. Meanwhile, Nani’s post-Christmas form offers promise of a bright future. At one stage few thought Nani would make it through the winter. But with Giggs now too old for the wide positions and Park a level in quality below, United is short of options in wide areas.
- Transfer strategy – United’ stated strategy to acquire players who retain a resale value limits the club to players under 26 years of age and commits the club to selling those players who successfully make the grade. The Glazers’ debt mountain means that United cannot spend heavily without first selling or piling yet more debt on the club’s books. This is the Rafael Benitez route to League and Cup ignominy.
- The coach – Ferguson’s testy manner this season may well be a factor of United’s sporadic form but the level to which the manger has intensified his war on both the FA and officials is counter-productive. Yes the FA has an anti-United agenda that is beyond doubt but Ferguson’s insistence that Alan Wiley was ‘unfit’ to referee invited a backlash that has resulted in a series of inexplicable decisions against the Scot’s side in big games. For example, United suffered horrendous decisions against Chelsea home and away and Liverpool away that had a material effect on the results. Ferguson must ask himself whether the war is worth it?