If Manchester United goes on to win this year’s Premier League title and beat their local rivals, Manchester City, then fans and players will undoubtedly unite in what has become one of the closest title finishes in recent years. Not only will United fans be happy vanquishing their wealthy and ‘noisy’ neighbours but it will make United the only English side to have won twenty league championships, two clear of their fiercest rivals Liverpool.
Yet amidst the potential celebrations, which by no means are likely, there appears to be a degree of gloom and uncertainty about the future. Anyone looking at the league table may be nonplussed by such assertions. So far this season after 36 league games, United have won 26, scored 86 goals and amassed 83 points. In last year’s championship winning side the team won 23 games, scoring 78 goals and topping the table with 80 points. This is a side that has played the majority of the season without some of their key players; Captain Nemanja Vidic ruptured his cruciate ligament in December, whilst midfielder Darren Fletcher has been fighting to save his career following a chronic bowel condition. The team also had the difficulty in replacing the Dutch goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar, who retired after six seasons with the club.
Yet, after the immense disappointment of losing to Barcelona in last season’s Champions League final, the result and manner of the victory against Man City in August’s Community Shield brought a deal of hope and excitement. Besides new goalkeeper David de Gea’s mistake against Edin Dzeko, United’s passing and desire was impressive. A midfield with a large Paul Scholes shaped gap was fluent and confident. New, young and dynamic players were making United quicker, on and off the ball. After coming back from two goals down at halftime to win 3-2, it showed a more determined and technical United.
The start of the Premier League season saw no relent either. Less than a year after he announced that he wanted to leave the club, Wayne Rooney was scoring freely and the team was trouncing sides with ease. Arsenal, Bolton and Tottenham all took healthy beatings. The loss of midfielder Tom Cleverley to injury was a blow, but the return of long term absentee Antonio Valencia reminded the fans of the depth in the squad. Even the league’s joint top scorer from last season, Dimitar Bebatov, struggled to get a game. By October, United and City’s free scoring dominance saw them canter away from all other potential title rivals.
The embarrassing 6-1 defeat at home to rivals City was a black day. No doubt the score was flattering; people forget that Jonny Evans had been sent off early in the second half when City had a 2-0 advantage, but it was no excuse. It highlighted obvious weaknesses in midfield compared to City’s talent. Fletcher was not in good health and Anderson had a particularly poor game, but it opened the questions of why Sir Alex had not brought in a classy central midfielder in the summer. Besides Carrick’s excellent and unsung performances this season, the fact is that no quality central midfielder has been brought in since Roy Keane left the club in 2005. The return of Paul Scholes in January asked more questions than it solved of the previous ones.
The performances in Europe were just as shocking. Last year, United were strong defensively and didn’t lose a game home or away. The Romanian side Otelul Galati were utterly hopeless, but the slip ups against Benfica and Basle were impermissible. Confusing performances and needless mistakes became far too common, particularly at home. In the Europa League, they only just beat Ajax over two ties, whereas Athletic Bilbao gave them a footballing lesson. What I found most remarkable about the Bilbao game was not the match, but the reaction by Bilbao fans to the substitutions of Scholes and Giggs. The San Mames erupted into applause when the two left the field. It not only highlighted the fans recognition and appreciation, but it enhanced the idea that United needed severe investment. Fans only had to look at Bilbao’s central midfield three to recognise the difference.
Defeats, at different points, to Blackburn at home in the league, Crystal Palace in the League Cup and Liverpool in the FA Cup confirmed that United lacked a battling and technical quality in the middle of the pitch. Paul Scholes’s performances have been immense, but he is just a sticking plaster. It became more apparent in the second half of the season when De Gea, Evans and Ferdinand formed a solid defensive partnership and Rooney, Valencia and Welbeck continued to create and score goals upfront. United can score and stop goals, but it doesn’t necessary mean they can control games, particularly when other teams get their tactics right. I think particularly of the occasion when Newcastle beat them 3-0 at the Sports Direct Arena.
The trouble as Roy Keane notoriously, and rightly, made when he left the club was that at great clubs such as United, there should be no such thing as a ‘transitional’ period. Yes, players leave and retire, but young players should be part of the competition, not on work experience. If you can’t learn and adapt, then you’re simply not good enough.
Sir Alex has complained in recent years about the value for money in the market. He decided that Karim Benzema simply wasn’t worth £35 million and Wesley Sneijder’s wage demands were too high. Yet at the same time, the highly regarded Ravel Morrison was allowed to leave (though this may be down to his attitude) and the academy’s biggest prospect future, Paul Pogba, remains unclear. Certainly, scouting has become much better and there is new wealth in the game e.g. PSG, City and Malaga but whilst United have continued to improve through development and recruitment, it makes it more bizarre why the money hasn’t gone into the centre of midfield. United are constantly linked with the likes of Edin Hazard, Christian Eriksen, Javi Martinez and Luka Modric but what is the likelihood of any these players moving to Old Trafford. There are financial constraints on the club through the Glazers’s debt, which is unforgivable, but also the fact that Fergie is unwilling to spend top dollar for the so-called finish article or certainly what the selling club believes them to be worth. This is by no means a criticism of Sir Alex, as he has been the single biggest force behind the club this season but it may come to haunt United if the title does end up at the Etihad.
United may not win any trophies this season and some critics may say deservedly so. Yet be assured that if they do take their thirteenth title, it will all be down to Fergie. Out of the players, Rooney has scored the goals, but he has not been as consistent as Carrick, Scholes and Valencia. Jonny Evans deserves recognition for an outstanding season. One can only hope as a United fan that if it does become lucky 13 then we will see some new arrivals in the centre in the summer.