Is winning the title this season just delaying the inevitable?
Rio Ferdinand made an interesting point last month about Man City, not about the fans coming out the woodwork, but when he said of City winning the title, “fingers crossed we can delay that”. Did anyone feel surprised by this comment? Was this an admission that the future is blue and that winning the title this season will be just delaying the inevitable?
United have dominated English football for twenty years and are set to now win their twentieth title. This is truly remarkable and all credit must go to Alex Ferguson for this. He has continually defied the critics and come out victorious. Even this season, where this United are the poorest for a long time, he has worked his magic to have them winning the title again.
However,is there not a sense of inevitability that Man City, with their riches and ambition, are about to overtake them as the best side in England. Many have written off Ferguson before, only for him to come back time and time again, he is quite simply the best manager ever in the English game, better than Shankly and Clough. His record is undeniable and his ability to develop winning sides is truly remarkable. Yet, Ferguson is close to the end of his time at United and the mantle will need to be given to someone new soon, has Ferguson produced a good enough side to compete with the quality of City and Barcelona in his absence? I would argue not.
European football = benchmark of quality
On the 28th May 2011 Manchester United were once again humbled by the best side in world football. The gulf between the sides was quite shocking, in their previous encounter in the 2009 final United lost yet this time was different. The 2011 game was a chance for Ferguson to show he had learnt from that defeat, that he had bridged the gap between the sides. In fact he had not learnt from that defeat, his side contained the same players (except for Ronaldo) and played the same way; which allowed too much room for the quality of Barcelona to exploit.
European football and success is the benchmark of a top side, two finals in three years indicates that this was a side that was up there with the best. However, I believe that many of his players now lack the required quality to give Ferguson another Champions League trophy. When looking at the top sides around Europe, United are far behind in terms of quality, style and depth.
Ferguson has done an excellent job of evolving his sides to meet an ever changing game and has blended youth and experience with almost seamless precision. However, Ferguson is closing in on his retirement and though his legacy will not be forgotten, is the challenge of City, Barcelona and Real Madrid a step too far?
Ferguson promised that he learnt from the defeats to Barca, however this season would appear not to show that; poor signings and predictable tactics have resulted in a poor European campaign and have prompted many to question how good United really are. Many will put United's success more to Ferguson’s drive and determination than to the quality of his players, I would agree. City have capitulated this season in remarkable fashion and credit to United for staying strong mentally, however United should be judged on their European form as much as their domestic form and the truth is that this United side is equipped for winning a relatively poor English league, yet clearly lacking on the big stage.
In my opinion this is probably the most average United side for a long time, their performances in Europe have shown that. Once again Ferguson been able to get the most out of a group of players which except for a few cannot be deemed top quality. It begs the question that if United do win the league season then what does it really say about the standard of the English Premier League, the so called best league in the world?
No value in the market
Last summer some serious work was needed on a squad which clearly the lacked quality in key areas; a new goalkeeper was required to replace a retiring Van Der Sar and a centre midfielder was essential to compete with the likes of City, Madrid and Barca. Yet Ferguson decided to invest in the future of the side. De Gea has weathered the storm of his first months and looks to be a top class keeper.
The other two signings Phil Jones and Ashley Young were interesting. Were they needed? Jones was admittedly brought in a year before Ferguson intended because his hand was forced due to other interest. His has shown he has lots of potential, yet lacks certain characteristics to be regarded as a top player; a lack of tactical understanding, discipline and concentration have not helped United this season.
Ashley Young, at 26 years old is not one for the future, and so one would expect more of him now, he has done pretty good this season yet in the big games he struggles, especially against good full backs. He showed his limitations at Villa yet Ferguson saw something in him, probably his crossing and set pieces, which made him think he was good enough for United. I believe Ferguson got this signing wrong and would have been suited to buy a player like Juan Mata or Shinji Kagawa instead of Young. Buying British is commendable yet quality is what was required to “compete” with Barcelona.
Why Young was deemed necessary is interesting, they already possessed an excellent winger in Valencia and this seaosn he has been the difference and is the reason United will win the title. It is no surprise that Rooney is more prolific with Valencia in the side, last season’s injury coincided with a poor run of form of Rooney. And yet at the start of the season Valencia was playing at right back, allowing Ferguson to play Ashley Young out left and putting Nani out right. This was poor decision making from Ferguson.
The balance of the side was not right and the best winger should have been playing higher up. Pundits blamed the loss of Cleverly on United's dip in form, yet it was the absence of Valencia on the wing which was the major issue. This season he has 12 assists and 4 goals, a vital contribution from a player who I regard as the best winger in the English league.
What United need to do
What does Ferguson need to do to put United back on the European stage? He has bought for the future, posseing some potentially excellent young players in his squad. He has blended youth with experience better than anyone else, however, things need to happen this summer in order to improve the team. Certain players need moving on and these will require replacing, and not with potential talent but with top talent. Players of quality to strengthen the first XI and give United the strength they had three years ago to compete domestically and in Europe.
There are many players who should be deemed surplus to requirements in the summer; Berbatov appears agreed to be set to leave, it is correct he should go yet it is a shame that he has not performed for United, as he clearly has the ability and class. I think Ferguson believed he would be the new Cantona, however his scoring record against top sides is laughable and Ferguson must be questioned for another big money flop.
One of the reasons for Berbatov’s problem, was like that of Veron, that he wants to dictate the tempo and control the game. Both were not given this luxury for United, instead required to play the United way. And what is this way? Midfield players who are instructed to get the ball wide as soon as possible to fast wide players who look to provide crosses to the forwards. This has been the tactic and style of Ferguson for decades, simply it doesn't suit playmakers like Veron and Berbatov who want the play to go through them. Berbatov's replacement should be Llorente from Bilbao; United require a centre forward who can lead the line, allowing Rooney to drop and dictate play. Llorente has shown in the past few seasons that he has the quality to succeed at the top level, he was a big part in the World Cup for Spain, where his introduction in certain games gave Spain the wins. He has everything required to trouble English defences and would be perfect for the service of Valencia and Young.
Two more who have not lived up to expectations are Nani and Anderson. Both were acquired in the summer of 2007, arriving for around £17 million each. They were regarded as the brightest talents in Portugal at that time, Nani being seen as the apparent heir to Ronaldo and the Brasilian Anderson regarded as one of the best young attacking midfielders in the world. Check out this video of Anderson as a youngster before his move, you’ll be amazed to see skill, speed and finishing abilities that many United fans have not seen at Old Trafford.
Ferguson has ruined the potential of this player, his skill and creativity reduced to being a continuity player, spreading square passes to his wide players. It is a real shame to see such potential ruined. Ferguson has taken away what he was good at and reduced him to being a mediocre player. Nani performed well last season yet this season seems incapable of reproducing any of that form. Why did Ferguson buy them if all he wanted to was mould them into his specific British style? He should have changed his tactic to suit these players, not have them fit into round holes. Both of these players need to move, for their own careers more than anything else.
One man who needs to go more than any other is Patrice Evra. Ever since the incident at the 2010 World Cup Patrice Evra has lost something, whether it’s drive or motivation, he appears devoid of work rate, concentration and quality. His decline has been one of the most shocking and tragic in recent memory. Yet he continues to play, even leading the side as captain. What Ferguson sees in him is puzzling, perhaps his loyalty stems from the racism incident or when he stood up for the club when Rooney was criticising the team. If Ferguson has any sense this summer must be the year when Evra is moved on and a replacement is bought in. United need only to look at Leighton Baines as a more than adequate replacement. For Baines himself he needs to move to a top club to achieve his potential and United will require him to replace the faltering Evra.
The contribution of Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs at Old Trafford has been nothing short of phenomenol. Ferguson is not wrong when he says that Scholes has been the best midfielder in England in the past twenty years. Yet Vieria also is not wrong of the impression that Scholes’ return has made on this United side. If Scholes was needed, and his appearances which indicate that he has been, then Ferguson clearly miscalculated last summer. In the past five years there has been too much reliance on these two, in effect stalling the required evolution of the side. A new centre midfielder is required to replace Scholes and I beleive Chiek Tiote would be ideal for United; his energy, tackling and quality on the ball will give United what they have lacked in recent years, speed in midfield.
It will be interesting to see how much investment and support will come from the board in the next few years. There is clearly a need to invest in the side and bring in the quality required to compete with City and in Europe. There have been many dissenting voices about their ownership yet with success comes silence. What will be interesting is when City start dominating the league, what will fans say then? I am sure more voices will be heard and the anti-Glazer campaign will pick up more steam. They have supported the manager in recent years financially yet in order to compete with City it will need more. Do they have the funds or importantly the interest to bridge the gap? Serious investment is needed to compete with City and continue United's dynasty.
A change in style needed
The era of United's dominance has never seen them lauded for their style or quality. Instead more for their drive, hunger and never say die attitude. They reflect their manager in this respect and this "winning" mentality has been the reason for their supremacy. United's style has been questioned for years, yet they are efficient and have been successful. However, in the big games, especially against the tactically and technically superior Spanish sides United have been outplayed. Ferguson has never been a great tactician, which is perhaps why his side haven't won as much in Europe, he has been outdone by Guardiola and Mourinho many times and Bielsa gave him a lesson this season too. A new European tactic may be needed to compete with the top sides and so a new coach may be required.
When Carlos Quieroz was assistant, the year they won the Champions League in 2008, the style varied; an attacking four was given much more licence to roam and interchange positions. This is arguably the best football that United have played. You can argue this was more because of the players they possessed, if so, then why have these not been replaced properly?
And so what does the current style say about the current coach Mike Phelan? I have believed that since he has been the assistant United have been distinctly average, in their style and quality. Efficient of course, yet their predictable tactic has been found out on the European stage, this season especially. If United wish to compete with City and challenge in Europe again, then they require a coach who can modernise what is a very old fashioned United side. The game has evolved, tactics have moved on and fluidity has replaced static positioning. As the other sides around Europe improve and evolve their tactics and style, United continue their one style fits all way. This must change.
They should consider changing their Mike Phelan and replace him with someone who is a quality coach and who knows Ferguson well. Perhaps even someone who Ferguson can groom to be his replacement. I believe that could be Ole Gunnar Solskjaer; a former player who gave great service to the club, he also coached the reserves before going to Molde in Norway and winning the league. Contrary to other ex-United players, he has actually been successful and United will need someone like him to reinvigorate a side which appears too pedestrian and too predictable at times.
Blue moon rising
United and Ferguson have overcome the challenges of Arsenal and Chelsea in recent years, however this season we have seen a new look City side receiving huge plaudits for their style of football and the quality of their players. When you consider the quality of City compared to United it is hard to think who would get into that City side. I believe that only Rooney, Valencia and possibly Carrick are good enough, what does this say about the quality of United?
Ferguson knows how important winning the title will be for his club, with all the riches City have thrown at achieving success it is never guaranteed. Ferguson should be commended for all his achieved; he has built a club on strong values and with huge trust in youth. Yet an impending sense of change appears upon us. City should have won the league this year with ease, the manager and certain players will be held accountable and lessons will be learned from this season. City have a lot of quality in all positions and the experience of this season will hold them in good stead for the future. I do not believe you can buy a title and it will take time to build this side, yet the blocks appear in place now for City to take the lead in England.
A lot of people tipped City to win the league this year, however Mancini appears to lack the motivational skills to get his players past the line, Ferguson has shown how important experience is to win the title. Mancini is not the man to take City further and they will need a man who is capable of beating Ferguson next season. I believe that Mourinho would have had this league tied up already and I believe that he will be the man to take over next year and put City at the top. It is strangely similar to the season Ranieri took Chelsea to 2nd, only to be outdone by the Arsenal Invincibles. Mourinho, a Champions League winner with Porto came in and for a short time dominated England and Ferguson. This may be the only man to take City to that next level. He would inherit a side better than the Chelsea side he took over before and with a few new faces and some leaving, this side may be capable of winning more than Chelsea did.
There is a sense that United's success is just delaying the inevitable rise of City. City are certainly built and funded for a long term dominance and as the sun begins to set on Ferguson’s career, it seems fitting that perhaps the sun begins to set on the dominance of United in the league. Many believe that this is the worst United side in the past fifteen years, however their success in the league would indicate they aren't as bad of people have said, however has Ferguson assembled a side built to compete for the coming years with the quality of players and excesses of money of their “noisy neighbours”?
What is for certain is that it will be very interesting to see what happens in the coming years.