By Thomas Doyle.
1) David de Gea will need time
The young Spaniard is a goalkeeper of rich promise, which is exactly why Sir Alex Ferguson decided to part with £18million for the then-20-year-old; yet it would be foolish to think that de Gea would simply waltz in with the assured presence of Edwin van der Sar. The Dutchman is 20 years his senior, and has countless experiences of high-pressure games such as last night’s tie with Basel, in which de Gea made an error that was to prove costly for United.
It is disconcerting for some United fans to be in a position whereby the goalkeeper is once again a potential liability, much like after Peter Schmeichel left in 1999. De Gea has been more assured of late, and with his excellent distribution and ability to make outstanding stops, de Gea definitely has a future at Old Trafford. However, he will have to do better if he is to keep the number one jersey for himself, as deputy Anders Lindegaard has coped admirably, while Ben Amos continues to improve as third choice.
De Gea needs time, but he also needs to cut out the mistakes which can affect his team-mates’ confidence in him.
2) The defence is leaking like a sinking ship
While blooding in de Gea was a potential risk this season, Ferguson would not have counted on his defence – nearly impregnable en route to last year’s Champions League final – to go AWOL when he needed them the most. Granted, the absence of van der Sar’s calming presence, allied to the language barrier with de Gea, may be making the players more jittery, yet there have been too many poor performances (both individually and collectively) compared with last season.
Man United have shipped eight goals in the group stage this year, which is even more alarming considering they actually kept two clean sheets against Otelul Galati. While Benfica and Basel are both decent European outfits, Ferguson would not have expected them to get anything from Old Trafford, yet both left with score draws, and could have left with all of the points. The blame could just as easily be attributed to the midfield, which has failed to hold the ball effectively or shield the back line, yet United have never looked comfortable in Europe this season.
Nemanja Vidic has been suspended or injured for a large chunk of the games, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra have looked their age, while Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans and Phil Jones have been found wanting when a cool, rational head could have prevented costly errors.
3) United will struggle until at least one world-class central midfielder signs
It is an ironic, and no doubt painful truth that while United’s hierarchy decided that the outlay for Wesley Sneijder’s transfer fee and wages was too prohibitive, the predicted income of Champions League knockout stage revenue and the increased merchandising from such a star name would have probably covered Sneijder’s costs anyway. Hindsight is indeed a wonderful thing, yet the fact remains that those in charge of the purse strings deemed it prudent to leave the Dutchman in Italy, and now United are heading for the Europa League. United fans can legitimately cast envious glances at the midfielders of Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester City and now Tottenham, let alone their opponents abroad. While Paul Scholes played less and less last year, his metronomic passing have had a steadying effect in difficult circumstances, and surely taken the sting from Basel’s play.
Save for an injured Tom Cleverley and an ageing Ryan Giggs, the Red Devils look painfully devoid of trickery. Worse still, there is no real brawn to break up trickery from the opposition; this leaves the both the defence exposed, and the forwards isolated. There is no bark or bite in a position which has contained the likes of Bryan Robson, Scholes and Roy Keane, and Ferguson must address what is fast becoming a real cause for concern in the centre.
4) The new additions are replacements, not improvements
Nobody could accuse Manchester United of being paupers; having spent over £50million on Ashley Young, David de Gea and Phil Jones in the summer, many pundits took this at face value, simply eschewing the theory that United had strengthened their squad and were biding their time for another crack at Barcelona. However, the signings Ferguson made were, in reality, replacements rather than outright bolstering. Young started the season exceptionally, yet has faded, and it will be interesting to see how he copes with the pressure of a dip in form at a top club. Phil Jones was signed as an eventual replacement for Ferdinand/Vidic, and while his form has been staggering given his age, Ferguson has played him more than would surely have liked to – indeed, he only signed the 19-year-old this early to ward off interest from Liverpool, yet he has made more appearances than any other United player this season. Therefore, the summer outlay was (in the short term) really a case of continuity of quality, rather than an outright improvement in personnel. It could well be argued that the squad is potentially even weaker than last year’s, and the European form doesn’t suggest otherwise.
David de Gea has coped well, but still has lapses, such as last night’s mistake, and van der Sar seems to be missed by the defence. Jones and de Gea are extremely promising and could become world class, but when they are being trusted to do the job of veterans with hundreds more caps than themselves, it is logical that there will be a learning curve. The loss of the likes of Paul Scholes, Gary Neville and van der Sar was evident last night, and Ferguson will have to look long and hard at his squad, and whether they are ready to cope with the level that he demands of a Manchester United player.
5) Was Wayne Rooney distracted by his UEFA ban appeal?
Ferguson felt that the ban imposed on Rooney for EURO 2012 was devastating enough for him to be left out of a tricky away trip to Liverpool, so it is only natural to wonder whether the striker’s appeal (in which he successfully had the ban reduced to two games) on Thursday morning had any bearing on his mind against Basel.
At 1-0 down, Rooney missed a gilt-edged chance on the half hour that he would normally have buried, which would have settled United down and potentially seen them through. It seems an easy excuse, and with Danny Welbeck just returning from injury and Dimitar Berbatov, Michael Owen and Javier Hernandez still out, Ferguson was never going to leave the English striker out.
However, one wonders how heavily the appeal hearing weighed on Rooney’s mind, and whether he was unduly worried about missing out on Fabio Capello’s squad should the ban be upheld. It is foolish to think that he would give anything less than his best for United, but on such fine margins are top level matches decided, and Rooney left United wanting when they needed him most. His ban was reduced, but he will now miss out on matches against Europe’s best defenders (unless they happen to inhabit the Europa League), which is surely a blow for England as well as United.