‘THIS is one of the worst Manchester United squads in recent history’ is a phrase that you’ll all be familiar with.
Commentators, analysts, journalists, rival fans – I’ve even heard some United supporters uttering the above sentence.
The only thing you’ll hear me say that is remotely close to the above nonsense is that perhaps the current squad is bereft of the star quality that United sides have been laden with in previous Sir Alex Ferguson sides.
If we’re honest, who in the current squad is genuinely world class?
Undeniably, Rooney, but anyone else mentioned would probably have one or two asterisks marked next to their name.
Vidic – a colossus in his prime but he’s now 30, suffered a season ending injury last year and against quick frontmen, he has had one or two indifferent performances (mainly just with Fernando Torres). I think he should reside in the same category as Rooney.
Ferdinand, Giggs and Scholes – All counted among the greatest in their position in their day but all the wrong side of 30 and particularly with Rio, injuries have robbed him of his pace and consistency.
Nani, Young, Evra, Carrick, Berbatov – These players can be brilliant on their day but Berbatov has never fully endeared himself to the Old Trafford faithful; Carrick enjoyed an excellent 2011-12 season, but in previous campaigns he lacked the confidence to believe in or fulfil his talents; Evra’s form has decreased alarmingly in the last 18 months and Nani and Young will have two great games and then an atrocious one, though the Portuguese star is far more consistent than he once was.
Valencia, after recovering from his injury hit start to the 2011/12 season, was our best player last year but he’ll need a consistent and impressive 2012/13 campaign to join Vidic and Rooney.
As for the rest – Hernandez, Evans, Rafael, Smalling, Jones, De Gea, Kagawa, Powell, Welbeck, Cleverley – all of them have the potential but need to be given time to mature and stay free of injury.
So we have one, arguably two, players who would walk into most if not every team on the planet.
Compare that to our great past teams in the Premier League era:
2008 Champions League winning team – Ronaldo, Tevez, Rooney, Vidic, van der Sar, Hargreaves, Ferdinand.
1999 treble winning team – Cole, Yorke, Scholes, Keane, Schmeichel, Irwin, Beckham, Giggs, Sheringham, Gary Neville, Stam.
1996 double winning team – Pallister, Giggs, Cole, Neville, Beckham, Keane, Irwin, Cantona.
1993 championship team – Bruce, Schmeichel, Hughes, Pallister, Irwin, Giggs, Ince, Kanchelskis, Cantona.
So yes, in terms of star quality, we are weaker than we’ve probably been under Fergie, certainly I would say in the Premier League age.
But that certainly does not make us a terrible side; I don’t even think it makes us a poor side.
Let us analyse the four teams mentioned above against our current squad.
Even among those trophy winning teams, there were players who were deemed squad players, players who could do a job (though it needs to be remembered squad sizes were bigger than the 25 man ruling of today):
2008 – Saha, Park, O’Shea, Nani, Anderson and Fletcher were all capable squad players, while I seem to remember that being the time when Mikael Silvestre began to decline and fall out of favour.
1999 – Butt, Berg, Phil Neville were often trusted deputies and even first teamers who were solid rather than spectacular for United. Other below average members of the squad were Jesper Blomqvist, Jordi Cruyff, John Curtis and Jonathan Greening.
1996 – Lee Sharpe, Brian McClair and Paul Parker were great United servants and played a lot of games in the double winning season, but the squad also included William Prunier, John O’Kane, Terry Cooke, Simon Davies and Kevin Pilkington.
1993 – An historic season for the club, one in which Clayton Blackmore and an ageing Bryan Robson all contributed, but Darren Ferguson, Mike Phelan, Steve Walsh, Rod Wallace and Neil Webb will not go down as United greats.
Does the current squad have an abysmal, shocking, or terrible player?
In my opinion, no.
Hernandez, Evans, Rafael, Smalling, Jones, De Gea, Kagawa, Powell, Welbeck, Cleverley are all exciting young talents.
Carrick, Park and Berbatov all have their detractors but it would be ludicrous to label any of them awful footballers.
Anderson is in a category of his own. He’s been disappointing and now could be the time to sell, but again, he does show flashes of brilliance and he started last season impressively in the middle of midfield with Cleverley before his season was curtailed by injury.
I would describe him and his time at United as frivolous instead of branding him a shocking footballer.
The Daily Mirror’s Manchester-based journalist David McDonnell said in his column in April how good the squad was, how much potential it contained and how Fergie should be praised for keeping his side competitive despite experiencing a season of transition.
McDonnell said that at other clubs, ‘allowances are made when their squad has a facelift, as if failure or dropping below their usual standard is the inevitable price of change. Not at United. Change is seen as a challenge, not an excuse to hide behind when things go wrong’.
In the build-up to last season, United lost van der Sar, Neville, Scholes (before his U-turn), Wes Brown, John O’Shea and Owen Hargreaves.
McDonnell added: “With De Gea, Jones, the Da Silva twins, Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling, Young and Tom Cleverley, not to mention Wayne Rooney, Antonio Valencia, Nani, Javier Hernandez, all of whom are 26 or under, United have the nucleus of a formidable squad that is surely only going to improve.”
I agree with McDonnell, we’re not too far off being a top team.
Critics and United haters will relish that – following last season’s seismic shift in Manchester, with City winning the title, Chelsea beating us to Eden Hazard and our seeming inability to compete with our rivals for the top talents of the world – we’re in danger of slipping into obscurity.
My advice is don’t believe the hype.
Despite losing out on Hazard, in Shinji Kagawa, we’ve signed one of Europe’s top talents. I’m really looking forward to seeing him play and how he fits into the team next season.
Nick Powell is very raw and perhaps won’t see too much first team action next season, but as he’s able to play as either a forward or an attacking midfielder, he’s an extra body in an area where we’re desperately in need of resurgence.
The sensible money is on us signing two more players before the transfer window shuts, most likely a combative midfielder and a left back to compete with Patrice Evra. There’s been an awful lot of talk this week that we’ve stepped up our moves for Porto’s Joao Moutinho and Everton’s Leighton Baines – with our efforts to sign the Everton man looking ever more likely after Jordi Alba completed a move to Barcelona.
I’ve made no secret of the fact that probably my two first choice targets for a defensive midfield role would be Daniele De Rossi or Javi Martinez, but Moutinho enjoyed a terrific Euro 2012 campaign with Portugal, which has probably fuelled talk of a move for him, and he is the type of character we need in the middle of the park as opposed to Luka Modric or a Paul Scholes-esque player.
So, allegedly this is the worst United team in the last 20 years.
In fact, in many ways, it’s the strongest we’ve had in that time. Maybe that isn’t the best way to put it. It’s the least weakest team perhaps.
Sure, it’s not as stellar as before, but there are very few chinks in the chain.
The young players I’ve mentioned will only get stronger. Last season was the season when we were in danger of being cut adrift.
An untried, vulnerable young goalkeeper in De Gea, coming to the club from a foreign country to replace a club legend – last season was the time to panic.
A much maligned Jonny Evans, coming off the back of his poorest season, new signings Phil Jones and Chris Smalling – who arrived at Old Trafford a few short years after playing conference football with Maidstone – all three of whom had to help Ferdinand fill the void left by Vidic – that was the time to worry.
Scholes retiring and Darren Fletcher being struck down with a potentially career-ending illness, with no midfield signings brought in to add cover – the season just gone was when we should have been made to pay for not investing in that area.
With two exciting additions in the bag, a few more likely to arrive, and a talented young squad with a year of being together behind them and another year older – I’m hopeful that the coming season could be a return to greatness and glory for the Red Devils.
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