By Tom Pattison
It might seem odd to be looking ahead to the summer as we approach what pundits fondly call the ‘business end’ of the season but there are a number of reasons to do so. Primarily, it is gloomy and wet outside and the annual seeds of hope for a warm, joyous summer have again implanted themselves in my brain ahead of the similarly annual disappointment of a wet, miserable summer. A more rational reason is that the club themselves will have already been looking ahead to the ins and outs of the summer over the last few weeks. It would be a strange way to run a football club to leave everything until the season’s final whistle and already this week we have seen the club take steps to secure the future as Patrice Evra and Ryan Giggs sign on. It is natural as fans to consider contract renewals to be separate to transfers but in terms of budget they are entirely related. The decision to retain Evra on high salary for a further four years has direct financial consequences for acquisitions. It has actually become the policy of the club to put deals in place long before they are announced in order to stave off the gazumping powers of the noisy neighbours, etc – Smalling and Hernandez being prime examples.
It is potentially either an ideal or terrible time to draw conclusions for the future direction of the playing squad following the optimism-sapping soporific performance against Crawley at the weekend. Knee’s across the world have been jerked with my twitter feed engulfed by ‘end is nigh’ predictions. I may not have been the most ardent doom monger but did make the point at the end of the game that the dismissive, arrogant claims that ‘we won, performance doesn’t matter, second string players, etc’ showed startling naivety and so it has proved as I woke up this morning to news of injuries to Anderson and Giggs. In response to just two injuries we are now facing the prospect of those who struggled past a non-League side playing a defining role in our European and Domestic ambitions. The great fun of piecing together a team for Marseille dominated my thoughts – Fabio left wing? Rooney central midfield? O’Shea Trequartista? To offer some perspective, my Sunday league manager also texted me this morning for suggestions ahead of our game this week where we will do well to put out eleven men who have been near a football pitch in six months so things could be worse! Whoever takes the field in the next handful of key games will be at best internationals and at worst high level professionals considered good enough for one of the biggest football clubs in the world. We are talking a handful of injuries here and with the exception of poor Antonio Valencia and the late Owen Hargreaves we are not facing long term injuries to provoke a crisis of the multitude of the Carrickenbauer period that cost us last season. It has though undoubtedly exposed holes in our squad as we appear to be stretched worryingly thin. Samuel Luckhurst (@samluckhurst) has laid the blame firmly at Ferguson’s door and though his summer changes are perhaps more radical than I would advise I share his concern that injuries could seriously threaten our ambitions this season.
So what needs to be done for the summer to guard against this next season?
I strongly feel that this summer will bring great change – and if it doesn’t we could find ourselves in that oft mooted decline. I consider the standard in English and arguably European football to be at its lowest for many years this season and we have in many ways got lucky. As I hope will become clear this does not extend to a tabloid style wish list and demands for a clear out. Much to the rambleforce’s disappointment (@thefootballramble) Fergie is unlucky to be handed the treasured war chest by Malcolm and the dwarves. I have identified a series of key questions I feel need resolving in order to sustain our position as a force in European football.
1) How long can we rely on an Indian summer?
It fills me with great pride to see Manchester United legends confounding the experts to continue to perform at the highest level. We can all identify moments this season where our old stagers have made a key contribution – the most impressive recent example being Giggs’ game saving performance in the second half against Blackpool. However one former great has already left the stage in Neville and a goalkeeper to rival the Great Dane will follow him in the summer. Giggs endures, and Scholes hopefully will follow suit, but neither are able to produce on a regular basis and increasingly the games they play need to be selected in advance. Whisper it quietly but sometimes I have the guilty feeling that they sometimes gain inclusion based on history rather than tactics – what other explanation can there be for stationing an isolated Paul Scholes for David Silva to dance around for half an hour before Fletcher was recalled from an advanced role to offer some steel. It could also be considered potentially disruptive and disheartening that a player’s rhythm is broken by the recall of the veterans for a big game. Anderson and Carrick have both suffered from this ritual. The reality is we need to embrace life after the class of ’92 sooner rather than later and treat their availability as a bonus rather than a necessity. Ferguson himself has admitted that a player like Scholes cannot be directly replaced so we need to consider options from within the squad as well as further afield. The first stage of this review then requires consideration of the following question…
2) Who should be released from purgatory?
One bizarre phenomenon of the modern squad system is the players who seem to exist in stasis – considered too good (or high profile) to be reserves but not good enough to challenge for a first team shirt in big games. This unenviable position is currently occupied by Obertan, Gibson, Owen, Bebe, Welbeck, Macheda and Cleverley. The final three have been sent away to gain experience and I am confident Welbeck and Cleverley will return enriched by the experience. I would go as far as to say Welbeck presents a very real option for us next season with the goal shy performances of Valencia-less Rooney presenting an opportunity to stake a claim to be a first team striker. I regret to say I have seen nothing of Bebe to suggest he will be good enough but to suggest ditching him before Jorge Mendes has finished investing his three million euros reward for finding such an unpolished diamond is absurd. A loan deal beckons. The thought of Wesley Brown in another team’s colours is deeply upsetting and if rumours are to be believed his exile has been as much about his relationship with Ferguson as a drop in standards. For me Wes has to stay so long as he is happy to remain a squad player where he offers experience and dependability; should he wish to leave it would be with my deepest gratitude. Macheda is up in the air but I suspect he will not return from Italy and Owen should be put out to pasture. Obertan is a trickier decision – my Dad is keen to point out that it was common to call for Nani to be cut loose as recently as 18 months ago yet I don’t see Obertan as showing anywhere near the promise that Nani had in the same period at the club. Written Offside (@writtenoff_mufc) wrote an excellent piece (It’s all in the mind – a key to success at Old Trafford ) on the psychological aspect of being a Man United prospect which made me think about whether Obertan is worth persisting with. I’m afraid I think he should be moved on to a club where he is under less pressure and can carve out a decent career for himself. Gibson is the most divisive figure amongst United fans; either a copy of 2005 era Darren Fletcher who just needs time or a stain on the Old Trafford pitch who should never wear the shirt. I don’t subscribe fully to either of these views but when I ask myself can I conceive of a time when I will be happy to see Darron Gibson first choice on a team sheet for a key game the answer is no. This begs the question is he worth keeping as a squad player? Both for him and the club the answer again is no. He is too one dimensional for the Pip Neville/O’Shea versatility role and although possessing an eye for a pass lacks the mobility to assert himself as an attacking force. The most important question when considering the purgatory players is whether they are standing in the way of an emerging player from the academy, which brings me to my next question…
3) Who should we pin our hopes on?
In contrast to the great revolution of 1995, it has been the norm at Old Trafford to introduce younger players to the first team picture in pairs at most. This has tended to end in disappointment – Richardson and Bardsley for example. Despite this I am not advocating the wholesale introduction of our younger players all at once, yet the recent trend of poaching high profile youngsters from abroad and promoting them ahead of our academy products should be reconsidered. I have heard enough excitement from generally cynical Mancs about the current reserve squad to suggest that at least four are in contention for first team involvement over the next twelve months. Ravel Morrison’s problems have been well documented off the pitch but what has gone without dispute is his immense talent. Should he overcome the ‘dark forces’ he should be a contender. Tunnicliffe, King and Pogba could all play a role this season as injuries take their toll, but even if their time isn’t now it certainly should be next season. Each can offer something different to the players who already play regularly in their role and are fully versed in the ‘United way.’ I would also add Robbie Brady to that list given our paucity of quality wingers below Nani and Valencia. As an unashamedly romantic Red would be a shame to see Ashley Young arrive before an exciting young Irishman has been given the chance to stake his claim. Perhaps less likely to make the step in the near future given their injury problems but certainly deserving of consideration are Will Keane and Davide Petrucci. So the next question is, who should directly either depart or join the first team?
4) Hello, Goodbye?
The most dramatic changes in a summer are always the departure of first team regulars and acquisition of players expected to make an instant impact in the first XI.
The lion’s share of the criticism post-Crawley has been aimed at the young wide men but it is noteworthy that several more established names failed to shine against lesser opposition. Michael Carrick, Anderson, and Wayne Rooney all played at least a half of football in their preferred position without demonstrating the gulf in class we expect to exist. Each of these players have found their importance to Manchester United under scrutiny for various reasons over the course of the season and I would add Jonny Evans and John O’Shea to the unenviable list of players who’s future has been the subject of debate. As things stand I would be loathe to push any of them out of the door as early as the summer. Carrick no longer has the influence of three years ago and my views have not changed dramatically since I speculated on his future earlier in the season (Should The End Be Nigh for Michael Carrick?). If we were to receive a good offer financially for the club then I would not expect an angry mob to march on Old Trafford but unless such an offer materialises I see his experience as an asset as we enter the post ’92 era. Anderson has thrilled in patches but just as often frustrated yet I still have faith that he can emerge as a key figure in this new era; perhaps the extra responsibility of leading the team’s attacking threat (as he did against Blackburn with such relish) will be the making of the man. To return to pop-psychology throughout his time at United he has been considered a risk who has been routinely sidelined for big games before famously being thrust into a European final. By entrusting him with the responsibility to be one of the leaders of the team he could well blossom into the player we hoped we’d signed.
The Wayne Rooney saga does not need dragging up again and regular followers of my tweets will be well aware of where I stand. I blogged earlier in the season about our ‘star striker’ (How To Solve A Problem Like Rooney?) and one sublime goal aside I certainly don’t think the question has been answered. I’m still unsure as to his role in the side (I’d still like to see him tried out as a central attacking midfielder) but with the chances of a £40m plus bid arriving in the summer minimal it would be better to look at how best to harness his talents than consider a departure. As for Jonny Evans my faith has dwindled significantly in the player I touted to become a key player for us – his first team career has sadly become more commonly associated with errors than great performances and as the supposed ‘heir to Vidic’ his lack of ability to dominant in the area is reminiscent of the ‘heir to Edwin’ who now plies his trade at St Andrews. I would be disappointed for such a talent to prove unfulfilled at Old Trafford but again should an inviting offer arrive I would not object to the club cashing in. John O’Shea is one of those players who is considered a bit of a joke by opposing fans and our own, yet for all his obvious limitations I can think of few occasions where he has markedly failed to perform the role of which he has been asked and no occasions where he has complained at his ability being overlooked. If we are entering a period where loyal servants are retiring, he is one loyal servant I believe we should retain.
As for arrivals there are three areas within our first team squad where we have been found wanting this season. The lack of quality delivery from wide areas has been symptomatic of our multitude of draws. For next season however we already boast some good options. Valencia is a very traditional winger, Nani has the ability to play anywhere behind the striker, and then we have a returning Cleverley, ageing Giggs and exciting Robbie Brady. An out and out winger in my opinion is not a necessity as I believe this role can be covered by the development of existing squad members.
A more difficult hole to fill is the role of a player who can operate between the lines of attack and midfield – Özil hunt was amusing yet devastating at the same time as he fits the blueprint of the type of player we so desperately need. Time and again this season we have watched this type of movement trouble our own team – Silva being the most dramatic example – whilst finding our own lack of creativity in this area the barrier to putting games to bed effectively. The closest we have to this approach is Nani but whilst he is the only player showing this ability to find space and exploit it we will find it is possible to eliminate him from the game. The expectation of Giggs to fulfill this role is asking too much, as clever as Park is he ends up doing this job with a defensive mindset and Rooney has sadly found his technical ability found wanting as his movement and touch seem to lack the subtlety to thrive in this role. The more obvious solution would be to bring Berbatov into this area but then we lose his rejuvenated prowess closer to goal. It has been frustrating to see Berbatov drop off into these areas out of desperation only to further reduce our cutting edge as we then lack a presence up front. If Ferguson is willing to take a gamble on a marquee signing then this could well be the area of the team most deserving; the names that spring to mind also fit the bill for the age range Glazernomics desire. My first choice would be Pastore, although Ilicic, Sanchez, Hernanes, Cazorla, Muniain, Muller and Hamsik present alternatives. Each would carry a significant risk – could Pastore adapt to the physicality of England? Is Sanchez clever enough to play in the middle against the best defences? I could go on. Perhaps Ferguson has already decided the risk is too high hence the links with Ashley Young but I would like to hope that one of these young, technically gifted gems could successfully find their feet in England and become that player who makes the difference in Europe at the highest level. Ravel Morrison is the great hope from within but I would see the addition of one of the above as beneficial to his development rather than a road block.
The third role I consider us to be lacking is the old fashioned ‘midfield general.’ For all his snarling, the greatest attribute of Roy Keane was his ability to set the tempo of a game from the pitch. He would conduct the midfield dictating whether it was the time to press and lay siege to the opposition or keep hold of the ball and make the opposition chase shadows. Scholes can do this on occasion but these are naturally becoming less common, Fletcher showed promise last year but appears to have reverted to a supporting role, Carrick has not dominated a midfield for years and neither Anderson nor Gibson have the attributes for this role. It is asking a huge amount to expect Pogba, Tunnicliffe, et al to step up to this role but I would dearly love to see them given the opportunity. I can’t be the only Red who has admired Jack Wilshere’s progression when given responsibility and wondered whether the same approach could happen at Old Trafford. I am as excited as any fan to read of mega bids for Modric but it all has the whiff of the clubcall teletext teasers from my youth. I simply can’t see the Glazers digging out £30m+ for one player (which incidentally might put the buffers on my hopes of luring Pastore). Rodwell and Henderson have been understandably linked given their potential but are they better than what we have? I like them both and would certainly not protest their signing but only if at least one of our current central midfielders depart (for this reason the mooted involvement of Carrick in either deal is understandable). Rodwell would also bring another option in central defence.
The fourth possible arrival is a replacement for Edwin van der Sar. Lindegaard has impressed in his outings so far but the feeling persists that he is groomed for the role of understudy rather than number one. It is vital that we acquire a clear number one as those who remember the Howard/Carroll era will shudder at the memories of how two decent keepers seemed to be routinely undermined. Rotation does not work between the posts and there must be a senior/junior relationship. The suggested candidates of Stekelenberg, Neuer and Lloris fit this brief – all are international goalkeepers who have competed at a high level. The exception seems to be De Gea who is very young yet any player who has coped with the circus of Atletico Madrid deserves to be considered and if he really is a potential Buffon or Casillas I would not oppose his arrival!
To summarise, on the assumption offers are made for the players I have considered expendable and suggested loans go ahead the basic nucleus of the playing squad next year could be similar to the following:
Gk: Neuer, Lindegaard, Amos
DF: Rafael, Evra, Ferdinand, Vidic, Smalling, Fabio, Brown, O’Shea
MF: Fletcher, Anderson, Pogba, Tunnicliffe, Rodwell, Giggs, Scholes, Park, Morrison, Cleverley