By Thomas Doyle
For 12 seconds, they were champions. Manchester United had just beaten Sunderland 1-0, and with bitter rivals Manchester City capitulating in the most spectacular fashion, Sir Alex Ferguson was just about ready to lead his players on, as he had put it before, “the celebration of their lives”. Back from the brink after blowing an eight point lead, this was an escape that nobody was realistically contemplating.
But it wasn’t to be – news of Sergio Aguero’s match-winning, title-winning strike broke through, and blood ran cold; ran blue.
In an instant, elation became dejection, and the season was over. Eight goals were all that separated a city, but to the red half of Manchester, it was a bitter chasm.
With the title lost, and exits in other competitions, Ferguson is trophyless for the first time in seven seasons, and he, like the fans, must be intent on looking forwards to the coming season and forgetting this campaign. And as we look forward, we must ask ‘What now for Manchester United?’
With the post-mortems beginning, we must not forget that no other team has achieved such a high points total and not taken the Premier League crown. Only six teams have bettered that points total in Premier League history, two of which were Ferguson’s own United sides. The title race could not have been closer, and despite the talk of Ferguson’s fading strength and the stellar signings of City, the trophy came down to goal difference, which has never been a factor to decide the title until now. However, the league form only tells half the story, as United crumbled miserably in Europe; first, the abject failure of the group stages, and then the comprehensive defeats to Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League signalled a fall from grace that saw United contest three of the past four Champions League finals.
There are sure to be departures this summer, with a shake-up of the forward line likely. Dimitar Berbatov’s agent confirmed that the Bulgarian will be allowed to leave, the contract automatically extended in the spring merely insurance on United receiving a fee from his exit. With Michael Owen injured for much of the season, and Federico Macheda struggling on loan, United will realistically be down to Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez. While Rooney has been in potent form all campaign, the feeling is that another talented forward is on the agenda; Welbeck has emerged a s a first-choice player following impressive link-up play and a decent goals return, yet the youngster has suffered from injuries on numerous occasions, while Hernandez has suffered from a mixture of poor form and unfortunate injuries. Seeing as goal difference cost United this time around, Ferguson may be hunting for a lethal finisher who will be hungry to put sides to the sword in a way that his team have struggled to do so this term.
While Paul Scholes has been a revelation following his return to the fold, it is patently obvious that the midfield needs strengthening, both defensively and offensively. Long-term injuries to Anderson and Tom Cleverley curtailed the promising partnership seen in the 8-2 mauling of Arsenal, while Darren Fletcher’s unfortunate condition means he may not return for some time yet, if at all. Michael Carrick has been in solid form for much of the season, and Ryan Giggs has shown flashes of brilliance, but the simple fact is that United’s central midfield in its present form is no longer formidable enough to compete in the top matches. A reliable, tenacious ball-winner with good distribution is required, but of vital importance is a young attacking presence with assists and goals in his locker. The midfield has lost its fear factor, and while a marquee signing is not necessarily needed, a top talent would signal the Glazers’ ambitions in overhauling City. Dortmund’s Shinji Kagawa is a realistic option, and the speculation around Nicolas Gaitan has gathered pace; either player would make an excellent addition to alleviate the burden placed on Rooney’s shoulders to both create and score. Whatsmore, the England forward will want to know that United can still compete for top trophies and players, and United will want to avoid a repeat of his criticism of the club’s ambitions in the 2010/11 season.
Despite being ravaged by injuries, United’s defence has coped relatively well this year, but it would be foolish to pretend that the loss of Nemanja Vidic to a cruciate ligament injury hasn’t cost the team dearly. The captain’s absence was felt in games such as the 4-4 draw with Everton, and while Jonny Evans and Rio Ferdinand have formed a strong partnership, there is no iron core to the team that say, Vincent Kompany has provided City with of late. Rafael has been lively but still costs the team with simple mistakes, while Patrice Evra has veered between consummate performances and shocking ineptitude with alarming measure. Chris Smalling and Phil Jones have both done well at right-back, but it would be no surprise to see Ferguson in the market for a full back on each side (Everton’s Leighton Baines and Mathieu Debuchy of Lille have been suggested), allowing the young Englishmen the chance to develop in the centre of defence.
David de Gea’s early jitters have all but disappeared, leaving Ferguson with a young, athletic shot-stopper with great distribution, with the solid Anders Lindegaard as cover. There are still question marks over his aerial ability, particularly on corners, and Eric Steele will be working hard with the Spaniard to ensure that this side of his game is tightened up.
So, with a squad that blends talented youth and title-winning maturity, there is no reason for United fans to feel too alarmed. After all, a supposedly weak squad finished 19 points clear of third-placed Arsenal, and without necessarily hitting aesthetic heights, would normally have strolled to a title win – the chasing pack are lagging. However, success should not be judged on just how well you lost – for Ferguson and United, winning is all that matters, and United clearly need to strengthen – not only to catch City, but also to compete on the European stage at the same time. The real worry is that if City add three or four fresh faces of real quality, then the gap may widen from goal difference to a more alarming pattern; Samir Nasri was a target for United, but City’s millions spoke louder. Whether Ferguson feels he can compete, or must shop around for players under City’s radar will be an intriguing sub-plot to another summer of football, with EURO 2012 offering the chance to scout Europe’s best young talent.
One thing for certain is that the 2012/13 season will be another titanic struggle; Mancini and his men have won the title fair and square this year, but Ferguson and his new batch of fledglings will be hungry to wrestle it off of their neighbours. As Samuel L. Jackson so eloquently put in Jurassic Park: “Hold on to your butts…”
Register with the Stretford End Arising forum.