11 BIG things we have learnt from Man United this season

Don’t let the door hit you on the way out – It was clear for all to see that Argentine Carlos Tevez departed on acrimonious terms. Once revered on the terraces he did the unthinkable and crossed the great divide to bitter local rivals Man City for a £25m fee, crying to mummy that he never felt loved enough by manager Sir Alex Ferguson and he pleaded with supporters to understand his predicament. Well there wasn’t a chance of that happening but he’s most certainly had a great season with neighbours City bagging 23 league goals in the process. He even managed to go on a run of scoring in 14 consecutive games – Utd have missed him and the over-reliance on Rooney has been noticeable at various junctures this term and they’ll be looking to replace him properly this summer with Michael Owen’s inevitable injury problems predictably resurfacing and Dimitar Berbatov’s lack of form proving drastically short of what is required. Cristiano Ronaldo finally left the club in what was a world record transfer totalling a whopping £80m in total. The key part of the deal though it has to be said, a true masterstroke on Chief Executive David Gill’s part, was to make sure Utd received all £80m of it up front, obviously to help ease the club’s huge debt, but still, excellent negotiating nonetheless. Of course they’ve missed him, any side in the world would miss a player of his undeniably great talents and any Utd fan who says they haven’t is either naive or would have to be seriously kidding themselves, but like they say, the show must go on. His replacement Antonio Valencia though, has been consistently excellent throughout the season and has lessened the impact of the winking one’s departure.

The Green and Gold campaign – What are a bunch of Manc’s doing wearing Norwich scarves I hear you cry? Well it’s not Norwich at all; it’s in fact they’re the club’s original colours from way back when the club was known as Newton Heath. I won’t profess to be an expert on the ins and outs of the campaign but it’s clear that the ill-feeling has reached a critical point. With an offshoot football club having already been set up in protest at the Glazer family’s ownership of the club in the form of FC United, and with the Yanks failing to get the hint at the supporters continued hatred and disdain at them saddling the club with nearly £800m of borrowed debts all of their own making, a real protest was the next logical step. Trying to push a Chairman out of any club will always be an extremely difficult procedure, but Utd fans have shown this season that a united cause (no pun intended) is one that cannot be ignored and has to be taken seriously. Whether they’ll achieve their ultimate aim remains hazy at best at the minute, but returning the club to the fans is a decent idea and they even attracted an unlikely supporter in David Beckham on his emotional return to Old Trafford in the Champions League with Italian club AC Milan in March. The Red Knights are rumoured to be close to putting in a serious offer for the club for around the figure £1bn before this summer’s World Cup and a summer of off the field turmoil awaits.

Defensive resilience shines through – This season will always be one of what might have been. The fact that Utd got to the final day of the season still within a shot at winning the league is nothing short of miraculous considering the defensive upheavals that the side has had to go through this season. Midfielder Darren Fletcher had this to say “Without those defensive injuries it could have been very different. At one stage we had one fit defender in the squad. No team has been able to cope with that.  We had three or four games in that position and ultimately it has cost us. If you are going to win the title in England you need a settled defence.” Ferguson had to field a side on four separate occasions with only two recognised defenders in it, Patrice Evra, who was mainly deployed as a wing back and youngster Richie De Laet over that crucial month in the Premiership calendar, January. Fletcher and fellow central midfielder Michael Carrick dropped back and did the best they could forming an extremely ropey centre half pairing, but the absence of an authority figure was noticeable. The lack of a settled back four has ultimately cost Ferguson the chance of securing United’s fourth successive league title. Nemanja Vidic played only 24 games, Johnny Evans and Wes Brown made just 18 starts apiece and the perma-crocked Captain Rio Ferdinand made just 12 appearances. Take into account that goalkeeper Edwin Van Der Sar made just 21 appearances in goal and the fact that they finished the season with the best defensive record having conceded only 28 goals in 38 games, four less than title winners Chelsea and kept 19 clean sheets, one more than Chelsea again is truly remarkable and nothing short of an effort of herculean proportions.

Carrick on the slide – It’s been an extremely poor season from the central midfield man. I’ll admit I’ve never been his biggest fan but I’ve always been able enought to admit that he’s been good for Utd in the past, perhas not consistently enough as is required but he’s won three title in his three years at the club prior to this season, so he must be doing something right, but this year he’s been woeful and even seems to have lost the trust of his manager to an extent. Carrick is a marmite type of player; you really do either love him or loathe him. Some see the time he spends on the ball as nothing more than ponderous and indecisive play, others think that he’s simply waiting for the right moment to pick a pass and that he’s composure personified. Personally I subscribe to the former view, and he can look out of his depth against the very best and has a habit of going missing in games, often letting them simply pass him by. His lack of awareness cost Utd dear in the Champions League against Bayern Munich and two of the goals the German side scored in the tie were from Carrick surrendering possession all too easily in dangerous positions. Fergie’s barely touched him since (not in a filthy way may I hastily add, there is no proof of this ever going on…I hope). Whether this is the beginning of the end of his Utd career remains to be seen, but should he survive the cull this summer, he simply cannot afford to have another season like this again otherwise he’ll be dropped quicker than hookers’ knickers.

To sell or not to sell that is the question! – Owner of perhaps the worst derogatory nickname in world football at present, possibly even ever, Dimitar Berbatov or ‘Dimiflop’ to his accusers (seriously why? It doesn’t even sound remotely like his actual name and isn’t even approaching the realms of funny) has had a terrible season, 12 goals in 32 games is simply not good enough at this level and for someone of his huge fee. I’ve always argued that Berbatov is not a poor player; he’s just not suited to Utd’s style of play. He slows things down too much, drops too deep and is generally non-threatening to the opposition. When he signed for the club for £30m from Spurs two summer’s ago, he was expected to provide the focal point of a fluid and energetic forward line and a target for those around him. But Berbatov simply wanders around the pitch too much and too far away from the centre of the goal to be of any use. Rooney has stated that he’s not doing anything particularly different this season to any other in terms of his general play, just that he’s become more aware of his positioning on the pitch and the need to other than remain in a goalscoring position in front of goal at all times – maybe he should pass this information on to poor old Dimitar, because he seems to have forgotten the job he was signed to do and it seems to be working wonders for Wayne. The fact that Rooney, normally a quite figure in the media, has requested the club sign a new striker speaks volumes. Berbatov looks woefully short of confidence and throughout most of the campaign he’s cut a disconsolate and frustrated figure on the pitch. He is lazy, but we always knew that about him, yet the quality still remains, hidden beneath surface. No-one wants to see their centre forward pick the ball up in his own half with 5 players further forward than him every attacking move the team creates. They want him in the box getting on the end of things, so that when they create something, they know someone will always be in the box.

It doesn’t help that Ferguson has seemingly lost faith in him, that he doesn’t play him in the big games anymore and that he’s stumbled across a successful variation of the 4-3-3 formation with Rooney up top on his own. I don’t see the point of selling him in the summer, he improves the squad strength and unless you’re prepared to take a big hit on him it just doesn’t make any financial sense. The club have targeted signing another striker this summer other than the young Mexican forward Javier Hernandez, who sealed a £12m deal from Mexican club side Guadalajara and who seems like another investment for the future rather than the present, as Rooney was over burdened with responsibility this season and at times carried the team almost single-handedly. What would be the point in letting go of a talented striker such as Berbatov go? His retirement from international football this week must be seen as a sign of his intent to concentrate on his club football next season. Throughout his time at Man Utd he’s rarely done anything of note and has in the main, only scored goals when the team is either playing well or is up against poorer opposition. I always thought Utd could have done a lot better for their buck than Berbatov, but a little faith may go a long way on part of the Bulgarian’s part if you’re to see any lasting results.

Carling Cup – The trophy most Utd fans would have wanted least at the beginning of the season. A humiliating defeat to hated rivals Leeds in the FA Cup at home banished any hope of reaching the final there for the first time in 3 seasons. An exit at the quarter-final stage to Bayern Munich ended their European adventure and a draw against Blackburn ultimately proved the difference in the league. So they were left with just the Carling Cup. It’s still a piece of silverware it has to be noted, Arsenal have gone five years without one and Liverpool four, so we shouldn’t entirely discount and demean its importance, but the means by which they acquired it were deeply contentious. Phil Dowd made a horrendous hash of a Vidic shirt pull on Villa forward Gabriel Agbohnlahor’s shirt in the third minute and the punishment meted out, a yellow card and a penalty, was more of a reprieve than a punishment for the Serbian defender. Milner dispatched the penalty and a Rooney inspired Utd gradually ground their opponents down and ran out comfortable 2-1 victors. But had referee Dowd made the correct call by the laws of the game, Utd may have even ended the season empty-handed.

European heartache – I think we all know the score on this one. After taking a lead in the first leg in Munich, Utd unforgivably sat back and took their collective foot off the pedal and it ultimately proved to be their undoing. A soft red card in the second-leg for precocious right back Rafael halted the Nani inspired fight back and an excellent Robben volley and Olic finish sent Ferguson and his charges crashing out. Complacency? Most definitely. Most people will point to Rafael’s red card as the turning point, and it most certainly was in hindsight, but on viewing the two ties from a neutrals standpoint, the tie was there for the taking over the two legs, and although functional, if a tad limited, this Bayern Munich side is far from exceptional. The Rafael red card was pivotal, but it should never have gotten to the point where the tie was still it was in doubt in the first place. Can do better.

The King is dead; long live the King – With King of Pop Michael Jackson departing this world for the next just under a year ago, his lookalike Nani’s career in Manchester looked to be heading down a similar path after some disparaging and ill-advised comments made to a Portuguese daily back in January about his manager’s management style. He spent the next few games on the sidelines and in the stands after incurring Fergie’s indelible wrath, but when given the chance to impress, for once, the hugely frustrating winger took it. A good performance against City in the Carling Cup was followed by a couple of moments of individual brilliance in a 3-1 win against Arsenal at the Emirates and a brace against Bayern Munich continued the run. Demonstrating from there on in a consistency that the Old Trafford faithful have yet to see in him, Nani ended the season in excellent form. He’s revitalised his career in England in a matter of months and will look to build upon it next season by fully cementing his place in the starting eleven.

Squad rebuilding – The squad could obviously do with a bit of tinkering, but whether it requires the huge overhaul touted in some sections of the media though, I’m not so sure. A striker and creative midfielder are obviously needed. A goalkeeper the club is able to place its faith in the long-term wouldn’t go a miss either. My personal tips would be Yoann Gourcuff, Hugo Lloris and David Villa (although not for the fees being bandied about at the moment, and not all up front either – it’s time for some David Gill magic). The squad isn’t too far off being complete and just needs tinkering with rather than ripping apart. Youngsters Macheda, Rafael and Darren Gibson have all shown promising signs in the past, and golden oldies Scholes, Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs have shown that there’s life in the old dogs yet. The return of Owen Hargreaves will make a huge difference to the midfield and lighten Fletcher’s load and even a fully-fit Michael Owen’s availability for longer spells could make a difference. A nice balance of experience and youth then, certainly better than any of their major title rivals for next season anyway.

Neighbours begin to get noisier – The influx of Arab money to Man City has added an extra dimension to the Manchester derby now. It’s no longer plucky underdogs against their vastly superior neighbours. In terms of history at least, that obviously still remains the case, but out on the pitch we’ve consistently seen much more even contests as opposed to the odd exceptional performance from City every couple of seasons that most had become accustomed to. The 4-3 win at Old Trafford back in September remains the best game of the entire Premiership season, the two Carling Cup ties were full of drama and a Paul Scholes last minute header lifted a drab game to become interesting once more and inject a renewed push at the title when all hope was seemingly lost. These games haven’t been done by halves, and Utd’s city neighbours just became serious challengers to the throne. The fact that Fergie has even engaged in his mind-games shows you even he’s taking them seriously. For now at least, the status quo remains intact, but next season should be a humdinger.

Should I stay or should I go now? – Rumours circulated a couple of weeks ago that if Ferguson were to win the title this season, thus beating Liverpool’s record of 18 league title in the process, with whom they jointly share the accolade at present, that the Scot was seriously contemplating standing down. The man himself slapped down any suggestions in a typically robust manner stating that “It’s absolute rubbish – there is no truth in it” before adding rather amusingly “The only thing that determines whether I stay here is my health and I am in rude health.” At 68 years of age though, the thought must have crossed his mind, and after nearly jacking it in 8 seasons ago only to be convinced to stay on by wife Sheila, the time for a hand-over draws nearer by the season. The favourites at the moment are Jose Mourinho, David Moyes and Martin O’Neill, with former centre back and current Bordeaux manager Laurent Blanc remaining an outside bet. My contention is that Mourinho, whilst a flashy big name replacement with a great pedigree, flies in the face of Utd tradition. As a manager he hasn’t been that adept at either managing or bringing through and developing young talent, his teams don’t play attacking football and he does have a penchant for jumping ship quite frequently. For all of the reasons listed above, I’d personally give the job to Everton manager David Moyes, as I feel he’s the outstanding candidate to carry on Fergie’s legacy. I’d be interested to hear everyone else’s thoughts on the matter?

Arbitrary marks out of ten – 6.5/10 – The season hasn’t been a disaster and they’ve coped admirably considering the defensive shortages and loss of form of certain key players at times, but by Man United’s high standards, this remains nothing more than an average season. There have been bright spots of course, namely the form of Patrice Evra, Wayne Rooney, Antonio Valencia and Darren Fletcher but on the whole, it could have been a lot better. The double that eventual league champions Chelsea engineered over them this season, aswell as the draw away that Utd stuttered to at Blackburn, ultimately proved pivotal in deciding the title’s destination.

 


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