It is never easy to criticise the mighty Old Trafford empire, nor the Sir Alex Ferguson dynasty, but Manchester United’s pre-Champions League Final confidence was shattered within minutes of encountering Xavi, Iniesta and Messi for the first time in two years, and a glance at the team-sheets from Saturday’s fixture suggests the Premiership champions are another rebuilding process from being able to compete with the world’s best club. It is likely to be one of the busiest summers of Ferguson’s 25-year reign. Having already overseen the departure of Owen Hargreaves and the retirements of Edwin van der Sar, Gary Neville and Paul Scholes, the Scot will now have to evaluate the best way forward for the club that recently surpassed Liverpool’s record of 18 top-flight titles, but remain behind their Merseyside rivals by two in terms of European competition.
It is in Europe that United are lagging behind their global competitors, and despite having already secured the club’s place in football’s pantheon, Ferguson’s unrelenting desire to leave a significant European legacy remains unfulfilled. On the cusp of securing the treble in 1999, both United and Barcelona were level on one European Cup each, with the Premier League outfit entering the new millennium 2-1 ahead after a desperately late win against Bayern Munich at Barcelona’s Camp Nou. The Catalans have of course since overtaken the Red Devils, having achieved their third and fourth titles against United within two years, and will likely remain the most considerable impediment to Ferguson’s ambition up until his retirement.
So taking in to account that there is at least one club side more impressive than Manchester United playing currently, what can Ferguson do to improve a squad that exhibits a mental strength and togetherness unrivalled in world football, yet appears technically thin in several departments? Set to join the retirement bus on their way out of Old Trafford are Tomasz Kuszczak, Dimitar Berbatov, Wes Brown, Gabriel Obertan and possibly Darron Gibson, leaving the squad looking decidedly bare. Although a replacement for Edwin van der Sar has apparently been identified, the squad has lacked determined vigour in the centre of midfield since Roy Keane left in 2005 and missed out on Michael Essien, who would have represented a suitable successor, with the Ghanaian deciding to join Chelsea three months earlier.
Darren Fletcher has perhaps done everything within his limits but doesn’t provide the overall class to deliver consistently on the biggest stages, and Ferguson must rectify this problem, which Owen Hargreaves also failed to solve, this summer. The creative thread which underpins every Ferguson squad of the past three decades remains in the form of Nani, Antonio Valencia, Park Ji-Sung and Anderson who support the recently produced combination of Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez up-front. As potent as this imaginative force may be, it somewhat requires some fresh artistry, the likes of Tottenham’s Luka Modric and Internazionale’s Wesley Sneijder having been sounded out as potential additions.
The way the side has coped since the immediately worrying departures of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez in 2009 cannot be understated. One League Cup, a Premiership title and a Champions League Final appearance have all been accomplished within the past 24 months, but the impending summer hiatus will be crucial to United’s young core, especially as Chelsea will renew their extravagant transfer activity in line with ‘noisy neighbours’ Manchester City’s inevitable pursuit of the globe’s most expensive talent. It is possible to argue that the club’s most recent Premier League glory was the result of a relatively unimpressive campaign in England overall, as the 80 points United reached would have seen them finish second in each of the last six seasons. Transfer speculation will rapidly intensify now the European season has concluded, but one thing we can all be sure of is Ferguson’s inexorable aspiration for continental supremacy motivating another era of Manchester United dominance.