With ever year that passes at Old Trafford, there is a nagging sense that something has to give. As Sir Alex Ferguson’s class of 1992 one by one clear their lockers for the last time, the end of one era draws inexorably closer and the challenge of building for a new one becomes more and more a pressing concern.
The retirement of Gary Neville, formally confirmed to the football community last week, was another landmark on the ever shortening runway that is Manchester United’s link with its glorious past.
The longevity and professionalism of the remaining stalwarts of that United youth team, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, tricks the mind into suggesting that the era of red success can be forever safeguarded by these two ageless icons.
In truth, this is another transitional season for Ferguson, almost certainly his final effort at leaving his squad in strong shape before he departs Manchester and is carried out on his shield. Previous plans have been modified, particularly by Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez’s exits from the Old Trafford dressing room eighteen months ago, the horrendous knee injuries befalling Owen Hargreaves and the difficulty in establishing a successor to Edwin van der Sar.
Despite all of this, a weakened United squad took the league title race to the final day of last season and look set to win the Premiership crown again for the third year in four this time around. There will be no illusions however that the 2011 squad so much as laces the boots of some of its predecessors.
Ferguson has been a tad fortunate this season that United’s early season profligacy was not punished on the domestic scene, however the definition of future successes may well lie in the club’s efforts in Europe, an area that a strong squad is a pre-requisite in.
This is where United may well find themselves falling short. I am not sure, with the squad the Red Devils currently have, that the team is capable of playing at a higher level than the one they have currently scaled. Fans will argue that as of yet Ferguson’s men have not needed to show any more than the quality that led to them going nearly a year without defeat in the league, however there will be challenges in the months ahead on a European front, that will require more than has been in evidence thus far.
Change in top flight football happens quickly, however the uniqueness of the situation that United find themselves, is that this transitional squad has more than enough to claim the leading domestic prizes. As Chelsea have discovered this season, however, resting on tenuously awarded laurels can and will cause problems – not all Premier League title races are created equal.
Ferguson’s biggest decisions surround the handling of several players to have made a key contribution to previous title triumphs. The retirement of Gary Neville was a case of a player jumping as he was pushed, but the phasing out of Giggs, Scholes and Rio Ferdinand is one of Ferguson’s biggest challenges. The effect the Wayne Rooney saga has had on the Scotsman’s transfer dealings will be fascinating.
Ferdinand has not been the reliable presence he once was, injuries ruling the captain out of several games across the course of the season, his most telling contributions appearing to come from his Twitter account. With the former Leeds and West Ham man increasingly concentrating on outside enterprises, Ferguson has taken the chance to blood Chris Smalling at the heart of defence, and in general the recruit from Fulham has done well. There are no ready made replacements for either Giggs or Scholes, and whilst both players find their weekly contributions over-hyped in the media, it is the gargantuan experience and guidance that the pair bring to the dressing room which will be missed most.
The medium and long-term outlook for the current squad is difficult to gauge. Several players find themselves out of contract in the summer, a number of which looked destined to start the new season elsewhere. Michael Owen’s hopes of regaining the sharpness that once won him the Ballon D’or have proven futile. Owen Hargreaves cannot possibly be offered a new deal in the summer after not playing a full game in two and a half years and another experienced head, Wes Brown, is facing up to life away from Old Trafford after another year of stunted progress.
The club have been able to call on increasingly impressive performances from the once maligned Dimitar Berbatov and Nani, as the team have made their serene journey to the top of the Premier League table. As spring turns to summer, the key transfer decisions will be some of the most crucial in Ferguson’s tenure at Manchester United.
If you enjoyed this and want to read more, catch me on Twitter.