This season was always touted as a transitional one for the Premiership Champions. Three league titles and two Champions League finals on the trot seemed like the fruition – but book ended haul – of the Ronaldo era. No one really expected the same return, yet as the Rooney era started to take hold, it looked at one point like a fourth title and third straight European Cup showpiece appearance were well within their sights. As it happened, the dream of trotting out at the Bernabeu on May 22nd perished at the hands of Bayern Munich, but only on away goals, and the dream of pulling one ahead of Liverpool’s perch is still very much alive. But it’s still quite clear from a number of labored performances that this is indeed a side in transition, and if Ferguson truly wants to build his fourth (or maybe even fifth) great United side before he hangs up his chewing gum, certain players are going to have to step up in the way the golden Wayne has done. I will try and identify those who could yet see that team forged, and what they need to do.
Dimitar Berbatov – Whether the Bulgarian will even be at Old Trafford next term is debatable, but he seems fairly content to play second fiddle right now, or could simply just be too lazy to move on. If he’s willing to fight for his place Fergie would be very hesitant to sell him, especially since he’d be unlikely to get much of his money back in any case. If he stays, Berbatouch will have to start improving his impact in big games. He’s been more than satisfactory in a 4-4-2 against smaller opposition, especially at home, but with Rooney preferred on his own up front in the bigger clashes, Dimitar needs to be able to step into his shoes with more than just a few adequate build up touches around the D.
Darron Gibson – The Irishman has been preferred in many big games lately, not least the clashes with Bayern and City. However it seems at a casual glance that his only real contribution is being able to hit it very hard and very well in dangerous positions. A bit like David Beckham, but without any of the crossing, passing, work rate or marketing attributes that old goldenballs brought to the table. Beckham-lite if you will, or possibly even feather light. He needs to work on his positioning away from the edge of the box and his general composure in his own half. He seems to have the attributes to become a dynamic playmaker, but right now looks far more Sunderland quality than United worthy.
Michael Carrick – Possibly United’s most disappointing performer this season, mainly because he was so effective in his first year at the club. He’s never going to be a dynamic tackler but when played with Scholes, the lack of any significant bite has tended to hurt United. He isn’t at the level of Xavi or Iniesta with his passing, and occasionally gets overrun when he’s up against more tenacious players. He needs to work on his composure, regain his form of two years ago, and build up a better understanding with Darren Fletcher, who looks likely to be a mainstay in the side next year.
Nani – Whilst the Portugese has improved dramatically in the latter half of this year, he needs to continue his form for a longer period to truly be worthy of the shirt. He’s long commented that a regular starting berth is all he needs, and has gone some way to showing that with excellent displays, particularly against Bayern and Arsenal. Asking him to be the new Ronaldo is a weighty and unreasonable expectation, but a good goal return is the least he should aspire to.
Anderson – Hugely unlucky in being struck down with a season ending injury just as he was focusing on proving his worth, should the Brazilian stay at Old Trafford, he’ll need to improve his consistency dramatically. He looks to have all the attributes of a dynamic box-to-box player, but goes missing far to frequently. Not just on the pitch either, and the problems that saw him go AWOL in his homeland during January need to be ironed out sharpish. Needs more goals too, and probably a hair cut and few less pies.
Owen Hargreaves – Needs to prove he’s still alive.
Federico Macheda – Also unlucky with injury, if Ferguson doesn’t spend big (or biggish) on a new Center Forward, the burden of easing Rooney’s shoulders could be lumped onto the already unfeasibly broad ones of the 18 year old Italian. Like Danny Welbeck – likely to return from Preston in the summer – he needs to put his marker down as a future regular before the club start rooting around for another promising young goal scorer.
Fabio & Rafael Da Silva – Fabio needs to simply stop being injured, or finally admit that he is actually Rafael occasionally and they’re just swapping to avoid being in direct competition with Patrice Evra. Rafael is a very promising player, but really needs to stop being so hideously reckless. It may be all the rage in Brazil, but it’ll only get you a lot of early baths over here.