Finishing runners-up in the league, getting knocked-out in the early stages of the FA Cup and a quarter-final Champions League exit hardly a good season makes at the ‘Theatre of Dreams.’ A Carling Cup win, while pleasing, is not really the sort of accomplishment United fans will be shouting at Liverpool fans come next season- although City fans now that’s another story.
It’s safe to that a season which saw seven league defeats, everyone’s least favourite Yorkshire men coming to Old Trafford and dumping United out of the FA Cup, plus losing twice to Chelsea, will not be a DVD release-type of year looked back upon decades from now with the same reverence as 1998-9 or 2007-08.
The loss of Ronaldo and a certain Argentinean got the season off to a somewhat sombre start which wasn’t helped by an early loss away to relegation certainties Burnley.
United’s season never really got going- at least not in the league, in the past the most successful team in Premier League history have remained just that by stringing together awe-inspiring winning runs- usually when other teams have faltered. It’s not been uncommon for United to put together an 8 or 9 match-winning run or maybe a record-breaking run of clean sheets.
This season United’s best winning run in the league was five matches, which while hardly pathetic is not the sort of dominant cavalier charge that has put would-be title challengers in their place in seasons past.
It isn’t really United’s lack of a long winning run which prevented the Premier League title remaining at Old Trafford for a record-breaking fourth consecutive season- and more importantly to many fans 19th title win in total. Losing twice to your nearest title rivals is not necessarily a recipe for disaster, after all last season Rafa Benitez’s men did the double over United yet still failed to prise the trophy from Sir Alex Ferguson’s grasp, but the two losses to Chelsea this season more or less sealed the titles fate.
While it is deeply disappointing to come so close to the title- and making history to boot- there is a need for some sober reflection on how the defending champions never quite put forward true title winning credentials.
Losing to Everton, Fulham, Aston Villa, Liverpool, Burnley not to mention twice to Chelsea is the sort of statistic unheard of at United and while many excuses can be found for each loss- injuries, poor decisions, missed penalties etc, there’s no denying it’s not good enough.
Which brings me on to my point, had United won the league, it would only have papered over some of the cracks which need addressing.
A few weeks ago I wrote an article on these very pages urging Fergie not to panic and try and replace half the first-team as some more over-exuberant observers had been advocating.
While I still stick by the idea that United are only one or two players away from being the best team in the land there are certain factors which cannot be ignored.
First on the agenda and this may go down like a BNP joke at a Bar Mitzvah but I’m going to state it anyway, the atmosphere at Old Trafford at times this season has been shocking. Getting out-sung by around one-fifteenth of the supporters in the ground is a bit of a joke and no matter how much I’d like to pretend the Old Trafford faithful are the loudest in the land, it simply doesn’t ring true. Too many times this season opposition fans have been the far too audible while many United supporters have been far too quiet. I’m not going to get into the whole prawn-sandwich debate but from the times I’ve visited Old Trafford this season, I’ve often left disappointed with the atmosphere rather than the result.
Secondly there’s Rio Ferdinand. I honestly feel I don’t need to explain this but for anyone visiting from another planet or Chadderton, allow me to elucidate. 24 league starts in 2008-09 was something of a disappointment softened only by the emergence of Jonny Evans as a true first-class defender. This season half that number of starts is practically useless, as soon as Rio comes back into the team, he’s out again, which does nothing for stability not to mention confidence. United need Rio fit and playing regularly and if that’s not possible then they need to sign a top defender who can play week in week out. Chris Smalling is not the answer, at least not in the near-future. If United do not sign an top defender- after all they’re hardly easy to come by then maybe Fergie should give Evans a real chance and make him a regular starter- regardless of whether Rio’s fit or not. This may sound crazy after all Ferdinand is still one of the best defenders in the world, but it may give the defence much-needed stability. It could also see Evans grow in confidence and become the player he’s shown signs of over the past two seasons.
Thirdly Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Owen- for the purposes of brevity I’ve lumbered them both together. Neither can be truly relied upon to perform for United at the highest level, Owen is far too injury prone while Berbatov is far too p*ss poor prone. If United are to have any form of striking plan-b then, a new striker must be top of the agenda. Kiko Macheda has the potential to become a world-beater but next season may be a bit to soon for every United fan’s favourite Italian.
Finally there’s the attacking central midfielder that’s been missing at Old Trafford ever since Paul Scholes stopped being the force he once was. To be fair to Scholes in the past few games he’s been United’s best player but he cannot be relied upon to do it week in week out and has not been the goal-scorer he was for about 4 seasons now.
Antonio Valencia and Nani look more than up to the task on the wings, and there’s the prospect of Gabriel Obertan carrying some of the form he’s shown for the reserves for the first-team next season. Let’s not forget Ryan Giggs and Ji-Sung Park of course, who can still do a job albeit not regularly- at least not in Giggs’s case.
These factors may have been brushed under the carpet had Steven Gerrard not bet half his wages on a Chelsea title win- I’m joking of course, although mainly to avoid libel. United really didn’t deserve to win the title, as I told my very few scouse friends last season ‘the table doesn’t lie.’ For United to regain the premier league crown it’s going to take more than Chris Smalling and Javier Hernandez.
Read more of Justin’s work at his excellent blog ‘Name on the Trophy’