Monday night’s Manchester derby was an exciting and entertaining if rather futile affair. Of course, Manchester City had to win it; unlike Man United, their pride was at stake, having failed to mount anything reminiscent of a title defence this season and with the Red Devils already comfortably Champions-elect, even if they’re still a few wins away from lifting the Premier League winners’ trophy.
But the 2-1 victory was more than a simple battle of pride. It’s put City in good stead for their FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea next weekend – having lost would have seriously dampened the mood at Eastlands,– but furthermore, it was a show of quality to English football fans, and evidence that despite the limp campaign, the Citizens have pound-for-pound a better equipped and richer in quality Starting XI in comparison to their local rivals, and thus the best in the English top flight.
It’d be wrong to base an opinion on a single game where essentially nothing was on the line, but it’s no secret that United’s successful title challenge can be attributed as much to the failings of the other major Premier League teams, namely Chelsea, Arsenal and City, as it does the level of talent of the Red Devil’s roster.
I am not suggesting Sir Alex Ferguson’s men are of an inadequate quality to deserve lifting the domestic title, but considering the vast majority of their players are either developing youngsters or firmly into their twilight years, you wouldn’t have bet on them in the summer to monopolise the Premiership table so effortlessly, and media discussions suggesting the United squad will be looked back upon as a ‘vintage team’ is quintessentially misguided.
It is Ferguson alone and the solidarity and consistency he provides, with the help of Arsene Wenger allowing the Premiership’s best striker move from Arsenal to Old Trafford for a mere £20million in the summer, which has been the deciding factor in this year’s one-horse title race.
No doubt, the Scottish gaffer already knows that next year it will not be so easy. Chelsea fans will not accept another year of being in the wilderness when it comes to the English top flight. They’ve been miles away from their rivals in their last two campaigns, and the appointment of a new manager in the summer looks set to trigger a new era at the club, potentially with Jose Mourinho at the helm.
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Similarly, spending another season where the overall aim appears to be winning the battle for fourth spot has awoken a rather volatile reaction from the Arsenal faithful. Arsene Wenger has been constantly criticised, and spent as much of his time in press conferences justifying the club’s reluctance to make big signings as he has actually discussing the Gunners’ on-pitch performances, which additionally have been found wanting on a number of occasions, predominantly against the bigger teams. The Frenchman is expected to make a complete u-turn on his transfer policy, and take advantage of an apparent £80million kitty by finally bringing in some marquee signings to stop the malaise at the Emirates.
Likewise, just as Fergie refused to take missing out on the title on goal difference last season lying down, responding with more desire and determination than ever this year to quieten United’s noisy neighbours, I doubt the City roster will let the current campaign be the final word for the history books about their abilities as individuals or a team. I’d expect to see some serious investment from the Sheik owners, predominantly in a new striker, but also perhaps a natural winger, in a bid to further bolster the City ranks, as well as a rise in performance from the likes of Vincent Kompany, Sergio Aguero, Yaya Toure and David Silva.
With the predicted revival of the sleeping beasts that form three of the top four clubs in England, Ferguson will have to spend considerably in the summer. There are too many weak links in the United starting XI to spend a another season relying upon ageing veterans Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Rio Ferdinand to do a job and keep a cool head when it comes to the business end of the season.
The area where City most showed up United on Monday night was in midfield; Yaya Toure, James Milner and Gareth Barry athletically dominated over a central pairing of Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs, whilst the speed and skill of David Silva and Samir Nasri left their opponents tracking backwards rather than progressing up the pitch.
It’s a soft underbelly that Ferguson has been getting away with for some time – he’s attempted to bring in Moussa Dembele, John Obi Mikel and Wesley Sneijder to Old Trafford in recent years, but in failing to do so, the Scot yet to find a long-term replacement for Paul Scholes, or provide a physical element in the middle of the park to allow Carrick to focus solely on his astute passing game.
Tom Cleverly has been fulfilling a purpose this season, being the only United midfielder with any sort of athleticism in comparison to Carrick, Scholes and Anderson, but I feel his role would have been reduced to cameo appearances if Fergie had a viable alternative. His two goals and one assist in 20 Premier League appearances leaves a lot to be desired and the 23 year old will not progress to the level that many expect of him. Lars Bender, Christian Eriksen and Mario Gotze have all been linked with a summer move to Old Trafford; however, moving Wayne Rooney deeper into the midfield would also be an interesting, if risky, option.
Similarly, in defence, the champions-to-be are at a cross-road. Ferguson announced earlier in the season that the era of the Ferdinand-Vidic partnership is well and truly over, and although Chris Smalling and Phil Jones have shown a lot of promise, it is still too early for both of them to be handed a permanent slot in the Starting XI, whilst despite making nearly 100 league appearances for the Red Devils, the jury is still out on Jonny Evans. Although one centre-back slot can be open to rotation, a top class defender needs to be brought in to add some quality and provide some stability to the first team, with the stand-out candidate being Borussia Dortmund’s Mats Hummels.
Even in the striker department, which is United’s strongest area, you feel improvements have to made in time for next season. Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie operate well together against rank and file Premier League clubs, but both are yet to get on the score sheet together in a major game. Furthermore, the partnership has served them well this year, but the only way to maintain dominance in English football is to continually progress, and for all of Rooney’s hustle and bustle, there are clear weaknesses to his game – he becomes too involved in the dog fight on the big occasions and leaves Van Persie isolated up top.
I see the 2013/2014 season being one of stark contrast to the current Premier League campaign. On the surface, it appears its United’s for the taking, with their impressive array of youngsters progressing closer to their peak years, and Rooney and Van Persie spearheading the first team. But there is no way that Chelsea or Manchester City, with all their money and resources available to them, will put up with the current status quo. They will return with a vengeance, and quite frankly, the current Red Devils’ roster is not ready for it. If Ferguson wishes to lift a consecutive title next year, he will have to spend big and bold, not to maintain the club’s dominance, but simply to keep up with Premier League opposition that has been surprisingly dormant this year.