Earlier this year, Sir Alex Ferguson claimed his current roster at Manchester United is the best he’s had during his near thirty-year reign at the club – even beating 1998/1999 squad that picked up the treble and conquered Europe.
Although Fergie’s declaration undoubtedly has some serious psychological game-playing behind it, as do the majority of his statements, it’s understandable why such comparisons between the current Man United personnel and the late 90’s treble-winners have been made.
United currently have their highest record in terms of Premier League points at this stage in the season to date, although Chelsea and Manchester city fans would readily argue that there hasn’t been too much of a challenge for the Red Devil’s dominance of the league table for the vast majority of the season.
The squad is a mixture of young and old, enthusiastic and experienced, composed professionals and rising stars eager to impress, with two forwards in Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie who are at the peak of their powers.
It’s the perfect way to continue a legacy; bringing a new generation through whilst the old generation, including a couple of graduates from the famous class of ’92, are still around to help enforce the right mentality on the batch of young 20-somethings that Fergie has picked up from around the world to continue the club’s prestigious history.
But, looking forward into next season and something seems out of sync. A number of key figures will be taking a step back in the next campaign, but does the club have enough quality in its younger squad members to readily fill their shoes, or will United bring in some much needed new recruits in the summer?
Last week, Sir Alex Ferguson admitted that centre-back pairing Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand’s era at the heart of the Manchester United defence is over, who are now 31 years of age and 34 years of age respectively. It is not simply the fact that he’s decided that due to their age, fitness and lack of pace the two men cannot play as a partnership anymore, but it also signifies the end of their previous period of dominance over the Premier League.
Of course, United have a number of good youngsters to play at the back, most notably Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Johnny Evans, but the apprentices, in my opinion, are still uncomparable in terms of quality, achievements and wisdom in comparison to their masters.
Evans has proved himself this season, and improved further as the year has gone on. The Northern Irishman received a lot of stick for his continual selection at the start of his senior career at Old Trafford, and can still be unconvincing at times, especially when paired with Rio Ferdinand – both of whom appear to be almost too similar in approach and are effectively ‘covering’ centre-backs – but is he ready to completely replace Ferdinand should the ageing veteran decide to hang up his boots or move on to find more regular football in the summer?
Central midfield is another key area in which Manchester United are facing the end of an era. With Paul Scholes at the ripe old age of 38, it seems likely that this will be his last year at Old Trafford, and this time with the possibility of coming out of retirement to aid Sir Alex much less likely. Similarly, Michael Carrick has emerged as a cultured and consistent figure in the United midfield, but the former West Ham and Tottenham man is 31 himself, and has certainly lost a few yards of pace over the last few seasons.
Move down the pecking order, and United have Anderson, Shinji Kagawa and Tom Cleverley to fill in, but as with the likes of Smalling, Jones and Evans, do these three really have what it takes to fill the void left by Michael Carrick and one of the Premier League’s most exceptional midfield maestro’s?
It’s not just recently that this position has been a concern; Ferguson has been on the hunt for a long-term solution in the middle of the park for a number of years without success. First came his pursuit of John Obi Mikel, who essentially snubbed the opportunity to join Old Trafford for a move to Chelsea, and more recently Fergie was hot on the trail for Moussa Dembele, who would have added some much needed physicality to United’s midfield, only to be pipped to the post for the Belgian international’s signature by Tottenham, as well as the Scottish gaffer turning his nose up at signing long-term target Wesley Sneijder for a knock-down transfer fee due to the playmaker’s wage demands.
The left flank, in it’s entirety also needs to be addressed. With Ashley Young having a stop-start season, Nani expected to be shown the exit door at the end of the season and Ryan Giggs becoming a rather grey and slow veteran, who could also hang up his boots and the end of the current campaign, there could be a major gap in the squad next season in terms of natural left-midfielders who are furthermore naturally left-footed, which in my opinion is key to United’s 4-5-1 system where the wingers have an integral role.
Similarly, Patrice Evra, although amongst the goals this year, is steadily declining as a footballer, and nearing his expiration date. Alexander Buttner is a promising defender, but is he ready to take over first-team duties at a club expected by the fans to lift the Premier League trophy next season?
I don’t wish to dampen the jovial mood at Old Trafford; Alex Ferguson has won the league with an incredibly balanced squad that has the best of both worlds regarding where players are in their development as footballers. But that is also the problem when taking into consideration the long-term vision of the club. Next year, the balance will be different; younger apprentices will be expected to step up and take over, not just on the pitch but also off the pitch. Furthermore, the last two members of the class of ’92 – Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes – will most likely retire from the game, which will no doubt have a psychological impact around Carrington, and their infinite experience will also be missed.
Fergie has, at least in recent years, a tendency to pick up promising youngsters in the transfer market and allowed them to grow and develop with the aid of his vastly experienced squad, but this summer, I’d expect to see a rather different approach. Although Manchester United have been by far the best team in the league this season, there is no doubt that their division rivals will let them get away with it so easily next year.
Therefore, some reinforcements need to be brought in during the next transfer window, or Manchester United could be faced with a rather difficult challenge of competing for the league title next year with a squad of youngsters that are yet to mature to the best of their footballing abilities. I fear for their title chances without some added experience and ability to their roster of promising young talents, but then again, the punditry phrase “You can’t win anything with kids!” comes to mind.
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