It was the most glorious way to seal the title. That scoring drought and genuine questioning as to whether he merited the Player of the Year award was cast aside when Robin van Persie volleyed home Manchester United’s second in their 3-0 win over Aston Villa. The Dutchman’s performance set the standard and raised the game of his teammates, who on the whole could not be faulted.
And then there’s the reality of the matter. This is not one of Alex Ferguson’s best teams, despite how much he’s talked them up over the course of this season. He may be happy with his strike force, but there is a reason, you have to believe, that a club like Manchester United are done with the season at this stage after their domestic title win, while four of Europe’s very best are competing in the Champions League.
On the whole, it’s been an underwhelming watch. I’ve spoken about it before, the way people are quick to forget what has come earlier in the season when something new or different takes their attention. Van Persie has been magnificent and the real drawing point of this United team. He is not Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, both of whom are unlikely to go through the kind of drought in front of goal that the Dutchman experienced. If such an occurrence takes place, many will be quick to question either of their positions as the one and two in world football.
So where do United go from here? It’s a matter of overhauling and significantly improving some of their most important weapons. Shinji Kagawa, for one reason or another, has not had as big a role as he did during his last season with Borussia Dortmund. His lack of fitness throughout this campaign has in a way played the other option into Ferguson’s hand, going with the traditional and very United approach of two wingers. But they’re not good enough; lacking in quality overall and inspiration to turn a game on its head.
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Antonio Valencia may be the easiest target of this season, failing horribly to come up with anything of note for the majority of this campaign. How do you defend him? Was he ever a player good enough for Manchester United and what they needed in a starting winger? Absolutely not. He’s one dimensional and lacks the imagination that is required of a winger playing for a team who have ambitions to be the best in the Premier League every year. He may be praised for his adopted versatility and work rate, but he looks exactly like what he is: A Wigan player who was fortunate to be handed a jump to Manchester United.
I’m not one who totally buys into the idea that United need a creative spark in midfield. Another midfielder needs to be picked up, but not necessarily someone who dictates the play from the middle of the pitch in the traditional sense. The strengths of this United team come from their forwards and the service they’re fed. It’s a team who have had to play a counterattacking game at times this season in various competitions, and it’s a good reason why players like Danny Welbeck are brought in and compensate for their lack of goals. However, I do believe this team to still be a little distant from the dominating and intimidating teams who currently make up the Champions League semi-finals.
But we’ve seen it all season. At no point has United looked like a side who were about to score four or five every week. Despite them being at the top of the league table for so long, there has always been a little uncertainty as to whether they would get the job done, even against the smallest or weakest teams in the league. It derives from a lack of strength in their most important positions. Interestingly, there are parallels to the current Barcelona team, one who are improving on all their numbers over the Pep Guardiola teams, but where something vital is missing.
You can’t help but feel that someone like Gareth Bale would turn this team from good enough to overcome a relatively poor Premier League, to really challenging the might of Europe once again. That is why Ferguson put a lot of effort in trying to chase down the signatures of Eden Hazard and Lucas Moura. That is why, from a neutral perspective, signings like Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia have been so disappointing. You know this club are capable of better.