by Teo Teng Kiat
For two minutes, it seemed as if United had won the title. It looked like City were going to throw away the opportunity to win their first-ever Premier League crown as they were level at 2-2 with QPR, while the Red Devils had beaten Sunderland by a single goal in their final match.
Two minutes later, one half of Manchester had erupted in celebration. But the cheering did not come from those in red; Sergio Aguero had clinched the title for the “noisy neighbours” in dramatic fashion, after jinking past one defender and coolly slotting the ball home for a late winner.
As I contemplate writing a season review for a campaign that ended without a single trophy, it is obviously difficult to feel very cheery, but it is not all doom and gloom. I will briefly look back at the positives and negatives, as well as ponder a little over what next season holds.
Could do better
When United supporters reflect on the run-in during the last few matches, they will inevitably look at the game at Old Trafford where the team somehow contrived to throw away a 4-2 lead in the last twenty minutes to end up with a costly 4-4 draw against Everton.
People talk about the experience, the ruthlessness, the single-mindedness to win matches that United always seem to possess during the closing stages of the season; such qualities were disappointingly found wanting this time round.
Coupled with the insipid and abject performance in the away loss to Wigan the game before, this was NOT the type of United display that people are used to. If you had asked anyone whether United would squander an eight-point lead in “squeaky bum-time” before this season, the answer would most likely be ‘no’; but they did exactly that.
Whether it was due to complacency or inexperience, the fact is that the Red Devils botched this crucial run of games, while City, playing without pressure, took maximum points from their games to take advantage; it was a strange reversal of roles.
It could also be argued that the tactical set-up in certain matches was questionable, none more so than in the crucial derby against City. True, United could have done with a draw to maintain their lead over City, but it was just baffling that Sir Alex sent out a side which screamed “we are playing for a draw”, and more or less handed the initiative to City.
While it must be noted that City did not exactly play terrific football, Roberto Mancini’s men had already won the mental battle. Playing a 4-5-1, shorn of the in-form Valencia and with the inclusion of a woefully out-of-form Park Ji-Sung, the City players knew in their minds that United were scared of losing, which was exactly what happened.
The dismal performances in Europe were also a particular let-down for supporters, especially being eliminated in the Champions’ League group stages. Failure to qualify from a group containing Benfica, Basel and Otelul Galati is quite a disaster, with due respect to the three teams.
The subsequent elimination against Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League, after scraping past Ajax in the previous round, was also galling, especially given the fact that United fully deserved to get knocked out from both competitions, because they were well beaten by their opponents.
Having gotten to the final only just the season before, it must be baffling that the team crashed out so tamely in the group stages, and this is clearly an area the gaffer needs to correct in next season’s Europe ventures.
The re-emergence (of sorts) of Michael Carrick and Jonny Evans must be one of the most pleasing aspects of this season, who must be the two most-maligned players in the current United squad.
There is no doubting that both have had a superb campaign.
Carrick was pivotal in central midfield with his ability to keep play going and retain possession, as well as make numerous interceptions to help out defensively. These are the small things that many people do not seem to take note of, preferring to instead criticize his lack of goals and his supposed tendency to play backward passes.
Indeed, while players like Xavi and Xabi Alonso recognize the true value of his role, with Alonso even claiming that United’s number 16 “has the profile to play for Barcelona or any of the Spanish teams”, it is baffling how under-rated and under-appreciated he has been amongst supporters.
Meanwhile, Evans found himself thrust into the spotlight when Vidic’s ACL injury ruled the defensive rock and United captain out for the season early on. The Northern Ireland international has certainly repaid the manager’s faith in him though, putting in many sterling performances alongside the rejuvenated Ferdinand, as both formed a capable partnership which was crucial in seeing United get back into the title race.
A product of the club’s academy, the centreback seems to have become a much stronger player this season, often winning challenges that he would have lost in the past, while also displaying superb reading of the game, as well as the ability to pick out his teammates; in fact, his pass-completion percentages in games are amongst the highest for United players.
In addition, the terrific form of Antonio Valencia in the second half of the season is also a positive, as the Ecuadorian established himself as one of the finest wingers in the league. His sheer power and pace means that he has the ability to destroy any fullback, while he also packs a powerful shot. It remains puzzling how he was left out of the starting line-up at the Etihad, and no one can argue that he did not deserve to sweep all the awards at the club’s annual awards night.
Also, it seems like the form of Wayne Rooney has gone somewhat un-noticed, despite him enjoying his best ever goalscoring season in a United shirt. The England international banged in 35 goals in 44 games, with two memorable goals in a 2-1 victory against Liverpool the most notable. He is arguably the team’s marquee player, and it is my personal opinion that Sir Alex should look to build the team around Rooney, who is entering his prime years.
It must be noted that this United team contains many youngsters, many of whom have acquitted themselves decently enough this season.
David De Gea seems to have settled in well after a rocky start, and it is my personal belief that he will be one of the best goalkeepers in the world in a few years’ time. Rafael has shown marked improvement during his spell at rightback, legitimately stating his case for being a first-team regular. Chris Smalling and Phil Jones both enjoyed fine starts to the season, but saw their progress derailed by injury. Both are still young and promising though; I feel Smalling will make a superb centreback, while Jones could possible assume the mantle in defensive midfield.
Danny Welbeck had his first full season back at the club and definitely impressed upfront, especially with his partnership with Rooney, which shows signs of promise. While guilty of taking too many opportunities to score, his finishing and composure will improve with time, and he also offers a more mobile option as compared to the poacher-like Javier Hernandez, capable of being involved in attacking moves and creating goals.
Elsewhere, the Reserves won their league, with the likes of Davide Petrucci, Will Keane, Michael Keane, Jesse Lingard and Larnell Cole figuring prominently. With Zeki Fryers and Paul Pogba already seeing first-team action, the hope is that at least a couple of the kids will make the breakthrough and transit to the first-team in future.
While a section of supporters are clamouring for a major team overhaul in light of City’s success, it is worth remembering that United lost the title only on goal difference and not by 20 points, and that this season can be seen as a transitional stage.
As with many fans, I reckon the midfield needs to be strengthened. While Shinji Kagawa will certainly be a welcome addition, I believe the centre midfield should be bolstered as well, where Paul Scholes will eventually have to be replaced. Personally, I would like Modric in United colors; the Spurs playmaker should be a fine fit, with his ability to dictate play and his willingness to track back and help out defensively.
With Fabio likely to be loaned out, getting another leftback as cover has been suggested, but it is hard to see the likes of Baines being willing to come and sit on the bench, as I feel Evra is likely to continue being first-choice, despite having a markedly mixed campaign. As such, it could be worth promoting Fryers to being his deputy, and giving the youngster 10-15 starts in ‘smaller’ games.
The club might also look to get another striker in, with Michael Owen being released and Dimitar Berbatov likely to leave the club. Will Keane, the Reserves top-scorer who was initially ear-marked to be in the first-team squad next season, has been cruelly ruled out for at least half a year with an ACL injury. I would not be too concerned though if no one is signed in this area, as Ashley Young can be played as a second striker, while if Kagawa arrives, he will also play behind Rooney, leaving the option of Welbeck and Hernandez as back-up.
A worry is that United seem to not be able to compete in the transfer market with the likes of Chelsea and City, who have the cash to splash. Highly-rated Lille prospect Eden Hazard looks to have opted for Stamford Bridge, where Roman Abramovich is also seeking to add Porto’s Hulk for a staggering 38million pounds, having already secured Marko Marin’s signature.
It is hard to envisage United spending that kind of money, contrary to whatever David Gill says, and it is a little worrying that the club is being linked to cheaper options like Fulham’s Dembele, with all due respect. City and Chelsea also offer the option of being genuine challengers on the domestic and European front now, which is an extra incentive on top of the financial rewards for potential new players.
City will definitely not stop spending, despite the threat of the new Financial Fair Play regulations. They will certainly be a much stronger force next season, whether we like it or not, and the manager will have his work cut out in trying to wrest back the title from the neighbours.
It will be interesting to see which players the club manage to land by the start of next season, while it will also be crucial that the progress of youngsters like Tom Cleverley and the others already mentioned are not hindered.
This United side are not as bad as some have made them out to be, but they face a real challenge to become top dogs in their own backyard, as well as in England again, and the famed resilience and traditional never-say-die attitude of the club will perhaps be needed more than ever come August.
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