Manchester United: What Lies Ahead? Ten Things to Ponder Over

Girish MuralidharContributor IIIMay 10, 2012

Manchester United: What Lies Ahead? Ten Things to Ponder Over

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    How bad is it when Manchester United have a trophy-less season? Apart from the financial ramifications, in a club where expectations are sky-high and where it is expected to compete on all fronts and win in all (alright, maybe not all but at least the important ones) competitions, how bad does a season without a single trophy look?

    It doesn't take Einstein to guess the answer. If last season Manchester United made it past the touchline in the Barclays Premier League, it was more down to Nani and Dimitar Berbatov dragging Manchester United through during the first half of the season, and Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez in the second. As expected, the Red Devils exhibited the will to win and ground out the results. 

    What of this year? This was supposed to be the year where Tom Cleverley and Anderson were to become the mainstay of Manchester United's midfield. Having been bolstered by the additions of Phil Jones, Ashley Young and David de Gea, this was to be the march towards title No. 20, an appearance in Munich and at least one trophy, other than the Charity Shield. None of this has happened this year.

    Now I'm not hitting the panic button yet, but there are many questions which appear at the end of this season. Some short-term, some middle-term, some long term. Each of them come with solutions and further problems as well. Read on to find out more

1. The Old and the New

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    As happy as I was to see Paul Scholes return to the side, I knew that this measure did smack a bit of desperation. A lot of people say that he still had it in him to continue, but there was one thing which was very evident, which is that Manchester United were desperate to beef up midfield.

    In addition to that, both full-back positions have become to subject scrutiny and criticism. Patrice Evra and Rafael seem to be more intent upon bombing forward to help their respective partner, but have been found wanting when it comes to defending their flank.

    The average age of the Manchester United side which played for 18 minutes against Manchester City in the Community Shield match at the start of the 2011-12 season was close to 23. The oldest person on the pitch was Wayne Rooney, who was leading by example, but one game is never indicative of a season's performances.

    Injuries to key personnel robbed Manchester United of their flair, but rest aside, Manchester United have not been their best as a mixture of many factors. 

    Most noteworthy are the square-pegs in round holes, especially in the right-back slot and central-midfield slot. Instead of wondering what if and what was, United will surely look ahead and put their disappointments behind them this season.

    That would mean promoting more youngsters, giving reserves more playing time and making space for gradual succession. Paul Scholes' departure put a big burden on Cleverley's shoulders which he seemed to do well in, especially the first few games of the season, but following his injury against Bolton Wanderers, he doesn't seem to be the same. Personally, I hope he recovers his form and becomes a better player for Manchester United.

2. Reserves and Academy

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    Manchester United won the FA Youth Cup in the year 2011, and this year, finished as semi-finalists against a Chelsea side which was bigger in size, faster and better. In the Academy League, Manchester United finished 8th in the Academy League Table with Blackburn pipping Manchester City to first place.

    The academy this time around consists of many players below the age of 18, so they're yet to develop physically and most of them will be playing with each other again next season.

    Players like Mats Dahli, James Wilson, Sam Byrne will be with the academy for another season, and they are very promising players. Mats Daehli, who hails from Norway, has constantly been playing one age group greater than his for a long time and along with James Wilson, have already made their bow for the reserves.

    Paul Pogba is certain to leave just like Ravel Morrison. The academy may never produce another Scholes, Giggs, Beckham, Butt or Neville, but these players are promising. Injuries have robbed many kids of their game time, and there is a slight air around Daehli and Wilson who look very promising.

    As for the Reserves, which mainly consists of last year's victorious FA cup players, many have been earmarked for success. The Keane brothers (Michael and William), Ryan Tunnicliffe, Larnell Cole, Jesse Lingard will most probably be farmed out in order to gain more experience. 

    The question with the Reserves and Academy is whether they will be able to produce another masterclass for sustained success. There may never be another class of '92, but we could hold out a bit of hope for the class of 2011.

3. The Leaders of Next Season

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    Wayne Rooney's disciplinary record for United this year almost seems faultless, except for one yellow card. Rooney's workload has increased massively as a result of injuries, and even getting him shunted out to midfield as a result of injuries.

    Of course, one can wonder whether Pogba or some other young players could have been played instead, but Sir Alex has increasingly wrapped his younger players in cotton-wool of late. The only one to have risen through the ranks is Danny Welbeck, who has played 40 games this whole season and has scored 12 goals. 

    Sir Alex will be hoping that Cleverley remains relatively injury free next season is important, but this does not hide the fact that Carrick is sometimes caught cold in possession or doesn't pick up his marker sometimes.

    There is a need for a midfield enforcer, someone who can shield the back-four and break up opposing play, like Darren Fletcher. If he comes back fit for next season, that would still not be enough to mask United's deficiencies. 

    Games are won in midfield, and that was something United would do effortlessly with Roy Keane and Paul Scholes. They are not going to come back, but they have never been truly replaced. To solve this, Sir Alex would either have to get in Kevin Strootman, or accelerate Ryan Tunnicliffe's development by sending him on loan to a Premier League club.

    Rooney is set to become captain of Manchester United sometime or the other, and Phil Jones will eventually become captain of Manchester United. There is no shortage of leaders, but whoever gets the arm-band will have to lead by example. Or can they?

4. Transition Time Is Nigh

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    Rio Ferdinand has had a considerably good season, guiding Jonny Evans and bringing a bit of stability at the back. But that has still not masked the fact that Manchester United's defense is still prone to conceding a goal or making the odd mistake.

    Nemanja Vidic had a season-ending injury, though it is highly unlikely he will be able to return to his peak. Rio Ferdinand plays as well as he can until he gets hit by the next injury which puts him out for at least a fortnight or more. They have able replacements in Jonny Evans, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling. The only thing that these three need to do is to keep their concentration up at all instances of time during the game.

    These two will slowly pave way for greater playing time for the young trio to take up the reins at Old Trafford. 

    Manchester United's midfield, as we all know, with all due respect, cannot continue relying on Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes. All these three are on the wrong side of 30 and will also have to be slowly phased out.

    Whether their successors will come from the Academy or be brought in, this remains to be seen.

    Manchester United's attacking department, however, is under no great urgency to be replaced. Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck play as though they belong to play in Old Trafford. However, there is a need to bring in a new number 9.

    Whether this will be eventually claimed by William Keane or be given to a marquee signing next season is yet to be seen.

5. A New Number Seven and Number Nine Perhaps?

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    The number seven shirt of Manchester United has been worn by some truly great players. George Best, Bryan 'Captain Marvel' Robson, Eric Cantona, academy graduate David Beckham, and finally Cristiano Ronaldo. Michael Owen has also worn this shirt for almost two years.

    The number 7 shirt, along with the number 10 shirt of Manchester United has been two of the most special shirt numbers, along with 11 (Ryan Giggs), 18 (Paul Scholes) and 20 (Ole Gunnar Solskjaer) of course.

    If the shirt is so special, shouldn't it be given to a new player now at least?

    Some of the stand-out candidates for the shirt as of now are Antonio Valencia, Luis Nani, or to any marquee signing in the coming season. 

    Dimitar Berbatov is set to leave Old Trafford as well along with Michael Owen, vacating the No 9 shirt. The number 9 has a history of its own as well, with Andy Cole and the legendary Sir Bobby Charlton having worn it once. It's time to make some new legends with these shirts.

    Any takers out there?

6. Reinforcements vs Academy

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    Now this is a big gamble. One which can either reap rich dividends, or shatter a player's morale because he got his chance too soon and could never make the most of it. The advantages are many, especially since we've seen the rise of Danny Welbeck, the class of '92 and so on. There are also cases in many other clubs where this can result in a breaking a player's morale.

    Take Aston Villa FC. Their academy finished the 2007-08 season as winners of the Premier Academy League. In the 2010-11 season, Gerard Houllier blooded them with mixed success. Marc Albrighton is yet to impress consistently, and Ciaran Clark is yet to decide which player in him should turn up—either the no-nonsense defensive utility player or a wandering confused player in the park, capable of a rash challenge and a sending-off.

    There are also Barry Bannan, Andreas Weimann, Nathan Baker, Nathan Delfouneso and few others, who will definitely be more mature than this season, but must prove their worth in that one.

    In the same way, the response of Manchester United's reserves when loaned out will be the indication of whether or not they are good enough for first team action.

    Oliver Norwood was part of the Coventry City side who were relegated to League One, but managed to put in a few good performances and even had Sir Alex and Mike Phelan watching him for a match or two. Scott Wootton helped his side Nottingham Forest avoid relegation. Ryan Tunnicliffe made a total of 28 appearances for Peterborough United, and Ritchie De Laet played for Norwich City, making only six appearances before having his loan spell terminated due to injury.

    Many players come and go through the academy, and only some of them can make it to the first team. Time will tell which player five years from now will be playing for the Red Devils, and who will be playing for other sides.

    Following a dismal performance in Europe in both the Champions League and the Europa League, this question will weigh most heavily in Sir Alex's mind. Should he go guns blazing and buy the likes of Muniain, Martinez and Hazard, or wait for another class act to rise from the academy?

7. Agent Problem

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    The agent problem, especially with young players is a trend which is growing to alarming proportions.

    Paul Pogba may have agreed to go to Juventus, but there is a feeling that his move to Juventus was more or less engineered by Dutch super agent Mino Raiola, who also represents Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Mario Balotelli and Mark van Bommel. 

    Danny Welbeck, according to, is said to have agreed to a five-year deal which he will agree to at the end of the season, but his slate wasn't exactly the cleanest in the past. His loan-spell to Sunderland would have never happened due to his wage demands from the Tyneside club which was finally resolved later by the intervention of Steve Bruce.

    Zeki Fryers has refused to sign a new contract according to The Sun and is said to be eying a move to Newcastle United, supposedly over a lack of playing time.

    Young players are told repeatedly by their seniors in any club to keep their feet on the ground and work hard. Rio Ferdinand had spoken to Pogba on a few occasions to remind him of where he was and how he should continue in order to become a good player.

    All this simply goes to show that Manchester United expect their players to work hard and in return they would be given contracts based on their performances. One would seriously wonder whether Pogba's move is based on lack of playing time or something else, but there is a lesson to be learnt here for Manchester United, especially regarding its young players. Ravel Morrison was released as a result of his problems with authority and has made only one appearance for West Ham United so far.

    Whether this was a case of incorrectly handling the players, or a reluctance to give in to their demands or something else entirely, we the fans and outsiders may never know. But Manchester United must not let any more youngsters slip through their net. 

8. Footballing Philosophy

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    Manchester United's most favorite formation has been the 4-4-2, which in some cases has been modified to play a 4-5-1, and in some cases also becomes a 4-3-3, depending on the players available.

    Clubs such as FC Barcelona, Bayern Munich and AFC Ajax have their own footballing philosophy, which is ingrained into their youngsters and they are taught to play football in that certain manner. Bayern Munich plays a 4-4-2 diamond formation from its U15s onwards.

    Johan Cruyff, the proponent of total football at Ajax, made full use of the 3-4-3 and 4-3-3 formations during his time, emphasizing on giving the ball, moving into space, creating space and the end result was beautiful football.

    Barcelona was where Cruyff was able to revolutionize one-touch football, which resulted in FC Barcelona using the 3-4-3 formation through all the levels of their club, until the B level, from where they use the 4-3-3 formation. 

    This is one thing which Manchester United lacks, having one basic formation throughout all the levels in its club. Not to say that it would make a world of difference, but it is something which would come in handy. True, no formation is entirely perfect as each formation can meet its match in another formation. 

    Sir Alex Ferguson has experimented with a lot of formations, right from 4-1-4-1 to 4-2-3-1 to 4-5-1 to 4-3-3 and finally, the tried and tested 4-4-2.

    With rumors swirling around that Shinji Kagawa is to sign for Manchester United, many are pondering whether Manchester United has decided to move with the times and embrace a new footballing philosophy, now deciding to play and buy using a 4-2-3-1 template. 

    As easy as it sounds when someone plays on FIFA 12 and decides to pick a formation to play his/her team in, the dynamics and tactics which go into each formation during a real football match is far far different. Some of the most noteworthy people who revolutionized football formations are as follows:

    First, there was Bela Guttman, a Hungarian-Jewish coach who gave Brazil its famous 4-2-4 formation which he revolutionized and propagated for the Seleção. The result was free-flowing beautiful football for a long time to come.

    Then came Sir Matt Busby, who believed in playing attractive and progressive football. This article would go quite a way in going to explain what exactly goes on in deciding a playing formation and the roles played by each and every player of Manchester United, all the way back in 1967.

    Next up was Johann Cruyff, who gave the world total football with the 3-4-3 and 4-3-3 formations.

    Then came Arrigo Sacchi, who once again turned football on its head, by introducing a 4-4-2 with zonal marking and a back-four which would begin to press the opposing team from the half-line itself.

    Box-to-box midfielders, who were once such a common sight in English football are now fading (Steven Gerrard, Roy Keane, Bryan Robson) and are being replaced by defensive midfielders and attacking midfielders.

    The latter are mostly found playing behind the main striker and dictating tempo in the final third (Mesut Ozil, Kaka) and specializing in the same, and the former shield the back-four and concentrate on breaking opposition play or man-marking the opposite play-maker (Yann M'vila, Sami Khedira, Michael Essien).

    Football as a sport is changing, and it remains to be seen how Manchester United respond to this era. Would it continue to stick to its 4-4-2 or change in order to move with the times?

9. Did Queiroz's Exit Bring About This Phase?

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    By this phase, I mean the time period from 2008-2012, wherein Manchester United have, according to many pundits, managers and players, become weaker, and yet they grind out results, like they always do.

    Manchester United had won the Champions League on the 21 May 2008 against Chelsea in an all English affair. While Sir Alex Ferguson had Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez, there was also Paul Scholes, who made an appearance after missing out the 1999 final due to suspension.

    The trump card of Manchester United was not making Cristiano Ronaldo play on the left wing against Michael Essien, but it was the minute detail by detail observations made by former assistant coach Carlos Queiroz which made that victory possible.

    This article's second part goes to show how Carlos Queiroz had worked out the smallest of specifics in Manchester United's semi-final clash against Barcelona, which they won 1-0 on aggregate and kept the mighty Catalans scoreless.

    Prior to his departure in 2008, Manchester United were a side renowned in defending and scoring during set-pieces. 

    After leaving for greener pastures, Manchester United has scored very few goals from set-pieces, so much so that has almost become their Achilles heel. With all due to respect to Mike Phelan, he is a very good assistant coach, but many fans point to Queiroz's departure which ensured Manchester United could not win another Champions League final against Barcelona in Rome in 2009 and stuttered similarly against the Blaugrana in Wembley in 2011.

    While Queiroz is currently the manager of the Iranian National football team, Manchester United have never really replace his tactical nous and astuteness with anyone of a similar mould. Will a new assistant coach be brought in by Sir Alex? Which brings us to the most important question of all... * drum roll*

10. What Would Happen to Manchester United After Sir Alex Ferguson Leaves?

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    This is the moment which all Red Devil fans across the world would be dreading, and in truth, is not far away. The day the old Scot decides to leave would ensure his legacy is cemented as the greatest football manager the world has ever seen. Jose Mourinho is renowned for having won the champions league twice with different teams. Bob Paisley of Liverpool is the only manager to have won it three times with Liverpool.

    However, the trophy count at Manchester United's cabinet courtesy of Sir Alex Ferguson, which currently stands at a jaw-dropping 37, attests to the fact that the greatest football manager in the world is currently in the hot-seat at Old Trafford.

    Manchester United fans should remember one thing, and that is there will never be another Sir Alex Ferguson, just like there never was another Sir Matt Busby. This doesn't mean that Manchester United can expect a barren spell including relegation on a few occasions, but just that whoever will be brought in to succeed the old man from Govan will be capable in his own right and should be given a chance just like Sir Alex was.

    Sir Alex is now 70 years old. While I wouldn't bet against him carrying on for another five years, I know that it borders on the inane and might just not happen. There will be a replacement for Sir Alex Ferguson, be it David Moyes, Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola or even Carlo Ancelotti, but rest assured it will be a coach who has a significant amount of experience under his belt and not a fresh man from the block.

    Manchester United would do well to avoid the pitfalls of signing someone like Andre Villas-Boas, who could not quite come to terms with player power, handling of egos, and many other things.

    For a manager to become successful, he needs a good chairman. Manchester United is perhaps the only club where there has been little or no intervention over Ferguson's role in the club. He has been given 100% authority to chop and change the way he pleases and this has helped him in creating and re-creating sides which are capable of making history.

    Of course, many fans have problems with the Glazers with regards to money for strengthening the squad (so do I), but one thing which they deserve credit for is that since their takeover, there has been little-to-no intervention with regards to signing players or denying anything to the manager.

    Rest assured, Manchester United's future would have already been mapped by Sir Alex Ferguson. He never leaves his task incomplete, and expect him to have readied a squad which will last for at least 10 years after he's gone.

    Feel free to add criticisms/comments, if any.

    Glory Glory Man United!