Manchester United: Evaluating the Veterans
It has long been argued that Manchester United is one of the best clubs in the game when it comes to balancing the age of their squad. This is primarily down to the management of Sir Alex Ferguson, who's foresight in throwing youngsters into the first-team (and ruthlessness in axing senior players) sets him apart from his peers.
Yet this season has reaped somewhat mixed results with regards to Manchester United's veteran contingent. Some over-thirty players continue to have a great influence on the team whereas others have seen their performances dramatically decline.
With Michael Owen and Tomasz Kuszczak already released by the club, Sir Alex must now consider whether there are other senior players on the team who have served their purpose and who have reached the end of their Old Trafford tenure.
In this article we will evaluate United's veterans and consider whether their time with the Red Devils should now come to an end.
In the absence of Nemanja Vidić due to injury, Patrice Evra has stepped up to become Manchester United's interim captain. He is a vocal member of the team, one who the press can rely upon to provide quotes and opinions that other players at the club would dare to voice.
He is jovial and his exploits behind the scenes at Old Trafford have become the stuff of legend. Especially with Evra forming something of a comedy partnership with Park Ji-Sung.
Clearly, his presence in the dressing room can only be beneficial to morale. With 47 appearances this season in all competitions, Evra is still one of Sir Alex Ferguson's most trusted and selected players.
Yet, do his recent performances warrant such selection? I'm not so sure.
In key games this season (and the recent 1-0 defeat at City stands out as a recent, damning example) Evra was often found wanting. Either caught too high up the field, sucked into the center of the field, or—worst of all—skinned by quicker players, Evra's defensive frailties are becoming more and more apparent.
With Manchester United apparently interested in signing Everton's attacking full-back Leighton Baines—a player entering the peak of his career and who would demand first-team football—Evra's position at Old Trafford could be very much under threat.
Yet Evra is a player with a massive hunger for success and he will not disappear without a fight. Lest we forget, this is a man who dethroned Gabriel Heinze, the Argentinian left-back who was something of a cult player at Old Trafford, and who beat both Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney to the 2004-05 Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year Award. No mean feat.
Season Grade: B-
Stay or Go? Stay
Rio Ferdinand has fought back from what seemed to be career-threatening back injuries to once again claim the mantle as United's defensive talisman. The record-signing has proved that he has an enduring class and panache about his game that is going to be very hard to replace in the future.
Sure, he is sometimes found out by speedy strikers, but his positional awareness and ability to read the game more than make up for that frailty.
While his defensive partner was ruled out for the majority of the season, Ferdinand became something of a mainstay in the United team, notching an impressive 38 appearances in all competitions this season.
Ferdinand also brought the best out of young Jonny Evans, a player who by his own admission has struggled in the past. The pair forged an impressive partnership that went a number of games without conceding towards the end of the season.
Ferdinand seems settled and happy at Old Trafford and he is a player that relishes being considered a senior player in one of world football's elite clubs.
As players such as Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes inevitably follow Gary Neville into retirement, Ferdinand's presence and leadership at Old Trafford will continue to be invaluable.
More fool Roy Hodgson and England for leaving this guy at home.
Season Grade: A-
Stay or Go? Stay
Dimitar Berbatov seems destined for the exit this summer. In any other club, in any other situation the prospect of selling a Golden Boot winning striker at the peak of his powers would seem foolish, but Dimitar Berbatov and the Manchester United side Sir Alex Ferguson is building just don't seem to fit.
Despite only making sporadic appearances this season (21 in total), Berbatov has netted nine times in all competitions. The hunger to play and to score is still there, but his play does not seem to correspond with what the manager is trying to build. Danny Welbeck has become Ferguson's go-to striker this season, ousting not just Berbatov, but also Javier Hernández.
Despite noises from Berbatov and his agent, it still seems that Berbatov's departure from Old Trafford is far from set in stone. The club will want to recoup some of the considerable sum they spent on the Bulgarian and for a player still at the peak of his powers they have every right to do so.
Season Grade: C
Stay or Go? Go
Whereas Real Madrid parted with Raul and Juventus released Del Piero, the idea that Manchester United's living legend will finish his professional career at anywhere other than Manchester United is implausible.
With 33 appearances this season, Ryan Giggs continues to be an integral part of the manager's plans. Deployed both on the wing and in the centre, Giggs' invaluable knowledge of the game and positional versatility means he continues to defy age and produce top quality performances.
But can he still go head-to-head with the very, very best? Is his presence on the team something of a hindrance? Surely Manchester United should have found that central midfield superstar by now that means Giggs does not have to play there, right?
All valid arguments. Yet while other teams release their legends, United will continue to play their icon and keep his presence felt in the dressing room.
At a time with so many prima donna players in the Premier League, it must be a wholly intimidating prospect sharing the dressing room and the playing field with a guy who's been there and achieved everything.
And that can only be beneficial to Manchester United.
Season Grade: B
Stay or Go? Stay
Park Ji-Sung has still very much lived down Sir Matt Busby Way, both by the fans and the management. Not only does he have one of the funniest (if most politically incorrect!) songs sung in his honour by the Stretford End, but he continues to be hard-working and score those crucial goals. Nobody can fault the South Korean's effort.
Yet we only have to look at his performance against Manchester City at the end of the season to understand that Park must now have played his final game for the club.
Offensively, he has fallen in the pecking order behind pretty much every winger at the club.
His performance against Andrea Pirlo in United's 7-2 aggregate demolition of AC Milan two years ago is often held up as an example of what he can do defensively. Park smothered the Italian playmaker, harrying and chasing Pirlo from first whistle to last.
Can Park still do this at an elite level? I don't think so.
Park was tasked in the Manchester derby with doing "a job" on City's midfield talisman Yaya Toure. As Zonal Marking's Michael Cox explains in much more detail than I could possibly ever muster, Park was played off the field by Toure, who completed more successful passes in the first half than any other player.
Park was hauled off soon in the second half and I can't help but think the guy has played his last game for the club.
Manchester United have massive defensive frailties in the centre of midfield and against the very elite of world football we can no longer rely on the South Korean to do the job.
Season Grade: D
Stay or Go? Go
I can't help but wonder what would have been if Nemanja Vidić had not suffered that nasty injury way back in December. For one, Vincent Kompany would have never got up for that winning header in the derby!
For me, one of the most iconic, recurring images of the early season was Nemanja's new favourite defensive skill; on long balls up field towards the United defence, the United captain would not only leap for the ball but also demolish the man underneath. Seriously, just take a look at this .gif.
Oh how United have missed their captain this season. Ferdinand has rolled back the years and Evans has progressed nicely, but there is no other player on United's books who can strike fear into opposing attackers like the Serbian.
Having already been ruled out of the preseason tour of South Africa and China, the manager and the fans will be desperate for their captain to return to action sooner rather than later. But I am sure there is nobody more raring to go than the skipper himself.
Season Grade: n/a
Stay or Go? Stay
I must admit to having certain reservations about Michael Carrick at the start of the season. In Ferguson's bid to develop Carrick into Paul Scholes' successor as a deep-lying playmaker, Carrick often reverted to "safe" passing as opposed to "clever" passing.
I vividly remember Carrick in one game passing the ball back through the defence to the keeper and in turn receiving a blast of rage from Phil Jones (note: that was the Phil Jones highlight of the season for me).
With Carrick playing alongside a combination of either Giggs, Anderson or Tom Cleverley, the United midfield was workable, but ultimately lacked character and confidence at the start of the campaign. All that changed when Paul Scholes returned.
With his mentor by his side at the heart of midfield, Carrick became a new player. Passing with confidence and controlling the game in their own subtle way; the partnership brought a sense of stability to a position wherein United fans have long called for reinforcements.
His exclusion from the England squad is a massive miscalculation from Roy Hodgson. There is no other player in that side who has the ball retention skills that Michael Carrick can boast. Yet, what is surely England's loss will almost certainly be United's gain in the future.
Season Grade: B+
Stay or Go? Stay
When Paul Scholes returned from retirement in January, a few eyebrows were raised. Not if you were a fan of United though. Scholes return to the midfield brought new confidence and class to an area of the field where United were often found wanting.
The question United fans have to be asking at this point though is: Should we really be relying on the 37-year-old to be the team's midfield playmaker? At this point, should there not be a replacement in the ranks who can do his job?
If Sir Alex had his wish, he would be at the club already and his name would be Wesley Sneijder, but for the sake of everyone's sanity I think we best leave that little debate for another article.
While Paul Scholes still feels he has something to offer the club he will continue to play, and I will continue to admire the finest all-round player to ever have tread the Old Trafford turf.
Scholes has probably forgot more about the game than many young pretenders have learned and so long as he continues to ooze such class, such wisdom and such hunger, he will continue to be the epitome of a veteran playing majestically way after his peak.
Season Grade: A
Stay or Go? Stay
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