Last season, Manchester United were minutes away from “delaying” their neighbours' first Premier League title. The look on Ferguson's and the players' faces as the news came in that Sergio Aguero had scored in final moments was priceless, and it also showed how precarious success and failure is in football: one kick of the ball can change history and in the case of Manchester, even create a power shift.
In the aftermath of that final game, and I am sure before it, Alex Ferguson must have accepted that his side were not as good as their rivals. One cannot ignore the money that has been injected into City in such a short time, yet relatively speaking it is money which United have used in order to dominate English football for so long. Yet last season perhaps for the first time in decades, yet perhaps not the last, the blue side of Manchester was better in all areas than the red side.
Last summer was supposed to be a massive one for United in terms of rebuilding. The side which was embarrassed against Barca in the Champions League final at Wembley clearly needed investment and improvement. Their rivals too Man City had just won the FA Cup and were clearly a side on the rise, whereas United, who although champions and Champions League finalists, were showing their frailties in certain areas.
With the retirements of leaders like Van Der Saar, Neville and Scholes, United were losing a lot of experience which as last season showed, was dramatically missed. United needed to replace these players and improve the squad, and with £60 million, the kitty was not small. However, poor decision making meant that £60 million was wasted with the intention of building for the future. However, this logic is somewhat flawed for several reasons.
Wasted on potential or just mediocrity?
Firstly, bringing in a young, foreign goalkeeper not used to the English league or language was always going to bring a difficult period. And De Gea made mistakes throughout the season which cost United valuable points in the league and meant their Champions League run was cut emphatically short. It was a risk, and one which in United did not need to make. Lessons from previous attempts to replace goalkeepers must have made Ferguson aware that experience is key for success to occur, in this purchase he failed.
As too he did with Ashley Young. At £17 million he was not cheap, and when you consider that players like Mata were purchased for slightly more, it would have been better for United to purchase a younger and better player, than one who had failed to convince fully even at Villa. Although Young made some good impressions at United, he is too much of a fairweather player, who lacks consistency and too often is not seen or heard from in important matches.
Finally £20 million went on Phil Jones, a player with much potential, yet unproven, ill disciplined tactically and as the season has shown, has much to learn to be a top player at United. The truth is, while City were buying Aguero and Nasri (who United went for yet he chose higher wages and the chance to win things at City) United were spending too much money on unproven players.
This is not a policy which will lead to success, especially when your closest rivals are purchasing genuine world class talent. It was therefore no surprise that City won the league, what was a surprise was that it was so close, credit to Ferguson and also criticism of Mancini for that, yet the truth is that City deserved it, they played better throughout the season.
Major improvements needed
Ferguson must have known throughout last season that his side were not good enough, going out so early in Europe and playing so averagely throughout the year could not have told him anything but, and the return of Scholes indicated as much. And so this summer expectations were high in regards to his ability to go and get top talent to improve the squad. After wasting £60 million last season, it was key that the signings this summer would show City and rest of Europe that United were serious about returning to the top of English football. And yet, with only a matter of weeks until the start of the season, United have brought in only one top talent and another with just potential. Again he appears unwilling to address the issues which have plagued United in the last couple of years.
Shinji Kagawa is a top player and has proven this in the past couple of seasons in the Bundesliga for Dortmund. Improved and guided by his previous manager Jurgen Klopp, Kagawa was a major factor in Dortmund winning back to back titles. His movement, speed and skill are all needed for a United side who have regressed tactically from a fluid attacking side, to a more rigid crossing side, where although successful against many sides, it is when up against the best sides where United have been found out. Thus the arrival of Kagawa will give Rooney a player to link with and cut through defences.
Nick Powell however is a player like Bebe, Obertan and Hernandez who represents a small gamble. The investment is small and thus if his returns are profitable, a la Hernandez, than Ferguson will be commended, yet if he fails to raise his level to what is required, he will not be deemed a failure. There is nothing wrong with this policy if the club is buying proven quality talent as well. However, for too many seasons now United have not brought in the required talent to compete with the top sides in Europe, which is where they will be judged.
Key positions required to fill
This being said, United require three more signings this summer in order to have any chance of competing domestically and in Europe. And they require proven quality which will improve the side. There was no surprise when Rooney had his outburst two seasons ago, United were simply not good enough and it was only based on the poorness of sides around them such as Arsenal and Liverpool, a capitulation from Chelsea and the building presence of City, that United won the league and alleviated Rooney’s concerns. Yet Rooney was right, and this summer Ferguson needs to improve the quality of the first XI.
This being said, there is no doubt that United MUST get Robin Van Persie. Player of the season last year, which was deserved solely on his ability to single handily save Arsene Wenger’s job by achieving third place, has made RVP a wanted man. His ability to stay fit allowed him to prove his world class strikers ability and there it is no criticism that he wishes to leave and achieve more than Arsenal can offer him.
United and RVP are a perfect fit because simply they need each other. If RVP went to City then he could expect a high wage and trophies in the coming seasons, which seems the perfect choice. However, at United he has a chance of being the saviour, a position he found himself in last season at Arsenal. He clearly enjoys this role, he took the captains role in his stride and it improved him as a player.
As for United, they need a leader and a goal scorer like him in order to compete with City, it is imperative that they capture Van Persie over their rivals because they need him and they cannot allow City to have him. Thus, United need to match City’s offer and promise RVP that he will be key to their side in the quest to win the title. City have a strikeforce already which would make any team shiver, making it difficult to see where he would fit in that side, especially if they opt to play one forward with three creative midfielders behind.
RVP must go to United to make next season remotely interesting, because if he doesn’t, United will not be able to compete and City will walk away with league. If he goes to United will then have a real attacking force, the ability to play four attacking players of Rooney, RVP, Kagawa, Valencia and Nani with a strong bench of Young, Welbeck and Hernandez will mean they have more depth, variability and importantly potent attacking ability to score goals. Yet scoring goals was not the problem, conceding them was.
Ferguson needs to address the issue which he has ignored or neglected for too long. Roy Keane left United in 2005 and was replaced with Owen Hargreaves, who unfortunately was ruined by injury. His replacement was Darren Fletcher, who excelled in central midfield and became a major part to United’s success from 2009-2011. However, the curse of the midfielder struck again with Fletcher being diagnosed with illness. And his replacement has still not been found.
It was a blow to United in 2009 and 2011 against Barcelona when Fletcher was out, simply Giggs was not good enough or cut out for the role and in recent years United have attempted to mould Anderson from a number 10 into a ball winning midfielder, in this quest they have failed and in so doing have exposed Michael Carrick and made United vulnerable and weak in midfield. By not addressing this position, Ferguson has done an injustice to the fans and his players. If he wishes to be successful this coming season and beyond, he must purchase a quality defensive midfielder.
When you look at the successful sides across club and international football in the past decade, there are players such as Keane, Vieria, Makelele, Essien, Busquets, Mashcerano, Yaya Toure and Khedira who have been instrumental in making their teams defensively solid and secure in order to give freedom to players further forward to express their game. Brasil have done it for decades, playing a block defence with two holding midfielders, which allows the full backs to join the attacks, with dangerous effect. A tactical necessity which seems so important to be successful has been neglected by Ferguson.
Now I believe he plays with deeper midifielders, yet Carrick is not good enough defensively to do the job required, he is the Xavi to Barca’s Busquets, and thus United need a Busquets, Makelele type player in order to improve the strength of their midfield. There are two players who fit this role perfectly; either Yann M’Vila or Chiek Tiote.
M’Vila is the better player in terms of ball retention and technical quality. His potential seems very high and it is no surprise he has been much sought after by top clubs around Europe. His proposed move to Arsenal seemed a done deal, yet as always with Arsenal, something has held it up. This is United’s chance to jump in and snatch him away. M’Vila next to Carrick will make United a much better side immediately and with Rooney dropping in to make a three man midfield, United’s midfield will actually look strong and will be able to compete with the best of Europe. United require a presence which intimidates the opposition and improves the solidity of the defensive unit.
If M’Vila is not available then United will not be getting a poorer player in Tiote. In fact, they may actually be getting a more consistent and reliable one. Whereas M’Vila offers much potential, Tiote offers experience and proven quality. His two seasons at Newcastle have shown that he understands the league and can handle the physical aspects of it. He has actually dominated United on more than one occasion and those performances must have alerted Ferguson to how he could contribute to United’s midfield.
If United and Ferguson are serious about challenging for the title this season, then the proof will be in bringing in a quality defensive midfielder. If this does not happen then I expect teams to dominate United in midfield, over run them like Bilbao, Basel, Wigan and Newcastle did last season, and which will mean another season without a trophy, for United, the fans and Ferguson, this just cannot happen.
Ruthlessness over sentiment
Finally, United need to address a position which been overlooked for two years. Patrice Evra was affected heavily by the situation which happened in the World Cup and he brought these issues with him to United, he lost his concentration, focus and discipline. Added to this was the death of his brother and the Suarez issue, all of which understandably distracted his focus again and degraded his performances on the pitch.
Amazingly he was given the captains armband, where he did not perform or lead the side well enough to warrant the leadership of the side. It seemed more of a token gesture for the loyalty shown to the club during the Rooney affair, which although commendable, should not be a reason for making a player captain. Sentiment should not cloud a managers decision making, yet unfortunately with Ferguson it has done.
Quite simply, United need to replace Evra at left back. He is not good enough for this level anymore and United have been poorer defensively because of him. Jordi Alba would have been a great purchase, yet more for attacking purposes. Leighton Baines represents a better defensive purchase for United and would be an ideal replacement for Evra. Add to this his assist rate for Everton and United would be getting a major asset to their side, in a position which has contributed little attacking prowess and much defensive frailty in the past couple of seasons.
If United wish to be successful then they must go for three signings this summer to improve the XI, not just the squad or the future of the team. The side has become mediocre in terms of United being a top player in world football and it is through their excellent manager and his drive which has kept them competitive. With the return of Vidic (whose injuries are becoming worryingly common) United will be having a world class player return to their defence, and if he stays fit, will reduce United’s defensive record, yet there are positions in the XI which need improving.
Ferguson is set to embark on one of his most difficult seasons for decades as manager of Man Utd, he faces what I would regard as a near impossible task of overcoming City and thus he must invest and improve his squad if he wishes to end his career at United successfully. There is no doubt as to the amazing job Ferguson has done at United, no other manager in the history of football can compete or compare to what he has done at this one club. His ability to evolve the squad, stay competitive and overcome each new challenge, has been credit to his ability as a manager, coach and leader.
Yet he now faces his most difficult task, which he failed in last season and without more investment he will fail again. He still has time to make this coming season a success, yet must act quickly and decisively to fix the problems which threaten to produce another barren season at Old Trafford.
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