5 Changes Manchester United Must Make to Reclaim the Champions League
When Manchester United won the Champions League in 2007-08, they boasted a team worthy of being called the best in the world. Cristiano Ronaldo was coming off a then-ridiculous 42-goal season, and Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez were two of the world's best forwards.
Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand were both still in their prime and nearly impossible to beat in defense. Paul Scholes was still a midfield magician, and Ryan Giggs an experienced but still pacey wide midfielder.
The team was so good that names like Owen Hargreaves, Gerard Pique, Nani and Anderson served as rotation players or just backups over the course of the 2007-08 season.
Four years forward, the silverware has certainly not decreased at Manchester United; in fact, the club have picked up two Premier League titles, two League Cups and one Club World Cup in addition to a number of runner-up finishes.
But while Sir Alex Ferguson has managed to keep the silverware coming in, the squad's quality has greatly dropped. Many of the stars of 2007-08 have aged and have not been adequately replaced. Many also don't seem to have a heir apparent in the current United squad.
If Sir Alex Ferguson's team hopes to reclaim the Champions League this season, they'll need to make up that gap in squad quality between now and 2007-08. Here are five ways they can work to do this.
One More Massive Signing
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As nice as Shinji Kagawa is, by himself, he doesn't represent too great of an upgrade for Manchester United.
United have very solid options up front and on the wings, which are the two positions Kagawa naturally plays in. Kagawa can also be included at the expense of a central midfielder, though he himself is not a central midfielder and, as such, destabalizes teams not used to not playing with two central midfielders.
Making a final major signing in the summer, like Robin van Persie, for example, would put Manchester United's 2012-13 attacking triumvirate on par with 2007-08's Champions League-winning team.
(Robin Van Persie's signing was completed during the writing of this article, so United can cross this one off their list!)
Trust Tom Cleverley
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For a long time, Manchester United have had a major problem with midfield quality. Since Paul Scholes retired initially, central midfield has been a huge weak spot for Manchester United and an area not utilized well by the team.
Paul Scholes hasn't been quite as good (understandably) on his return as he was prior, and though many have tried to step into his boots, none have shown the high-level creative instincts required to thrive in the position.
That's why it is imperative that SAF put his faith in Cleverley. It's plenty apparent that neither Wesley Sneijder nor Luka Modric is making the switch over to Old Trafford any time soon, and with Darren Fletcher still indefinitely sidelined, Cleverley is pretty much SAF's only option for the new attack-minded midfielder.
Not that he's a bad option whatsoever. Cleverley looked highly impressive last preseason and started the season well before running into injury trouble. He's looked good again this summer for United and England, and if he can stay fit, should be a good option in midfield alongside Michael Carrick.
Ditch the 4-4-2
I've already made this point about United several times before, so I'll just quote myself here:
Manchester United may have occasionally utilized other formations in last year's campaign, but their primary formation was usually the 4-4-2.
While the 4-4-2 has a long history of being one of the most reliable, consistent formations in the English game, Euro 2012 showed that it really has gone out of style, and struggles to keep up with many of the formations of modern football.
Against Italy for example, England's 4-4-2 was badly schooled by Italy's 4-3-1-2, and Italy's domination of possession and shots was largely due to how inadequately the 4-4-2 dealt with Andrea Pirlo.
Now that Manchester United have recruited Shinji Kagawa, an attacking midfielder who can also operate as a second striker, it makes little sense for them to stick to their 4-4-2.
The 4-4-1-1 is an option, with Kagawa playing behind Wayne Rooney, and the 4-2-3-1 would operate in a similar manner. Both would allow Rooney to focus primarily on scoring goals, and leave the link-up play to Kagawa.
Rotate and Keep Key Players Fit
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There's no denying that Nemanja Vidic was badly missed by United last year. In any given year, Vidic is typically the best defender in the EPL, and United really missed his presence in front of David de Gea last season.
But Vidic isn't the only United player who was missed last season. Chris Smalling, Anderson, Tom Cleverley and Darren Fletcher all missed big spells of playing time. All would've helped United launch a better campaign in the Champions League.
Next year, SAF will have to be a little bit more careful with his players if he wants to contend for the CL title. Guys like Smalling, Anderson and Cleverley will all likely be asked to play an important role in United's campaign and will be needed for depth and talent off and on the bench.
Unload Unhappy Players
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While I've always been a big proponent of good squad rotation and depth, too much depth can have a negative effect on a team's performance.
Up front, for example, Dimitar Berbatov has become entirely surplus to requirements. Whatever the formation, it's highly unlikely that United will play more than two forwards or forward-esque players.
That means it's Rooney and one of Kagawa, Danny Welbeck, Javier Hernandez or Dimitar Berbatov, in that order of preference.
Given that United will have three solid, talented options for one spot without Berbatov, it's highly unlikely Berbatov will see much playing time at all next season, and it'd be better to give him the opportunity to finish out his career elsewhere.
There are also many strikers from the youth system who could be given the chance to prove their worth as a result.
Federico Macheda and Correia Bebe are another two players who've been given many chances to prove their worth and should probably part company with United. But their situations don't need to be as urgently addressed as Berbatov's does.