5 Things We've Learned from Manchester United's 2012-13 Season
With the title sewn up by April, a bitter exit in the Champions League and the unexpected retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, the 2012/13 campaign has been a tumultuous one for Manchester United.
The club bid farewell to its greatest ever manager in the most fitting of fashions as United beat Swansea at home and lifted the Premier League trophy, but a disappointing defeat to Real Madrid and the continued speculation concerning Wayne Rooney's future have ensured the season was a little shy of vintage.
Still, with so many ups and downs coming in the space of just 10 short months, what have we learned from Manchester United this season?
1. The Premier League crown returned in extravagant Manchester United fashion
When Manchester United brushed aside Aston Villa 3-0 at Old Trafford on March 22, they confirmed their regaining of the Premier League with four games to spare.
What a marked contrast to the final-day drama of last season that saw the enemy, Manchester City, snatch the title from United's grasp with the last kick of a frenetic game.
But the idea of strolling to the title is not one that is beyond Ferguson and his charges: In both the 1999/00 and 2000/01 seasons, the club marched to victory with 18-point and 10-point gaps between themselves and second-placed teams. Similarly, the club is set to break its record 90-point tally for a single season if they defeat West Brom on the final day of fixtures.
On the back of accusations of the current crop of players not comprising a vintage side, there is the question of whether the overall quality of the league is weaker this season compared to previous seasons. Either way, United have romped to the title, characteristically dismantling the smaller sides in addition to accomplishing vital wins in the biggest games; all while enjoying an unbeaten run that stretched from November to April (18 matches).
Despite the minimum seven-point gap that will separate themselves from Manchester City at the conclusion of results, United have produced some dogged performances indicative of the never-say-dieattitude that has been instilled under the Ferguson reign. On numerous occasions, United have come from behind to clinch games.
2. It is time to wave goodbye to Wayne Rooney
Sir Alex revealed during his final post-match interview at Old Trafford with the BBC that the absent Wayne Rooney was not included in the squad due to his request for a transfer. This latest twist in the debacle that is Rooney's relationship with Manchester United comes off the back of a frankly lacklustre season that has seen him playing second fiddle to the superb Robin van Persie.
It's ironic, really, that his previous transfer request was allegedly hinged upon his desire to see the club sign more "star" players—as long as they don't pinch his place in the side it would seem.
Disillusioned with his removal from pivotal figure within the side, Rooney's form has been largely inconsistent throughout the campaign and was quite patently highlighted in his absence from the starting XI for the Champions League second leg against Real Madrid. Rumours that Rooney was to be sold during the summer were rife, and the rumours appear likely to come to fruition.
In truth, with Ferguson retiring and the imminent shockwaves that will reverberate through the club, the last thing the team needs is an individual putting his own needs before the club. Rooney has not shown the kind of form that seen him elevated to the status of "world-class" for a good two years, and his position within the team is no longer secure enough for him to be making demands.
Van Persie carries the goalscoring mantle with aplomb, while Shinji Kagawa is slowly emerging as a genuine talent in the pocket formerly marshalled by Rooney. And, even if a sensational return for Cristiano Ronaldo doesn't materialise, it is high time that Manchester United simply say a forlorn goodbye to a player that was once billed for the very top.
3. The club needs to toughen its spine
Despite the belated realisation that Michael Carrick is a very, very good footballer and the excellent seasons that David de Gea and Rio Ferdinand have enjoyed, there is the feeling that Manchester United's spine is currently being fused by the same sort of brace that sorted out Stone Cold Steve Austin's neck: it does a job, but it's only a temporary fix.
While a decade on the Texas Rattlesnake now enjoys a far healthier spinal column, incumbent manager David Moyes will need need to assess the well-being of the United spine and also seek some long-term solutions.
David de Gea's form has been enviable, while Michael Carrick and Robin van Persie would be well-placed to continue their excellent endeavours, but the centre of midfield still looks decidedly shaky in its current state. Neither Cleverley, Anderson nor Giggs have particularly impressed with their performances alongside Carrick, and were it not for the Geordie's imperious form, Manchester United may have failed to take a grip of a fair few games this season.
The Red Devils still need an enforcer to sit alongside Carrick and assist in dictating the proceedings. Carrick is superb in transitioning from defence to attack, but he would be helped by a real terror in the centre of the park: someone willing to do the dirty work and free up a little time on the ball. Daniele De Rossi has always been the perfect example of this type of player, while Juventus' Arturo Vidal is also a great candidate.
The second area of apparent weakness is the centre of the defence, where although Rio Ferdinand has excelled, he is 34 years of age, and club captain Nemanja Vidic has endured another season troubled by injuries.
Phil Jones will surely mature into the position at the heart of the defence after a series of accomplished showings this season, but a little more cover would be of huge benefit. It may even have to come to displacing the Ferdinand/Vidic partnership that has dominated for seven years if either of the pair cannot continue to uphold their exquisitely high standards.
4. Robin van Persie must continue his form
Much has been made of Manchester City's frighteningly pathetic relinquishing of their Premier League crown, and the capture of Robin van Persie by Manchester United went some way to tipping the scales back in the Old Trafford club's favour.
Whether or not he was the definitive difference between the two sides remains subjective, but you cannot deny the impact he had for Sir Alex Ferguson.
United raced ahead of their rivals in the Premier League: Even when they were underperforming at the back, they were outscoring teams, and it is in the goalscoring stakes where one of the greatest differences between the two Manchester teams is most apparent. The Red Devils have scored 19 more than their cross-city rivals (81 to 62) of which 25 have come from the insatiable Robin van Persie. In contrast, City's top scorer is Edin Dzeko with 13.
If Manchester United are looking to retain their crown and embark on a run of three championship wins as requested by departing boss Sir Alex at the 2013 trophy parade, then Robin van Persie must maintain his extremely high standard of performance.
True enough, the squad set a record with 20 Premier League goalscorers, but it is not just the goalscoring burden that the flying Dutchman shoulders. He has provided eight assists in all competitions and offers a genuine threat from set-pieces. Furthermore, his ability to play on the shoulder or in the hole allows him to be so adaptable within whatever United set-up he's deployed.
To dub the champions a "one-man club" shows a certain level of naivety, but it would be equally stupid to assume Manchester United could successfully compete on all fronts without their star man for a long period of time.
5. The future is bright at Old Trafford
The departure of Sir Alex heralds the end of the most successful period of any English football club, and to continue his tradition will be a difficult job for anyone to accomplish.
In David Moyes, however, Manchester United have a manager of the same ilk: a tough, determined man-manager whose eye for developing youngsters into top players is well documented. He inherits a squad that may not be as strong as the '98-'01 or '06-'09 sides, but what this squad has is potential.
The average age of the side is 24, and the squad is rife with players boasting further potential: Phil Jones, Shinji Kagawa, Chris Smalling, Rafael, as well as incoming Crystal Palace starlet Wilfried Zaha. Fuse with this the experience of Ferdinand, Vidic, Carrick, Van Persie and Giggs, and you have the foundations for a strong team.
As mentioned earlier, there are significant areas for improvement, noticeably the centre of midfield, but Moyes has always been shrewd in the transfer market. In recent times he has brought Marouane Fellaini, Steven Pienaar, Kevin Mirallas, Leighton Baines, Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin to Everton; most at affordable prices, and all proving to be huge successes.
With the resources available to him at Manchester United, one can be hopeful that Moyes can identify and acquire the right sort of players to continue the club's winning tradition.
There is little reason for pessimism despite the departing shadow of Sir Alex Ferguson still looming over the proud club because the foundations that the great man laid 26 years ago—and has repeatedly strengthened—will set Moyes in good stead for continuing the Manchester United legacy.
Now that the club occupy the perch upon which Liverpool once sat, there will be many relishing the chance to see them fall, but in Moyes, the squad at his disposal and the entire set-up at Old Trafford, United fans can be optimistic it won't be anytime soon.
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