Sounding like a Red Terminator, Sir Alex has warned new Premiership champions Chelsea that United “will be back” next season.
The manager’s praise for Blues boss Carlo Ancelotti impressive achievement in guiding Chelsea to the Premiership title in his first season in English football, was prefaced by a lament that one bad week had cost United domestic and European titles.
Chelsea won it because United threw it away, was the gist of his argument.
This is the official spin on a season in which, depending on the point of view, United have regressed to second place or have coped magnificently with the loss and ageing of key players to finish as league runners-up.
As always, the truth lies somewhere between the two polar opposites. Chelsea are deservedly champions of England because they have been the most consistent and coped better with the loss of important players. The Blues have also scored more goals and suffered fewer defeats than their nearest rival.
This was not the outcome Sir Alex and his coaching staff had expected, given that for two years, they have talked up Chelsea as an old team in decline.
With Edwin Van der Sar, Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes, Patrice Evra, John O'Shea, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville hardly in the first flushes of youth, the description now befits United as much as it does Chelsea’s pensioners.
The age factor is likely to make more difficult United’s assault on the league title, with the division certain to be even harder to win next year.
Chelsea are primed for expensive renewal whilst Manchester City are pledged to buy their way into the Champions League party.
After a disastrous campaign, Liverpool can hope to be rescued by new owners and perhaps a different manager. Arsenal have the cash for the three players that would transform them into a great side. Spurs should be competitive too.
So, how should United respond to theses challenges? Indeed, what changes are needed in view of the surrender of the Premiership title and the club’s new spectator status in Europe?
Re-evaluate Coaching, Tactics and Formation
These are dark and confusing days for all of us who believe United’s future lies in the complete and utter embrace of a 4-3-3 formation.
The manager offered considerable comfort to adherents by bolting the system onto United’s counter-attacking style. It paid dividends when United routed AC Milan in the first Champions League knock-out stage and trounced Arsenal at the Emirates.
However, from a tactical point of view, the system’s defining match of the past campaign came at home to Bayern Munich.
United overwhelmed the visitors with a high-tempo first half display characterised by pace, incisive movement and three goals, with Wayne Rooney the pivot of an attack flanked by two out and out wingers.
Alas, the performance unravelled after Raphael was sent off for two bookable offences and Rooney as forced injured from the field to be replaced by John O’Shea.
Sir Alex’s reaction highlighted Old Trafford’s current tactical conservatism when faced with European opponents. After the match, the manager was a pitiful sight to behold, blaming “the Germans” of Munich for their deserved success and his own failures.
This may hint at Old Trafford’s tactical exhaustion, as well as a failure of personnel to adapt to the circumstances of the match.
It also points to the weakness of United’s interpretation of the 4-3-3 system, in that it depends too greatly upon the unreliable fitness of the central front man. An impotent midfield narrows the team’s goalscoring potential too.
Rooney’s all action style makes him the ideal lead striker for the 4-3-3 formation that has been successful for United these past three years, especially in the Champions League. Without the England striker, the team loses its way.
That is why the manager will be under intense pressure this summer to revert to a more orthodox 4-4-2 formation, with its emphasis on two attackers.
Chelsea, fielding Drogba and Anelka, were rewarded with 103 league goals and the Premiership title. They also slipped out of Europe somewhat prematurely when losing to Inter Milan.
This emphasises the glaring weakness of 4-4-2 , a formation which underwrites the failure of teams using it to progress with any degree of regularity to Champions League finals.
A month after United’s elimination, Jose Mourinho offered a master class in how to win a game with 10 men when his Inter side befuddled a great Barcelona team in the Champions League semi-final second leg.
A similar feat should not have been beyond this United side. The manager must learn from the reversal and absorb the lessons of this season’s other tactical failures, even if it means removing Mike Phelan as his right hand man.
Equally, he must develop an effective Plan B which allows the team to compete without Wayne Rooney. The alternatives—a burdened Berbatov, a bubbling Macheda or a busted Owen—were, largely unsuccessful in the past campaign.
Remove United’s ‘Dependency Culture’
In hindsight, the past season may appear to many as a return to 2005, with the outstanding Wayne Rooney at the peak of his powers and carrying the team.
For this correspondent, the United of the late 1980’s offers a more compelling comparison.
Then, as now, United appeared overly dependent on one player. Bryan Robson was head and shoulders above his teammates, as Rooney is now but it was only when Ferguson was able to wean his team away from its Robson-dependence that it was able to succeed.
That is the task facing United circa 2010, a challenge made more considerable by the club’s indebtedness.
Seven league defeats provide the clearest explanation of United’s failure to win a fourth straight league title.
Injuries to key players proved calamitous—the defeat against Fulham with Carrick and Fletcher in defence was particularly galling—but a team of United’s means should not seek comfort from such excuses.
The manager has concluded that changes are necessary and has brought in Chris Smalling from Fulham. The player’s meteoric rise will delight those who believe in fairy tales but is unlikely to frighten the likes of Torres and Drogba.
That leaves Ferguson praying that he will start the campaign with Nemanja Vidic still in United’s colours. The Serb’s importance to the club has grown in proportion to the concerns over Rio Ferdinand’s long term fitness.
Gossip from Serbia suggests that the defender’s rumoured interest in a move away from Old Trafford reflects more a dissatisfaction with his place in United’s pay scale. If a salary increase is all it takes to keep the Vidic family in Cheshire, United should make it happen.
Otherwise, the club will have to spend big on a commanding defender with Premiership experience, at a time when the available cash is earmarked for more urgent team rebuilding. Stoke would want £12 million for United old-boy Shawcross. It would take much more to bring in Bolton’s Cahill or Fulham’s Hangeland.
Retaining Vidic will ease fears about United’s defensive strength in depth. Edwin Van Der Sar is nearly 40 years old but neither Kuszczak nor Foster show the form or qualities required to oust the veteran.
A fit Evans meets Premiership standards but another injury-wrecked season from Wes Brown should extinguish the manager’s patience.
Next season is critical for the right back Raphael. United’s weakness on the right flank is stark and the Brazilian could lock down the position for years if he can show that his forward adventure is matched by a superior defensive discipline.
Reasonably chastised for his important contribution to United’s Champions League elimination, the Brazilian will also need to show greater maturity.
As mentioned in these pages, United may well find themselves fighting off interest from Real Madrid for Patrice Evra , the club’s outstanding defender this season. A lucrative offer might be too good to refuse, leaving the manager hoping that Raphael’s twin Fabio finally emerges as a defender able to fulfil his promise.
Alternatively, the manager will trust that John O’Shea will be able to play though the season. The loss of the versatile understudy was keenly felt this term.
Defender of the Year : Patrice Evra—solid, consistent and enterprising. If only he could score!
Buy : No one if Vidic stays.
Sell : Brown
Improve midfield strength
The dramatic loss of Anderson’s form and commitment highlights the central weakness of the current United team, with midfield limitations now the greatest handicap to United’s return to title-winning ways.
After calling last summer for 10 goals from each of his midfielders, Sir Alex has every right to be disappointed.
Of course, United have kept their ship afloat thanks to the sterling work of Fletcher and some impressive quarterback displays from Scholes. But next season requires more cunning and improved strength, running power and goal threat if United are to progress.
Some delightful players—Gourcuff and Modric—are linked to the club but it remains to be seen if United have the money to compete for such talents.
It is hoped that United’s scouts have identified the next Michael Essien or Frank Lampard, the two Premiership midfielders who would most enhance United’s engine room.
The manager has hailed Lampard’s contribution in the past and Chelsea’s success this year is explained in large part by the club’s possession of the finest English midfielder of the past five years.
A player with the England midfielder’s consistency, team ethic and goal power would transform United’s engine room and give the side a source of goals that has been missing since Scholes and Keane were in their prime.
Darron Gibson should view next season as his year of opportunity but will need to show more rigour in his passing and greater vision as he moves from defence to attack if he is to cement the positive impression made this term.
By contrast, Michael Carrick’s United career has stalled and he is widely tipped to move to a less demanding environment.
The player’s arrival from Spurs kick-started United’s latest glory-fuelled epoch. His decline may well come to be seen as symbolic of the end of United’s era.
Ferguson will strain every sinew to disprove such a theory but would be ill-advised to pin all his hopes for a midfield rebound on Owen Hargreaves return.
Nor should he expect improvement from the enigmatic Park, or that Ryan Giggs, at near 38 years old, is a genuine candidate for 90 minute central midfield shifts.
Midfielder of the year : Fletcher—disproved again Keane’s shameless taunt
Buy : Toulalan (Lyon) for his versatility and anticipation if Hargreaves cannot return to his previous level.
Sell : Carrick