Manchester United: 10 Things We Learned About the Champions in 2011
Last week's UNICEF Gala Dinner was the ideal opportunity to come together and forget about troubles like the Champions League and an injury crisis. It's important at Christmas for sporting millionaires to remember what's really important in the world.
As the end of the year approaches, it is also an opportunity to reflect on what we ourselves have learned about Manchester United.
There are many micro and macro lessons that have been adequately—and often admirably—discussed between writers and readers on Bleacher Report.
The list that follows is by no means comprehensive. It will hopefully excite debate, and we would welcome contrary opinions and other suggestions.
Above all, there can be no real argument that overall we have learned that Manchester United is a team in transition with stable, supportive ownership.
Better Than Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool; No Longer Better Than City?
However much it hurt to sit through the City match, I shall never forget the euphoria of the thrashing of Arsenal. This photo will remain as my mobile screen saver for years to come...
Immediately after that match, there was widespread media speculation that Arsene Wenger's days were numbered.
It is to Sir Alex Ferguson's credit that, despite already being humbled by Manchester City and Crystal Palace, the condemnation of the manager was nowhere near as vociferous as Wenger's, when United exited the Champions League.
There may be a lesson for fickle fans to learn from the humble and professional way the Arsenal manager handled himself in the immediate aftermath. And despite losing two of their key players, his team had gone on to win seven of their last eight Premier League matches before they met City on Sunday.
All three of our historic Premier League rivals are also in transition.
It is widely acknowledged that Andre Villas-Boas is undertaking a rebuilding process no less fundamental than Sir Alex; the difference being that Chelsea are likely to use less Academy talent to do so.
If the rumours are to be believed, Anelka and Drogba are already on their way, maybe as early as January; Malouda and Kalou are wanted in Russia; Lampard and Terry are being slowly faded out (Terry's exit may be even faster if he is found guilty of racial abuse in court).
Meanwhile, at Liverpool, despite the massive amounts spent in the last few years, Kenny Dalglish is having to manage with much less ability to rotate and—like Chelsea—a misfiring striker. Suarez has been one of the highlights of the season so far and something to build on, but his conviction on racial abuse charges may lead to him leaving these shores, sadly.
Statistics don't usually lie and—despite all the suggestions that the title-winning team last year was one of the worst ever—United's major competitors must be deemed to be even further back.
With the exception of Manchester City.
The period of the African Nations Cup may yet test a City squad that has had a remarkably injury-free season.But no-one can deny that they have been the best and most consistent Premier League side so far.
Sir Alex Ferguson prides himself on the values of rotation to produce a squad that is fitter and more match-fresh than rivals in the title run-in. United also have more points than at the same time last season.
Those who fancy their chances of toppling the Red Devils from their perch would do well to remember that they are normally slow starters. This year, United were out of the blocks fast, including coming from behind to beat City in the Community Shield.
That match excited belief that Sir Alex would be able to repeat his 'Fergie's Fledglings' feat of 1995, as Cleverley and Welbeck burst to the fore.
There are other pretenders, of course—Harry Redknapp is adamant that Tottenham Hotspur can win the League.
With both the Manchester clubs eliminated from the Champions League, the jury is still out as to who is top dog. But despite the doomsayers last year and an almost unprecedented injury crisis, it looks like Manchester United are still better than Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool.
United Needed to Rebuild--Again
They have both left—and neither has been replaced. Paul Scholes is, by the opinion of many great players, one of the greatest midfielders of all time.
Roy Keane has been argued to be the greatest Premier League player of all time. It is hoped that his free expression doesn't permanently damage his reputation in supporters' memories.
Too many people have cited the lack of a replacement for either as reason for the two losses against Barcelona.
Michael Carrick has come in for an unfair and unrealistic barrage of criticism from sections of United fans—because he's not Scholes or Keane. He would walk into most teams in Spain or Italy and gets little or no credit for his pass completion stats or the number of attacks he breaks up.
But Carrick is now 30 and, although he can be one of the focal points around which Sir Alex builds his next dynasty, we are about to see a transformation much more profound than in 1995 and "Fergie's Fledglings."
The Barcelona Model
Many people cite Barcelona as the role model for future world domination. It has become almost unarguable that this Barcelona squad is the greatest in history. There are too many players with sublime talent who would walk into a World XI.
Although, when people become misty eyed about Barca, they tend to believe the team is home-grown, the squad is being constantly renewed by imported talent. Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez have fitted like hand into glove; the next major import, by 2014, is almost certain to be Neymar. Scary.
So even the greatest team of all time is constantly renewing itself and two of their graduates went away to finishing school in arguably the toughest league in the world—Pique to United and Fabregas to Arsenal.
The Red Revolution
What is happening at Old Trafford, however, may in some ways be even more profound. While Barcelona have emerged from a Spanish history dominated by memories of Real Madrid—the previous greatest team ever—Manchester United are evolving from their own history as the greatest English team ever.
The pattern of developing youth was laid down in the 1930s, after United nearly went out of existence, but it was the great Sir Matt Busby who institutionalised it and his young charges won the first five FA Youth Cups.
But for the Munich disaster, United may have dominated the 60s, 70 and 80s, as well as the last 20 years of Premier League football.
Sir Alex Ferguson has never been shy of developing youth and giving it a chance. He inherited that tradition when he took over and was mentored by Sir Matt in his early years.
Last year, many people suggested that United had the worst squad for years. Now, they are clamouring for Sir Alex to open his purse in January and buy a world class midfielder. Rumour has it that he is in negotiation for Gaitan next summer.
In the meantime, the ECL exit may have a silver lining. While United's tradition is to go out and try to win every match (except against Barcelona where, like Santos, they fell into the trap of trying not to lose it!), you can bet that The Boss will be seeding his teams with young talent.
Manchester United May Possibly Have Their Greatest Crop of Young Players Ever
Phil Jones is 19, and Wayne Rooney is still only 26, with almost 10 years of Premier League experience under his belt already. They will form part of United's 'spine' for years to come.
What do United Miss with the Retirement of the Old Guard?
In Van der Sar, one of the greatest goalkeepers in history. De Gea has big boots to fill but at only 20 huge talent and all his predecessor's qualities except strength on the cross—yet. Sir Alex will give him every chance to become the greatest keeper in the world.
Paul Scholes had outrageous talent, but Carrick and Rooney have already shown they can ping a sixty yard pass on a sixpence, as has Rio Ferdinand. Cleverley has ability and energy to burn. Rooney is the perfect replacement for the role Scholes used to play in "the hole." Nobody knows how good Paul Pogba can be. And then there's Ravel Morrison...
Roy Keane was a brilliant all-round midfielder who, like Bryan Robson before him, was wholehearted and never less than 100 percent committed. But Phil Jones, at only 19, is already being compared to Duncan Edwards and written up as a future England captain. Meanwhile Tunnicliffe and Brady wait in the wings.
Nobody can pass like Beckham but, finally fit from his ankle injury, Valencia has rediscovered his best form and is sending over a string of sizzling crosses.
Nani is not Ronaldo, but like his compatriot he has a rocket in each foot, has built up his body strength and has become a better team player than Cristiano ever was. He also has the ambition to be the greatest player in the world...
Nobody will ever do what Ryan Giggs has, but Jesse Lingard, Larnell Cole and the Da Silva twins have all shown they possess ball skills in abundance, with a goalscorer's instinct at the end.
Evra's understudy, Zeki Fryers already looks like a Premiership player; Evans has shown outstanding form recently and with Smalling can replace Vidic and Ferdinand. Behind them there is a conveyor belt of centre backs coming through.
And up front, while Macheda has not yet convinced (despite Fergie believing he is the best natural finisher at the club), Hernandez has shocked the world with his talent, Welbeck is England's future centre forward, Will Keane and John Cofie are not far behind.
The difference is that, far more than at Chelsea and Liverpool (though not Arsenal where Wenger has always given youngsters a chance), all these young players will get a chance to prove themselves.
And like Barcelona, most have been coached in the United way; they have grown up together. The difference is that the attackers have been coached to defend and vice versa. If Sir Alex and whoever his successor is can get the tactics right, together with maybe one or at most two key signings, the future could be very bright for this fourth dynasty.
We May Never Win the Champions League While Guardiola Manages Barcelona
In his and many people's minds, Jose Mourinho was the next 'greatest manager ever' and United manager after Sir Alex Ferguson. Now he has faded into the background.
Pep Guardiola may already be the greatest manager ever, when you look at what he has achieved since taking the reins at the Nou Camp. He has averaged one trophy every 16 games!
He has transformed and reinvented Barcelona with his tactical genius. They have no striker, only 'fake' number nines. They take corners to feet, buzz round their opponents like hornets till they win the ball, play midfielders in defence and full backs in attack; and a whole host of other innovations that youngsters learn in La Masia.
The great Liverpool side never watched opponents' videos, they just went out and stamped their own game on the opposition and that is what Barcelona do. They were losing comfortably against Real Madrid, turned the match on its head and walked it.
Sir Alex and others may seek to imitate 'ticky tacky' football (not dissimilar to 'get, give move' preached by Bill Shankly, but played at a far greater pace and with more skill), but these lads learn it from ten. By the time they break into the Barcelona first team, they have played with each other for ten years.
And that is what Sir Alex and Rene Meulenstein are trying to emulate. They may not do it as well as their Spanish counterparts, but this is the most exciting generation of young United talent possibly ever. Like Pep, Sir Alex knows how to buy shrewdly and integrate outsiders into his master-plan.
He may not have a Paul Scholes or a Roy Keane, but since Ronaldo's departure, he has the most close-knit squad and best team spirit for years. That's what makes his rotation policy work.
So United may not win the ECL while Guardiola is at Barca but you can bet your life that the Old Trafford hierarchy would rather line up him as the next manager than the abrasive, pragmatic Jose Mourinho.
Sir Alex Ferguson Is Fallible After All
The photograph of a near septuagenarian who suddenly feels old.
The City hammering was hard to take; the Crystal Palace match was a shambles; the two matches against Basel and the home match against Benfica were a wake-up call.
If Sir Alex was ever going to call time, it was after the shambolic ECL exit. The Europa League will be a humbling experience, even if United win it. Those aren't the 'European nights' Sir Alex lives for.
He is, as ever, pragmatic, however. You can be very sure that the likes of Paul Pogba will get more chances in Europe than they otherwise would have.
Complacency and tactical naivety
There is no doubt that Sir Alex will have warned against complacency when United were given, in many people's opinions, the easiest Group in the Champions League.
Somehow, that didn't translate when United played Basel or Benfica. 2-0 up, against the former at home, they then imploded through extravagant enterprise. As against City, with Vidic absent, Evra could not fill the captaincy vacuum. He led his troops over the top in a cavalier charge and they got humbled.
The manager talked endlessly about being "too open," but how can he blame his players when he is on the touchline and in the dressing room. Maybe after the 8-2 hammering of Arsenal he was sucked into believing Shankly's mantra: "if we score one goal more than them we win." However, the opposition was much thinner on the ground in the 70s.
Irrespective of the injury troubles, which have been almost unprecedented, there have been tactical questions this season. But in the Champions League Final, Sir Alex and his backroom boys showed they had learned nothing since Barcelona beat them last time.
Once again. poor Michael Carrick was shouldered with the role of holding midfielder and the blame, after he was unable to cope with Xavi, Iniesta and Messi all at the same time.
Once again, the European nights master-plan was wheeled out - contain and counter-attack; and once again United were found out as tactically naive. Whether or not Barcelona are the greatest team ever, the match need not have been so one-sided.
The need for a tactical revolution
The United tradition is one of playing attacking football and going out to win every game. As Sir Alex has aged, he has slipped into a European rut of 4-5-1 which, despite the fitness and energy of his squad has now been found out too often.
The irony is that the tactical changes United need will work in Europe and the Premier League and they will fit with the tradition of attacking play and United's evolving squad.
The way forward is surely 3-1-4-2, modified to 3-1-5-1 as appropriate?
Barcelona have no centre-forwards; they simply have a load of players with skill and artistry in abundance who can score goals. They don't belt corners and set-pieces into the penalty area for tall strikers to head home. They play football on the ground, where Bill Shankly said it was meant to be played "that's why it's called foot-ball".
The new "centre back" will need to be first and foremost a footballer, with tackling skills of course, but with mobility, passing as well as heading ability and a willingness to go forward as appropriate. Ferdinand fits the model, but so do Jones, Smalling, Evans and many of the young centre backs coming through. They also play with more space between them.
You then no longer have full backs or wing backs. You have wide players with great ball skill and passing ability and defensive capability. The Da Silva twins, Fryers, Nani and Valencia fit this mould.
You have a holding midfielder who doubles as a "libero." Jones could play that role but so can Gaitan when he comes.
In the centre of the field, in the engine room, you have Xavi and Iniesta equivalents. Creative, attacking midfielders with skill, artistry and goalscoring capability in abundance. Cleverley, Rooney, Pogba and Morrison may qualify.
And up front, you have natural born goalscorers, again with ball skills, able to create goals out of nothing, but also able to sit on the shoulder of the last defender like Owen or Hernandez. At least one should have height as well as skill, to act as target man. Welbeck and Will Keane qualify.
Finally, everybody must have pace and upper-body strength.
Three at the back is the way forward. That's the way Barcelona play. United are developing the players and the squad to play this way. All they need is Guardiola to succeed Sir Alex.
The Glazers Haven't Been the Bogeymen People Feared They Were
If you go to Old Trafford these days, you will hardly see a green and gold scarf.
What was the basis of the protests? The Glazers would steal our club; bankrupt it; get rid if Fergie; enforce unwanted and unacceptable changes? They were only in it for themselves?
Let's not be naive here. If you want to blame anyone, blame Martin Edwards, He nearly sold the club to a dreamer called Michael Knighton, whose consolation prize was Carlisle United!
He set in train the flotation on the London Stock Exchange which put the club into public ownership. Good news if you were a United supporter able to get shares you could never have before. Bad news, because it enabled people with no interest in football to build up massive stakes for financial reasons.
The shares rose to over 400p and fell to 140p. The large stakes enabled the Glazers to build a platform to launch a bid that they would otherwise not have been able to do.
It is beyond doubt that many United supporters must have sold their shares when the price rose on takeover speculation and many more must have accepted the Glazers' offer before the bid became compulsory.
The recent "Red Knights'' rescue bid looks even more ridiculous when you consider that it may well have been successful if launched at the time of flotation or as a "white knight" counter-bid at the time of the Glazers' bid.
By the time MUST and the Red Knights got themselves organized, the asking price would have been £1.5 billion or more. Why? Because of the extraordinary commercial success the Glazers, Sir Alex and David Gill have brought to the club, which was recently the richest and most financially successful in world football—even more so than every single American football or baseball franchise!
So were the protests anti-American? Not likely, as Aston Villa, Liverpool and Arsenal are now American owned.
Clearly the biggest beef has been the amount of debt the club was saddled with. But most FTSE100 companies have leveraged debt against equity to optimise their business and financial success. Companies like BP, Shell, Next, etc. It is the modern economic model and it makes even more sense when interest rates are virtually zero.
Multitudes of people have claimed that Sir Alex has not been allowed to buy players because of the debt, which is not only rubbish, but also makes Sir Alex and David Gill out to be liars, because they have both consistently protested that they have money to spend.
It's just that people who adore the Scottish Knight seem to turn deaf when he says "there is no value in the market", especially in January. Who could criticise any of his shrewd buys last summer, at least one of which might turn out to be "the bargain of the century."
And there is a master plan for the debt. Global markets close for new issues from November to early spring, because of the complicated end of year juggling and re-balancing exercises of investors.
When the markets reopen, the Singapore float will not only pay off the debt but will also provide a transfer war chest, for Sir Alex or a successor.
In the meantime, because of the extraordinary commercial success and the commercial and financial prudence of Ferguson and Gill—especially with the salary structure, United will have no difficulty in the foreseeable future meeting the UEFA FFP rules which may challenge less prudent clubs across Europe.
Okay, the Glazers haven't been universally welcomed and won't be getting many Christmas cards from Salford, but they have presided over one of the greatest periods of United business and sporting success ever.
Chicharito Could Be One of the Best Buys Ever
Together with Phil Jones, they could become Sir Alex's greatest buys ever. One is 23 and the other 19. When you consider how much maturing and development they still have to do, the prospects are scary.
Both have an attitude and values that characterise all that is best about Manchester United. Quietly spoken and humble, Chicharito knows his place, kneels and prays on the centre circle before every match and doesn't get cat-called or jeered for it.
If only more young men in the UK were like these two. Like many of their counterparts—Valencia, Smalling and Cleverley are other examples—they belittle their own accomplishments, play for the team, work hard, train hard and believe they will never stop learning.
If young Pogba and Morrison could cultivate the same qualities, the future is very, very bright.
Hernandez needs to add a bit more dribbling skill and watch the offside trap but, based on his form so far, he could become every bit as good as Kun Aguero.
Phil Jones Could Be the New Duncan Edwards
This is a proud young man—with every right to be.
The sky is the limit. He can be as good as he wants to be. Again, his humility stands him in good stead. He is a born leader who will in turn replace the heritage of Duncan Edwards, Bryan Robson and possibly even Sir Bobby Charlton, for club and country.
Duncan was the greatest player I ever saw. I hate cliches, but I was watching Jones play in midfield and suddenly the truth was staring me in the face. This lad has it all.
Loads of older United supporters have formed a similar opinion.
Duncan could defend, attack, score goals, rampage through the middle, take the corners and the throw-ins and captained both his club and country before he died aged 21.
Who would rule out Jones being installed as England captain after Euro 2012?
It would be an insult to call him a utility player, even though he could probably play everywhere except in goal. The best judges still insist that he will become a great centre back but, depending on tactical formations, he could be the next Bobby Moore, Franz Beckenbauer, Lothar Matthaeus or Bryan Robson.
Or he could just be the first Phil Jones and, like Wayne Rooney, have the world at his feet in his early twenties.
In fact, I will stick my neck out and suggest that if United keep him for the rest of his career, that factor alone will ensure a continuation of the club's rich vein of success.
That's how highly I rate him. You can build a team around him, as Sir Matt Busby did with Duncan Edwards.
Manchester United Players Hold the Key to England's Future
If United's vein of young talent is rich, so is England's. It is over 50 years since Manchester United were so prominent in the provision of England's potential.
We're not talking about Euro 2012, even though Welbeck, Cleverley, Jones and Smalling may all emerge as top internationals during that tournament. Wayne Rooney will be our star player for maybe another six or seven years.
While Arsenal have Wilshere, Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain; Chelsea Sturridge; Liverpool Henderson; City Richards; Everton Rodwell; and Spurs Walker, Manchester United have a conveyor belt of potential England players coming through—in addition to the four named above.
Morrison, Fryers, Will and Michael Keane, Amos, Cole. Lingard, Thorpe, Wootton, Tunnicliffe, Blackett and several others look like United first team and England squad players in the making. No wonder Fabio Capello may wish to keep his job after 2012.
Ryan Giggs Is Not as Perfect as We Thought
He may well walk alone and still not own a shaver. He may also no longer be the perfect role model that parents held up for their children.
Ryan Giggs has had a horrid year—off the football pitch—and probably wishes he'd never heard of Imogen Thomas.
It is, however, a testimony to his high regard among sporting folk in general and footballers in particular, that he may well be knighted when he retires and will remain a legend for the rest of our lives.
Nobody is ever likely to match his achievements in football; and no-one will exceed his loyalty to one club and the debt that Manchester United fans owe him.
And who are we to judge anyway? Would our behaviour and private lives always stand up to public scrutiny? Have we all been squeaky clean and/or faithful?
What matters is his devotion to the club that we love and the cause that we follow. He has rich United blood coursing through his veins. He is the past, the present and the future of the club. He remains an excellent role model for young players and will continue to be the clincher when talent chooses to sign or stay for United rather than a host of other would-be suitors.
No-one knows what the future holds for him, except at least another season in the Premier League and Europe, affording us a further indulgence of our hunger to see him turn a game or create a magic moment in the blink of an eye.
He may have blotted his copybook and besmirched his reputation temporarily, but few will ever come close to what he has given to "the beautiful game."
He is also a fitting coda to this thoughtful review of 2011.
We may all have our own individual ideas about what Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson and especially us supporters have learned about our club in 2011. We welcome any additional suggestions to this very personal collection.
It is Christmas and I have tried to keep it balanced and as positive as possible. Every match we turn up with excitement and nervousness. Every season we set off with outrageous belief. Every year we embark on with new resolution. That is no different at Old Trafford.
And for many reasons, 2012 looks as exciting and as nerve-racking as any of the last 56 years.
Happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year.
Thank you for your patience, opinions and support during 2011. I look forward to renewing our relationships or jousting in 2012.