Roll back 12 months and most agreed that Manchester United needed to invest in the centre of their midfield. Having been dominated for the second time in three years by Barcelona in the Champions League Final, it was evident that a weakness existed.
In addition to the obvious need for improvement, Paul Scholes had officially retired, Darren Fletcher was unfortunately suffering with illness, whilst Ryan Giggs’ legs were a year older. Of those remaining in the squad, only Tom Cleverley, Anderson and Michael Carrick could really be defined as specialists in the position. Cleverley is a good prospect and started the season brightly, although injury curtailed his season, but I suspect Sir Alex Ferguson would have preferred to slowly bed him into the team. Anderson has rarely impressed and seems more intent on enjoying the party lifestyle, whilst Carrick is a decent footballer but lacks the mobility and nous to stamp his authority on a big game. Technically he is a very good, but he lacks the necessary drive to dominate, especially as part of a two man midfield. On a side note, I’ve always thought he’d suit Italian football perfectly, but very few English players seem willing to test themselves elsewhere.
Throughout the summer, various defensive midfielders were linked with moves to the club, whilst Wesley Sneijder was constantly being talked up as a replacement for Scholes. The cynical part of my mind leads me to believe this was never going to happen (the transfer fee and wages were always too high) and this was a PR exercise to appease the fans. Do not underestimate how often this happens, especially for clubs with uncertain financial situations as United now are in. As it transpired, the transfer window closed and United started as they were, minus Paul Scholes.
There is no doubt that United suffered as a result; the importance of Scholes after coming out of retirement is testament to that. It would be overly dramatic to suggest they were terrible, indeed they were moments away from winning the Premier League, but there was a different feeling about them.
No longer were they the dominant force, sweeping all before them. Instead, there seemed to be a soft underbelly that made them vulnerable in a way we’ve not seen in the Premier League era. Failure to progress from an easy Champions League, followed by defeat to Athletic Bilbao was proof of this weakness. The games against Bilbao, together with the 3-0 defeat to Newcastle in January, were the biggest indicators of the problem. United were outplayed in that area in completely different ways, highlighting the fundamental flaws – Bilbao’s Barcelona-lite style was too fluid, whilst Check Tioté proved too powerful.
It is not even a new problem; in fact it has been in existence for several years but Ferguson has found ways around it. His ability to still get the best from the ageless Scholes and Giggs helped mask the deficiency, whilst at either end of the pitch United were still as good as they ever were. Defensively they were as solid as ever – Ferdinand and Vidic were as good a centre-back partnership as we’ve seen in recent years, whilst Edwin van der Sar appeared unbeatable at times. Offensively, Cristiano Ronaldo’s ability to single-handedly beat teams carried them through on several occasions.
As things stand currently, United are not far away from reproducing the kind of form and performances we’ve come to expect. Simply having Ferguson in charge will ensure they retain that famed winning mentality, whilst they still have a strong squad with quality in it. However Ferdinand is beginning to creak, De Gea is still learning his trade and Ronaldo is no longer there. The midfield can no longer be carried and has to start winning its own battles.
This summer will be the clearest indication of the path United are treading down. The financial state of the club is well documented and there has been plenty of analysis in recent weeks, however this coming period will reveal so much. Ferguson will of course be aware of where his squad needs strengthening, but whether he has the necessary resources available will be the deciding factor.
The club’s PR continually spouts out the line that Ferguson has the funding he is used to. If true, expect to see two genuinely elite level central midfielders arrive at the club, ensuring United continue to compete with the very best. But should these players not arrive, it will be the biggest indication yet that the club is being truly hurt by the debt inflicted by the Glazers’ acquisition. Failure to improve, whilst those around them continue to spend big, could be the beginning of the end for United’s competitiveness at the top table.