Month May 2012

Month May 2012

Reshaping United

Ed May 30, 2012 Tags: , Opinion 99 comments

There is a curious aspect to Sir Alex Ferguson’s time at Old Trafford – more than 25 years of evolution and sustained glory – that the great Scot has probably never signed a free-spirited ‘number 10’. The player, in the parlance of modern tactics-speak, who ghosts between the lines; neither midfielder, nor attacker in any distinct sense.

Yet, Manchester United’s much talked about interest in Belgian youngster Eden Hazard, and the more likely acquisition of Shinji Kagawa, appears to mark a distinct break in this tradition.

And Ferguson’s moves this summer, at least if Kagawa’s acquisition is completed, could have widespread ramifications for both United’s tactical shape, style of play and personnel. Indeed, word is that Ferguson wants to return his side to a more expansive, one-touch, fast-paced style that was last seen late summer, 2011, but disappeared post that thrashing by Manchester City at Old Trafford.

While it is unlikely United ever had a genuine shot at securing Hazard’s transfer – money and success talk like little else in football – the Belgian will showcase his wares in England after agreeing a £32 million move to Chelsea. The west Londoners will confirm the deal when the transfer window opens on 1 July, and are set to build a new team around the 21-year-old whomever is manager next season.

So often deployed from the left by Lille Métropole over the past four years, Hazard has flourished this season in a more central role, scoring 20 league goals and providing a further 15 assists. The campaign has catapulted 21-year-old Hazard into the limelight, together with a huge bump in salary and potential super-stardom in England.

Certainly, the fleet-footed forward is one many of the world’s leading players, and Joe Cole, believe is in the next generation of elite performers.

Kagawa, meanwhile, has progressed at Borussia Dortmund since a €350,000 move from Cerezo Osaka in the J-League two summers ago. The Japanese player has become a central part of Dortmund’s tactical make-up during the last two title-winning campaigns – representing remarkable progress from the years spent in J-League division two, where the player spent much of his early career.

Indeed, Kagawa made over 100 appearances in the lower reaches of Japanese football before being transplanted to Europe, and into Dortmund’s first team. Next step Old Trafford, it seems, with Dortmund announcing that a fee of around €22 million, including bonuses, has been agreed between the clubs.

If, and presumably when, Kagawa joins he will surely be deployed in the shadow of a lone-striker, having rarely played in a midfield two during a fledgling European career. Most comfortable deployed between-the-lines of midfield and attack, Kagawa could help rid United of predictability – especially against sides tending to park the bus at Old Trafford.

And while others have played off the front man in Ferguson’s time, few is any have been a specialist in that position. True, Wayne Rooney has been widely deployed deep in the campaign just ended, linking midfield and Danny Welbeck together. Yet, over the last eight years Ferguson has more often deployed the former Evertonian in a straightforward attacking role.

Then, of course, there was Eric Cantona, who was so comfortable playing off Mark Hughes, and then Andy Cole, but was always a striker who loved to roam rather than the trequarista in the grand tradition of Gianni Rivera, Roberto Baggio, and latterly Alessandro Del Piero.

Similarly, Teddy Sherringham, who joined the club after Cantona’s departure, was a forward comfortable dropping deep into midfield.

Then there are those Ferguson has missed out on, including Ronaldinho in 2003, although United’s manager had earmarked the Brazilian for David Beckham’s wide role. Or Mesut Özil – the “ghost” as Ferguson once dubbed the German playmaker – who has excelled in his second season with Real Madrid this year.

United with Kagawa?

Could this be Ferguson's formation in 2012/13?

Into the present and Ferguson seems likely to use Kagawa is the Japanese player’s favoured role between midfield and attack in a 4-2-3-1 system that is a gradual evolution of the formation most regularly used in coming second to City.

With the Japanese in the team, Rooney is more likely to be deployed further forward, with two from Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes, Anderson, Darren Fletcher and Tom Cleverley playing through central midfield.

Yet, unless Ferguson brings in another, more traditional, midfielder this summer United is still likely to face searching questions through the centre of the park. After all, while Carrick performed admirably in recent months, Scholes turns 38 in November. Meanwhile, Anderson and Cleverley have rarely spent time away from the physio suite in recent years, while Fletcher’s long-term future in the game remains in doubt due to illness.

Kagwa’s arrival also asks questions of United’s forwards, with Rooney seemingly likely to play at ‘9’ next season; presumably as the lone front-runner in a flexible four-man attack. That’s bad news for Welbeck, who performed so well last season when fit, and Javier Hernández, the Mexican whose stop-start campaign proved so disappointing.

Indeed, in this sense Kagawa’s likely purchase is as much a replacement for the departing Dimitar Berbatov, as it is for the ageing Scholes.

Interesting, then, that Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich is determined to replicate the system at Stamford Bridge, with Hazard central in a three-man supporting line to Fernando Torres. Presumably Juan Mata and Marko Marin, or an as-yet -to-be-determined right-sided player, will be deployed off the Spanish forward. Torres may even flourish in Didier Drogba’s absence.

Time will tell whether Ferguson’s first foray into the market for a genuine ‘number 10’ is an experiment worth making. Or, indeed, whether the outlay on the Japanese player turns out to be half the return of Hazard’s huge fee, or double the value – to coin a Fergusonian phrase.

There are fewer questions about the Belgian’s quality though, with Kagawa having spent just two seasons at the highest level of European football. Hazard, by contrast, is now two-times French Player of the Year.

Moreover, Kagawa, while scoring 13 in 31 Bundesliga appearances last season, can also be wasteful in possession, and comes off worst in more than two-thirds of tackles and 50-50s entered into. Worryingly, the 23-year-old also gets substituted more often than he actually remains on the pitch, strongly suggesting a problem with stamina.

The stats only paint one part of the story, of course, but do give an indication of a player who will surely take some time to bed down in English football, with all the physicality that it brings. And if Kagawa takes time to star at United, then Ferguson’s players may also need games to unlock both the new man’s undoubted potential, and a new approach to the game.

Seven Reds up for Euro Cup

Ed May 29, 2012 Tags: , International 20 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson was never one for international football, especially when it gets in the way of Manchester United’s priorities – like a kerching-tastic trip to China, South Africa and Norway this summer. The three-leg, 20,000 mile, summer tour will presumably will take place without those players on international duty at Euro 2012 and the Olympics, with tournament stars normally given additional time off by Ferguson to recuperate.

Good news for the Scot, then, that just seven Reds have been called up by the 16 teams taking part in Euro 2012, which gets underway in Poland and Ukraine on 8 June, while only Ryan Giggs and David de Gea are likely to play at the Olympics.

Indeed, when it comes to fatigue Ferguson will be delighted that just two of his players are guaranteed starters for the opening matches, while Wayne Rooney will sit out England’s games against France and Ukraine. Four further players are likely to start the tournament from the bench, and none are guaranteed qualification from the group stage.

A further six ex-Reds will also take part in the tournament, including some surprising names, ensuring a strong United interest in the tournament long after England has meekly departed the competition on matchday three!

Anders Lindegaard – Denmark – United’s 28-year-old stopper has recovered from a lengthy period out in time to make the Euro 2012 plane alongside fellow ‘keepers Stephan Andersen and Kasper Schmeichel. Lindegaard, who has five caps, is likely to start behind Anderson in the pecking order having spent much of the last four months on the sidelines. It’s no easy task for the Danes though having been drawn in the same group as Holland, Germany and Portugal.

Nani – Portugal – the winger is sure to start Portugal’s campaign in the same group as team-mate Lindegaard. The Portuguese qualified for the tournament via the play-offs, beating Bosnia and Herzegovina 6-2 on aggregate. But it was an unhappy qualifying campaign for Paulo Bento’s side, who finished behind Denmark in the group stage. Nani is likely to start alongside captain Cristiano Ronaldo and Hélder Postiga in attack.

Phil Jones – England – the £16.5 million former Blackburn Rovers defender-cum-midfielder is, perhaps, a surprise selection in Roy Hodgson’s squad given the youngster’s poor form during the run-in. But Jones’ energy and flexibility may yet prove important to England’s campaign, especially given injuries to Glenn Johnson and Gareth Barry. Should Scott Parker’s ankle problem relapse, Jones could even find himself playing in central midfield this summer – a position he struggled to master at Old Trafford last season.

Danny Welbeck – England – Welbeck, who is still nursing an angle injury inflicted by Manchester City’s Nigel de Jong, is likely to start the campaign behind Andy Carroll in the pecking order. Given the £35 million Liverpool striker’s wretched campaign this will surprise more than a few Reds. By contrast Welbeck performed admirably as United’s ‘number 9’ for much of the campaign just finished, completing an injury-disrupted season with 12 goals.

Wayne Rooney – England – the Scouser may have finished the season with just one yellow card in the Premier League, but a rash kick at Montenegrin defender Miodrag Dzudovic during England’s qualification match last October will cost Rooney appearances against France and Sweden. Rooney is sure to return for what is likely to be a decisive fixture with hosts Ukraine in Donetsk on 19 June. Whether Rooney’s return is too late for Hodgson’s side is yet to be seen, but Rooney is certainly due a better tournament than in 2010 or 2008.

Ashley Young – England – winger Young is probably his nation’s most in-form attacking player coming into the tournament, scoring a stunning goal in England’s recent friendly against Norway. The strike supplemented a fine selection of goals from the former Aston Villa man last season – a campaign that Young began and ended well, but in which he suffered a marked dip in form and fitness during the winter.

Patrice Evra – France – former captain Evra will enjoy the tournament without the pressure of Les Bleus’ captaincy. In South Africa two years ago Evra was caught in the middle of a row between players and staff, copping a lengthy ban from Fédération Française de Football (FFF) in the highly politicised fall-out after France’s early World Cup exit. This time out Evra will fight for a starting place with Manchester City’s Gael Clicy as France take on England, Ukraine and Sweden in Group D.

Ron-Robert Zieler – Germany/Hannover96 – former junior Zieler left Old Trafford without making a first team appearance only to carve out an outstanding career in the Budesliga. Will provide back-up to Manuel Neuer and Tim Wiese.

Cristiano Ronaldo – Portugal/Real Madrid – has rarely looked back since leaving for Madrid in an £80 million deal three summers ago. But tournament football is yet to bring one of the world’s finest players any joy.

Gerard Piqué – Spain/Barcelona – left Old Trafford for ‘home’ without truly making it at United, but now a core piece of Spain’s defence. Suffered a mediocre campaign with Barcelona by the player’s very high standards last season.

John O’Shea – spent more than a decade with United without truly establishing himself as first choice in any position, yet appeared in more than 400 games. Can, and probably will, play in a variety of positions across Ireland’s back-four this summer.

Darron Gibson – has failed to establish himself as a first choice player for Ireland, although is now at least a regular at club level for Everton having left Old Trafford last January.

Paul McShane – the former United junior has struggled to make an impression at the highest level of English football, having spent time with Sunderland, Hull City, Barnsley, and Crystal Palace since leaving United without making a first team appearance.

 
 

The squads

Poland

1. W. Szczesny, 2. S. Boesnich, 3. G. Wojtkowiak, 4. D. Perquis, 5. D. Dudka, 6. A. Matuszczyk, 7. E. Polanski, 8. M. Rybus, 9. R. Lewandowski, 10. L. Obraniak, 11. R. Murawski, 12. G. Sandomierski, 13. M. Wasilewski, 14. J. Wawrzyniak, 15. M. Kaminski, 16. J. Blaszczykowski, 17. R. Wolfski, 18. A. Mierzejewski, 19. A. Sobiech, 20. L.Piszczek, 21. K. Grosicki, 22. P. Tyton, 23. P. Brozek

Greece
1. K. Chalkias, 2. I. Maniatis, 3. G. Tzavelas, 4. S. Malezas, 5. K. Papadopoulos, 6. G. Makos, 7. G. Samaras, 8. A. Papadopoulos, 9. N. Lyberopoulos, 10. G. Karagounis, 11. K. Mitroglu, 12. A. Tzorvas, 13. M. Sifakis, 14. D. Salpigidis, 15. V. Torosidis, 16. G. Fotakis, 17. T. Gekas, 18. S. Ninis, 19. S. Papastathopoulos, 20. J. Holebas, 21. K. Katsouranis, 22. K. Fortounis, 23. G. Fetfatzidis

Russia
1. I. Akinfeev, 2. A. Anyukov, 3. R. Sharanov, 4. S. Ignashevich, 5. Y. Zhirkov, 6. R. Shirokov, 7. I. Denisov, 8. K. Zyryanov, 9. M. Izmailov, 10. A. Arshavin, 11. A. Kerzhakov, 12. A. Berezutski, 13. A. Shunin, 14. R. Pavyluchenko, 15. D. Kombarov, 16. V. Malafeev, 17. A. Dzagoev, 18. A. Kokorin, 19. V. Granat, 20. P. Pogrebnyak, 21. K. Nababkin, 22. D. Glushakov, 23. I. Semshov

Czech Republic
1. P. Cech, 2. T. Gebre Selassie, 3. M. Kadlec, 4. M. Suchy, 5. R. Hubnik, 6. T. Sivok, 7. T. Necid, 8. D. Limbersky, 9. J. Rezek, 10. T. Rosicky, 11. M. Petrzela, 12. F. Rajtoral, 13. J. Plasil, 14. V. Pilar, 15. M. Baros, 16. J. Lastuvka, 17. T. Hubschman, 18. D. Kolaf, 19. P. Jiracek, 20. T. Pekhart, 21. D. Lafata, 22. V. Darida, 23. J. Drobny

Holland
1. M. Stekelenburg, 2. G. Van Der Wiel, 3. J. Heitinga, 4. J. Mathijsen, 5. W. Bouma, 6. M. Van Bommel, 7. D. Kuyt, 8. N. De Jong, 9. K.J. Huntelaar, 10. W. Sneijder, 11. A. Robben, 12. M. Vorm, 13. R. Vlaar, 14. S. Schaars, 15. J. Willems, 16. R. Van Persie, 17. K. Strootman, 18. L. De Jong, 19. L. Narsingh, 20. I. Afellay, 21. K. Boulahrouz, 22. T. Krul, 23. R. Van Der Vaart

Denmark
1. K. Schmeichel, 2. C. Poulsen, 3. S. Kjaer, 4. D. Agger, 5. S. Poulsen, 6. L. Jacobsen, 7. W. Kvist, 8. C. Eriksen, 9. M. Krohn-Dehli, 10. D. Rommedahl, 11. N. Bendtner, 12. A. Bjelland, 13. J. Okore, 14. L. Schone, 15. M. Silberbauer, 16. S. Andersen, 17. N. Pedersen, 18. D. Wass, 19. J. Poulsen, 20. T. Kahlenberg, 21. N. Zimling, 22. A. Lindegaard, 23. T. Mikkelson

Germany
1. M. Neuer, 2. I. Gundogan, 3. M. Schmelzer, 4. B. Howedes, 5. M. Hummels, 6. S. Khedira, 7. B. Schweinsteiger, 8. M. Ozil, 9. A. Schurrle, 10. L. Podolski, 11. M. Klose, 12. T. Wiese, 13. T. Mueller, 14. H. Badstuber, 15. L. Bender, 16. P. Lahm, 17. P. Mertersacker, 18. T. Kroos, 19. M. Goetze, 20. J. Boateng, 21. M. Reus, 22. R.R. Zieler, 23. M. Gomez

Portugal
1. Eduardo, 2. B. Alves, 3. Pepe, 4. M. Veloso, 5. F. Coentrao, 6. Custodio, 7. C. Ronaldo, 8. J. Moutinho, 9. H. Almeida, 10. R. Quaresma, 11. N. Oliveira, 12. R. Patricio, 13. R. Costa, 14. Rolando, 15. R. Micael, 16. R. Meireles, 17. Nani, 18. S. Varela, 19. M. Lopes, 20. H. Viana, 21. J. Pereira, 22. Beto, 23. H. Postiga

Spain
1. I. Casillas, 2. R. Albiol, 3. G. Pique, 4. J. Martinez, 5. Juanfran, 6. A. Iniesta, 7. Pedro, 8. Xavi, 9. F. Torres, 10. C. Fabregas, 11. A. Negredo, 12. V. Valdes, 13. J. Mata, 14. X. Alonso, 15. S. Ramos, 16. S. Busquets, 17. A. Arbeloa, 18. J. Alba, 19. F. Llorente, 20. S. Cazorla, 21. D. Silva, 22. J. Navas, 23. P. Reina

Italy
1. G. Buffon, 2. C. Maggio, 3. G. Chiellini, 4. A. Ogbonna, 5. T. Motta, 6. F. Balzaretti, 7. I. Abate, 8. C. Marchisio, 9. M. Balotelli, 10. A. Cassano, 11. A. Di Natale, 12. S. Sirigu, 13. E. Giaccherini, 14. M. De Sanctis, 15. A. Barzagli, 16. D. De Rossi, 17. F. Borini, 18. R. Montolivo, 19. L. Bonucci, 20. S. Giovinco, 21. A. Pirlo, 22. A. Diamanti, 23. A. Nocerino

Republic of Ireland
1. S. Given, 2. S. St Ledger, 3. S. Ward, 4. J. O’Shea, 5. R. Dunne, 6. G. Whelan, 7. A. McGeady, 8. K. Andrews, 9. K. Doyle, 10. R. Keane, 11. D. Duff, 12. S. Kelly, 13. S. Hunt, 14. D. Gibson, 15. D. O’Dea, 16. K. Westwood, 17. S. Long, 18. P. Green, 19. J. Walters, 20. S. Cox, 21. P. McShane, 22. J. McLean, 23. D. Forde

Croatia
1. S. Pletikosa, 2. I. Strinic, 3. J. Simunic, 4. J. Buljat, 5. V. Corluka, 6. D. Pranjic, 7. I. Rakitic, 8. O. Vukojevic, 9. N. Jelavic, 10. L. Modric, 11. D. Srna, 12. I. Kelava, 13. G. Schildenfeld, 14. M. Badelj, 15. I. Ilicevic, 16. T. Dujmovic, 17. M. Mandzukic, 18. I. Olic, 19. N. Kranjcar, 20. I. Perisic, 21. D. Vida, 22. Eduardo, 23. D. Subasic

Ukraine
1. M. Koval, 2. Y. Selin, 3. Y. Khacheridi, 4. A. Tymoshchuk, 5. O. Kucher, 6. D. Harmash, 7. A. Shevchenko, 8. O. Aliyev, 9. O. Husyev, 10. A. Voronin, 11. A. Yarmolenko, 12. A. Pyatov, 13. V. Shevchuk, 14. R. Rotan, 15. A. Milevskiy, 16. Y. Seleznyov, 17. T. Mykhalyk, 18. S. Nazarenko, 19. Y. Konoplyanka, 20. Y. Rakitskiy, 21. B. Butko, 22. M. Devych, 23. O. Horyainov

Sweden
1. A. Isaksson, 2. M. Lustig, 3. O. Mellberg, 4. A. Granqvist, 5. M. Olsson, 6. R. Elm, 7. S. Larsson, 8. A. Svensson, 9. K. Kallstrom, 10. Z. Ibrahimovic, 11. J. Elmander, 12. J. Wiland, 13. J. Olsson, 14. T. Hysen, 15. M. Antonsson, 16. P. Wernbloom, 17. B. Safari, 18. S. Holmen, 19. E. Bajrami, 20. O. Toivonen, 21. C. Wilhelmsson, 22. M. Rosenberg, 23. P. Hansson

England
1. J. Hart, 2. G. Johnson, 3. A. Cole, 4. S. Gerrard, 5. G. Cahill, 6. J. Terry, 7. T. Walcott, 8. F. Lampard, 9. A. Carroll, 10. W. Rooney, 11. A. Young, 12. L. Baines, 13. R. Green, 14. P. Jones, 15. J. Lescott, 16. J. Milner, 17. S. Parker, 18. P. Jagielka, 19. S. Downing, 20. A. Oxlade-Chamberlain, 21. J. Defoe, 22. D. Welbeck, 23. J. Butland

France
1. H. Lloris, 2. M. Debuchy, 3. P. Evra, 4. A. Rami, 5. P. Mexes, 6. Y. Cabaye, 7. F. Ribery, 8. M. Valbuena, 9. O. Giroud, 10. K. Benzema, 11. S. Nasri, 12. B. Matuidi, 13. A. Reveillere, 14. J. Menez, 15. F. Malouda, 16. S. Mandanda, 17. Y. M’Vila, 18. A. Diarra, 19. M. Martin, 20. H. Ben Arfa, 21. L. Koscielny, 22. G. Clichy, 23. C. Carrasso

Book review: Manchester United’s Golden Age 1903-1914

Denys Koval May 27, 2012 Tags: , , Reviews 2 comments

Season’s over and it’s time for ‘trusted sources’ and those ‘in-the-know’ to shine – the period when wild transfer speculation takes over. Considering that the summer ahead is arguably the most important for Manchester United in recent years, and the  Glazers’ generosity is to be tested once again, it’s hard not to find the guessing game more than a little annoying and ultimately disappointing. So step away from it all with a great read – one featuring a world-class United midfield, Championship winning glory and FA scandals to boot…

There are few books covering the birth of the club, while many writers have explored United since Sir Matt Busby’s era. But just as Busby discovered in 1945, United has never been just another football team; it is a club with a rich history. And for the most part, the expectation of success that has endured for so long in the modern era was in no small part due to the period of time squeezed between the yearly years (1878-1902) and the crisis years (1919-1932).

They were years that saw United develop into a team that became champions twice, won the FA Cup and became inaugural Charity Shield holders. It is a period that would come to be known as the ‘Golden Age’ of football.

Thomas Taw’s Manchester United’s Golden Age 1903-1914 – The Life and Times of Dick Duckworth does not attempt to review every match of every season, instead each chapter presents an overview of a significant period in that Golden Age. In 1903-1906: Towards the Holy Grail Taw takes the reader through United’s struggles on the way to the First Division; the final chapter 1911-14: Towards the Precipice recalls the reasons behind United’s subsequent fall.

Manchester United's Golden AgeOften what’s happening on the pitch is not the most important part of the story. Taw reveals the stories behind the curtains; the war between the Outcasts and FA, or the consequences of building Old Trafford, for example. Frequently, Taw’s curiosity simply reflects on the issues of the day, touching on Edwardian era life, and football’s role in it.

Unusually, Taw tells the story through a central character, Dick Duckworth – the only player to play for United throughout 1903-1914. In it Taw contrasts the hidden tale with what Taw calls “public story of Dick Duckworth and Manchester United.” It’s a fascinating portrait, marrying the struggle faced by both Duckworth and United to break through.

Duckworth gained his place in the first team just in time to lead United side to success, staying with the club for over a decade. A “Manchester lad, a true local hero,” Duckworth was an integral part of the best midfield in the country – Duckworth, Roberts and Bell.

Manchester United’s Golden Age is also a story that Taw tells “through the medium of contemporary newspapers,” offering the reader plenty of quotes – and at times quotes within quotes, and then some. It can be hard to tell where one ends, and another begins, but the humour shines through. From “…the cup-ties bring caperings which serve as a foil to the stately minuet of the League tournament,” to the “… fizzing, explosive excitement… warm the average man in “shivering times”… It is a force as mysterious as electricity.”

Perhaps the only complaint, especially the for the stats nerd, is the absence of a results and achievements section to offer the detail behind the story. In The Matt Busby Chronicles…, a book by the same publisher, the huge chapter devoted to tables on all matches played enhances the reader’s understanding of an important era.

Despite this Manchester United’s Golden Age offers great insight into a pivotal time in United’s story. And at a time when there’s little fit to print other than transfer rumours readers will find no disappointment in a fascinating period in the club’s rich history.

Manchester United’s Golden Age 1903-1914 – The Life and Times of Dick Duckworth by Thomas Taw is available in paperback and hardcover. Published by Desert Island Books and retailing on Amazon from £11.99. Also in Kindle edition.

Pogba departure leaves Reds pondering youth future

Ed May 25, 2012 Tags: Opinion 70 comments

So there it is, confirmation bar wet ink on a contract, that Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba will move to Italian champions Juventus this summer. United will receive compensation in the region of £300,000, while Pogba will enjoy a huge salary bump to more than €1 million per season on a four-year contract with the Turin-based club.

Yet, with the Reds have willingly sold Ravel Morrison to West Ham United last January, Pogba becomes the second player in the 2011 FA Youth Cup winning team to depart Old Trafford. The departures of two highly talented players in a short space of time may be coincidence, and each for different reasons, but fans will ask questions of the club’s planning and strategy.

Confirmation of Pogba’s move was sent earlier this month by letter from the French midfielder’s agent, Mino Raiola, to United chief executive David Gill. Yet, it is only in the past week that Juve executives have gone public, secure in the knowledge that a deal has been agreed for the talented youngster. Pogba’s contract with Vecchia Signora will kick in on 1 July, the day after his Old Trafford deal runs out.

“We have lured Pogba away from Manchester United, we respected the rules,” Juventus general director Giuseppe Marotta told Corriere dello Sport.

“Pogba, for his own reasons, didn’t intend to renew his contract with United. So we informed the club and we are now waiting for an answer. Talks are well advanced.”

There is no doubt that Sir Alex Ferguson will be disappointed though – if not embarrassed – by United’s failure to hang on to a leading youth talent, having invested publicly in backing the player over the past year. While Pogba’s form has been intermittent for United’s all-conquering reserves this season, Ferguson has been fulsome in his praise of the teenager’s potential.

Meanwhile, the deal represents a major coup for Juve, tempting away one of Europe’s most sought-after young players for a minimal fee, with virtually no risk attached. While the Old Lady has constructed its first championship winning side since Calciopoli, and moved into a brand new stadium, Juventus’ budget is just a fraction of United’s at £167.8 million to the Reds’ £331.4 million. Juve should not be able compete with United on wages.

Yet, Juventus seemingly offers a more attractive proposition, both financially, with the Italians presumably offering more than United was prepared to countenance for a reserve player, and perhaps in terms of football too. After all, while much talk has centred on United’s central midfield over the past year, Pogba started no games for the first team in the season just finished. This despite long-term injuries and illness affecting Darren Fletcher, Anderson and Tom Cleverley.

The Frenchman may find it challenging to break into Antonio Conte’s side where Claudio Marchisio, Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal have formed an effective central midfield triumvirate, but this will presumably mean a loan spell at a Serie B club next season. Ferguson, presumably, could not guarantee that Pogba will play any more games at United.

Back at Old Trafford there remains the question of how Sir Alex failed to persuade Pogba that United is the youngster’s best option. After all, while Juve’s offer is attractive it is not life-changing, especially for a player many believe will make it to the very top. While United is no longer the best paying club in England, the old adage that players don’t need to chase money at Old Trafford, it will find them, remains true. However, United, it appears, was indeed outbid for the player’s services.

Moreover, Ferguson’s while reputation for developing youth is unparalleled, the 70-year-old Scot’s pleas for Pogba to sign a new deal in Manchester fell on very deaf ears.

In context of selling Morrison, who was willingly forced out by Ferguson, United have now lost two of the finest players from last season’s Youth Cup winning side. Losing one was a shame; two begs some very real questions. Moreover, years of work helping Pogba to develop greater range in his game since the player joined in controversial circumstances from Le Harve in 2009 have effectively been wasted – a player polished for Juve to enjoy.

There is no guarantee of successful development of any of United’s other young stars either. While the club’s reserves won the FA Premier Reserve League North, Play-off, and the Manchester Senior Cup in the campaign just finished, it is unlikely any of Warren Joyce’s side will break into the’ first team next season. Many will play in the Championship on loan, but history tells us that Ferguson will be thankful if just one makes it at United as a regular first team player. Morrison and Pogba were seen by many, at differing times, as ‘sure things’.

Then there is the question of where, exactly, United now ranks in the market for football talent. If the club is unable, or unwilling, to sanction fees and wages for the very best players, and cannot hold onto youth, there is a real possibility of United being squeezed out of the market at both ends.

After all this isn’t an esoteric question. Financial fair play, market economics, and United’s huge debt, each mean that identifying, developing and polishing young talent is a major priority for Ferguson and his coaching team. Losing one of the best prospects to a European rival makes for a very uncomfortable view of the future.

Berba’s long goodbye

Ed May 23, 2012 Tags: Opinion 38 comments

Dimitar Berbatov’s inevitable Manchester United exit, ignominious and embarrassing for the £30 million summer 2008 acquisition, has been a long time coming. A very long time. Indeed, Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to leave the player out of the 2011 Champions League final signalled the end of the Bulgarian’s time in the Old Trafford limelight, with only economics – and the striker’s ongoing dignity – preventing an earlier exit. Each left Berbatov stewing on United’s bench, or worse, over a final season at Old Trafford.

This was no dignified end for the hugely talented striker, albeit one who has so often failed over the past four seasons to provide that most Fergusonian of concepts: value. In truth it has been a period of dissatisfaction for player, manager, and supporters, who have enjoyed Berbatov’s outstanding quality, but seen too little output.

Berbatov will leave United this summer dismayed that he has seen so little action this season, nor in fact, in many of United’s bigger games over the past four years. For all the former Tottenham Hotspur striker’s comfort in possession and unsurpassed close control, Berbatov simply lost the trust of his manager, and failed to deliver too often to regain it.

Yet, as the season ends Berbatov will offer no Carlos Tevez-style rebuke despite the player’s frustration at warming the bench for so long. The talent, Berbatov must surely know, deserves better, but the player has held his tongue, apparently even in those frequent private moments with Ferguson over the past year.

“We talked 10 times, he told me there would be a place for me but I stayed on the bench,” the striker told Bulgarian TV this week.

“My time at Manchester United is running out. I no longer feel like a valuable part of this team. I think I did well in the few opportunities that I received. I am a little frustrated by the way this happened, I do not think I deserved it. But I have dignity and I stopped going to such meetings, it is clear that I’m leaving United. It’s obvious that I have to leave. I’m looking for a new place now. I know I can still play at the highest level.”

Berbatov has always been rebus though. Talented, yet unfulfilled. Loyal, yet accused not merely of being apathetic, but of outright lethargy. Fabulously well paid, but never greedy.

Money talks most of the time in football. Yet, when Berbatov chose United ahead of cross-town rivals City four years ago the striker was one of few to reject Eastland’s billions in favour of the glory on offer at Old Trafford. Here, one of the finest talents to grace the English game was heading north to strengthen the newly crowned champions’ already plentiful resources.

Indeed, the former Tottenham striker would join not only Wayne Rooney, but Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez in a potent quartet of attacking talent. It’s a signing that clearly didn’t work out as Ferguson expected.

Loyalty to United also prevented the striker forcing a move out of the club last summer, although Ferguson’s intent to deploy both Javier Hernández and Danny Welbeck more frequently was clear from the off. Nor, too, did the striker seek an exit during the winter when Turkish club Galatasary had a bid rejected by an Old Trafford hierarchy keen to reclaim at least part of the player’s huge fee.

“I had the opportunity to sign for City but I chose United,” adds Berbatov.

“City are the champions but to me they just bought the title. They bought so many players. I’m sure next year Manchester United will be on top again. Ferguson is honest. He knows how to talk to anyone. After meeting with him you go out so motivated. You want to conquer the world.

“Before the start of this season, I spoke with Ferguson and asked him if he’ll rely on me. He said to me that he needed me and that I’d play. I’m looking for answer myself why I was sitting on the bench. I spoke with Ferguson about ten times. I was fighting for my place and I was trying but obviously the team will rely on young players.”

There is no little frustration in Berbatov’s situation, coming a year after the striker’s finest season in Manchester. In total the Bulgarian contributed 21 goals to United’s cause in 2010/11 – 20 in the Premier League, which effectively won Ferguson’s men the title. But as the season drew to its conclusion Ferguson increasingly left the forward out of his side.

In that campaign Berbatov’s record of 21 goals in 42 games was fine, although it included none in the Champions League, nor any against the top four. What’s more, of Berbatov’s 20 Premier League goals the Bulgarian scored against just five teams in the top half of the table – Newcastle United, Everton, Liverpool, Bolton Wanderers and Fulham.

The season just gone has been even worse for the striker. In 21 games he has scored nine goals, although once again Ferguson used the player sparingly in the Premier and Champions Leagues, and hardly at all towards the business end of the season. In that there is the crux – Ferguson’s distrust that the player will deliver at the biggest moments is now total.

Indeed, the player’s record in scoring predominantly against lower-ranked teams – seven of 21 in 2010/11 came against relegation candidates Blackburn Rovers and Blackpool – is mirrored across his time at Old Trafford. In the campaign just finished Berbatov scored against Stoke City, Blackburn, Wigan Athletic, Fulham, Benfica and Aldershot. That strike in the Champions League was a rare one indeed.

Against other members of the current top five – Arsenal, City, Chelsea, Tottenham – Berbatov has just four goals in 32 games over his four years with United. Just two against the former trio. Include Liverpool in that list, and the Bulgarian has seven in 39. It is painful to admit, but Berbatov’s record at Old Trafford is little more than that of a flat-track bully.

Moreover, with Welbeck entrenched as Ferguson’s first choice partner along side Rooney, and Hernández available in reserve when not injured, Berbatov was never going to be afforded many chances to add to that tally this season.

In moving abroad this summer it will end one of the most disappointing periods of any player in United’s recent history. Bleak not because Berbatov failed, per se, but that a very special talent was unfulfilled. The fleeting moments will leave United fans with glorious memories, but frustrated that there simply weren’t enough of them.

Trolling, and Eden Hazard

Ed May 21, 2012 Tags: , Opinion 267 comments

Eden Hazard, Wesley Sneijder, Alan Shearer, Dimitar Berabtov, Ronaldinho, Celio Silva… Celio Silva. Another summer, another tiresome transfer ‘saga’ in the offing as Belgian midfielder-cum-winger Hazard cock-teases his way around Europe’s major clubs, before inevitably joining “the project” over at Manchester City. It’s all about the trophies you see. And the filthy lucre.

The drawn-out transfer, negotiated in time-honoured fashion via Sky Sports News, is almost certain to conclude around midnight, 31 August, as Jim White chases the youngster through Heathrow for a final conclusive answer. And the last few headlines of the summer. By which time those viewers who have not already cranked up the oven, primed for head insertion, will surely do so. Even if its electric, rather than gas.

After all, the close-season is barely two days old, but has rapidly descended into the desperate summer search for column-filling news, football in absentia. The summer’s other entertainment – John Terry drunkenly harassing an under-age Ukrainian barmaid just hours before England’s Euro 2012 opener against France – can wait, for now.

In the meantime, Hazard is likely to command many of those headlines, having spent the season enjoying the considerable attention his irregular proclamations of love and loyalty have brought. After all he loves La Liga, and Italy, and England, and Arsenal, and Tottenham Hotspur, and Real Madrid, and Barcelona, and the colour blue. Everybody say, ‘eh oh’.

Remarkably, the Belgian cranked up the gossip juice even further this past weekend – the 21-year-old’s agent had seemingly let it be known that his charge would announce next season’s destination after Lille’s fixture with AS Nancy on Sunday evening. The world watched and waited, first as Hazard signed off his five-year spell at Lille with a hat-trick in the home side’s 4-1 demolition of mid-table Nancy, then as the player departed on a 15 minute lap-of-honour with toddler in tow, then as Hazard announced he would be joining….

…. nobody. Not yet, at least. World -class trolling, Eden, world-class.

“As long as I’ve not put pen to paper, I won’t say where I’m going,” the Belgian international told Canal+.

“I have not yet made my choice. Chelsea could interest me now. They’ve won the Champions League and will therefore be in it next season. It’s really important for me to be playing in that competition. Chelsea are a big club with some great players – of course it’s a possibility.

“For now, nothing’s been decided, but it will be soon I hope that by June 2 it will be clear. Now I want to join up with the national team and then go on holiday. It’ll do me a lot of good. My agent has met with Manchester and with Chelsea. They both give good offers and are both great clubs. I don’t know. It’s not been finalised yet.”

Quite which club ‘Manchester’ is wasn’t clarified.

But if Hazard took the wind-up to a new level, fans and the mainstream media have joined the fun. First, Sky Sports News reported on Monday morning that it “understands Hazard would prefer to join United” this summer. Cynics might add that the channel normally “understands” whatever is in the morning’s newspapers, gossip sites, Twitter, or is fed by agents. Or generates the most headlines, clicks and viewers. Rant couldn’t possibly comment.

Then a very well done fake ‘official’ United site fooled countless supporters on social media, before ESPN tweeted the ‘news’ as fact if only to prove the unnervingly low standards of reporting, or accountability, in rolling media.

Meanwhile, Hazard is lapping up the attention – a young man who has the world at his feet, and seemingly knows it. The 26-cap Belgian international has spent much of the past season proclaiming his love for every club, or country, in which he could potentially play next season. Talent and conceit in equal measure, some might say.

That, of course, is to say nothing of the player’s representative, firsteleven ISM, which is reportedly seeking €8 million simply to do the deal with interested parties this summer. Add Lille’s €35 million transfer fee, and wages upwards of £150,000 per week, and any deal for Hazard will necessarily be complex. It’s a fact supporters may wish to take into consideration when assessing any future headlines!

On the field Hazard’s season ended with a first League 1 hat-trick of a fledgling career, taking the youngster to 20 goals for the season. Lille missed out on Le Championnat crown though, finising third behind PSG and champions Montpellier. The player is more Cristano Ronaldo than Paul Scholes, but it is easy to envisage the player in Sir Alex Ferguson’s tactical thinking next season, with the United manager apprently after pace in midfield.

It is, of course, not quite so easy to believe that the Glazer family is genuinely prepared to invest upwards of £80 million on a single player over the length of a five-year contract.

Yet, United is apparently still an option if the mainstream media is to be believed, with Lille managing director Frederic Paquet revealing that four clubs are in the running for the player’s signature – Chelsea, City, United and, presumably, Real Madrid.

“I’m not sure he himself knows exactly where he will go, so for the moment we don’t know,” Parquet told Sky Sports News.

“From what I know I think there are maybe four teams interested in him. At this moment we don’t know. We have a very strong relationship with the player and his advisors, so we will get together and for the moment we are just waiting for him to make a choice between these four teams.”

In the meantime the headline-makers will keep on chasing viewers: proclamations of Hazard’s impending departure to City, Chelsea, Madrid and United will likely abound. Perhaps best, then, to take it all in with good humour. Especially if the player himself has anything to say.

The hire race

Ed May 18, 2012 Tags: , , Opinion 52 comments

There will come a day when Sir Alex Ferguson’s name is associated not with Manchester United’s dug-out, but the North Stand at Old Trafford. It may not be in the coming summer, nor perhaps until the 70-year-old Scot is carried from the Theatre of Dreams in a box, but a change, as Sam Cooke once promised, is gonna come.

United’s stability under Ferguson, driven by the Scot’s obsessive-compulsive requirement for total control, is an outlier in football, where the average tenure of a Premier League manager is just 24 months. Moreover, the trend is increasingly away from the dictatorial model practiced in Manchester.

Yet, overseas owners at Chelsea and Liverpool will be looking enviously at Old Trafford as a model for storied and stable success as those clubs reach out to the market for new managers this summer.

But one day soon David Gill and the Glazer family will go through the same process now underway at Anfield and Stamford Bridge, of recruiting not only Ferguson’s successor, but the quality of manager demanded by a club of United’s stature. Yet, true to United’s cloak and dagger modus operandi it is highly unlikely that the club will hold any formal search, selection and interview the process for the role.

Indeed, football is one of the few industries remaining where senior executives are appointed, frequently on multi-million pound contracts, and then given even larger capex budgets, without any hint of due diligence. In other industries people would, quite literally, go to prison for the crass neglect of fiduciary duty.

Contrast this approach with the typical Fortune 500, or other large corporation, where an executive can expect to beat off potentially hundreds of candidates through a four or five round interview process, technical exercises and psychometric, intelligence, mathematics, language and logic testing. Often this process involves both interviews by the corporation’s board, executive management and outside consultants.

Even known candidates, whose track record is not in doubt, can still expect a due diligence process if only to ensure cultural fit at the highest levels of management.

Yet, football is an industry that is “different” Rant was told by one experienced journalist today; a sector where fickle fans, apparently, will not accept that there should be a process for finding the best candidate, leaving owners to appoint on a wing and a prayer. It is, of course, rank nonsense that helps explain the criminal failure rate of football management appointments.

No surprise, then, with the mocking tone of media coverage of Liverpool’s search and selection process for Kenny Dalglish’s successor at Anfield. Fenway Sports Group, led by Boston Red Sox’ owner John W Henry, has drawn up a long-list of candidates, including André Villas-Boas, Pep Guardiola, Didier Deschamps, Brendan Rodgers and Roberto Martínez whom, prudently, they would like to interview for the post.

Burned by Dalglish, an employee who spent more than £100 million on new players, but whose track record includes just two trophies in the past 20 years, FSG has set about deepening the due diligence process this time around. It is surely a sensible move.

To put Dalglish’s failure in context, while the Scot’s wages were around £4 million per annum, his spending was more than 50 per cent of Liverpool’s annual revenues. This is akin to newly IPO’d Facebook offering a new employee $2 billion to spend on whatever they want, and then Mark Zuckerberg complaining that HR hadn’t interviewed anybody else for the role.

Similarly at Aston Villa, who informally interviewed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on Friday, Randy Lerner is seeking to cast the net wide to find not only the best candidate, but the man who will fit with the ethos and philosophy of the owner, staff and players. Solskjaer is not the only candidate, with Lerner undertaking a process, not simply appointing the latest hot thing.

Yet, there is still shock in the British media that FSG should want to break with football’s traditional method of appointing managers on a nod and a wink. Managers – ‘the most important employee at a football club’ – Rant was told, do not like to be interviewed because it undermines their current position. The heart bleeds that football clubs are, apparently, simply unable to recruit in the normal fashion, behind closed doors, and with a sensible level of due diligence.

Meanwhile, in the capital Roman Abramovich will likely continue the model that has served Chelsea poorly since Jose Mourinho’s departure. On each occasion Abramovich has anointed the new man seemingly on a whim – either through personal friendship, or in the case of the aforementioned Villas-Boas, because the Portuguese was the latest ‘hot thing’ on the market. The last mistake cost the Russian oligarch nearly £30 million, and his team a place in next year’s Champions League.

Which is all the more worrying when United comes round to replacing Ferguson. After all, while we know much about Mourinho, Solskjaer, and even David Moyes on a superficial basis, United’s senior executives will have little insight on a personal level. Not so much the blind leading the blind into a new era, as the partially sighted hoping that the light ahead is the end of the tunnel, and not a train wreck waiting to happen.

It’s precisely why FSG, despite the monumental mishandling of Liverpool’s transfer, communications and marketing strategy over the past 12 months, is now doing the right thing. Football industry be dammed, it’s better to get the right man, despite the negative headlines, than appoint another ill-fitting candidate on little-to-no information.

And while United fans may snigger at Swansea manager Rodgers turning down, on Friday, an interview with Liverpool, it may be best to remember that old Cooke refrain: change is gonna come. The question is, how will United manage its way through?

Rant Cast 114 – end of season spectaculaaaaar

Ed May 18, 2012 Tags: Rant Cast 41 comments

In the final double-length Rant Cast of the season regulars Ed and Paul look back on Manchester United’s victory over Sunderland, which ultimately proved fruitless as Manchester City stole the Premier League crown in dramatic circumstances.

We offer an all encompassing review of the season, looking at the reasons United didn’t take this year’s title and what Sir Alex Ferguson might do about it in the summer. We ponder what’s next for a legion of United players including Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Anderson, Michael Owen, Dimitar Berbatov, Tom Cleverley, Darren Fletcher, David de Gea, Phil Jones and Paul Pogba!

Also this week: Rant Cast Awards – our best and worst moments of the season, favourite goals, best games and top players. Plus ll your nominations!

We talk Kenny Dalglish as Fenway Sports Group finally fires the veteran Scot from his post in charge of Liverpool, and with United’s Q3 financials out we ask just how have the Glazers spent £71 million on debt repayment in the current financial year.

Europe: Roy Hodgson excludes Rio Ferdinand and Michael Carrick from a thoroughly depressing Euro 2012 squad, and the Champions League final with Chelsea and Bayern Munich.

Finally, in a special end of season bonus we also have interviews with some of our favourite listeners, friends and bloggers….

  • Awate Suileman on Paul Scholes
  • Sean Birch on beautiful moments
  • Doron Salomon on the youth and reserves season
  • Tom Pattison on his favourite goal

Hit us up with any feedback below or follow the pod on Twitter: Paul – @UtdRantCast, Ed – @UnitedRant.

And if you really love the show, you can always help cover our bandwidth and equipment costs by making a small donation!

Stream this episode using the player below or listen on iTunes and leave us a review! The podcast RSS feed is available here.

Rant’s Premier Predictions 2011/12 revisited

Ed May 16, 2012 Tags: Opinion 7 comments

Every year United Rant uses a highly complex mathematical formula developed by the boffins working on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, Switzerland, to predict the future. Drawing on the same supercomputing power that is looking at the very beginnings of the universe, Rant forecasts the season’s winners and losers with uncanny accuracy. Well, either that or we take a wild stab in the dark. You decide!

In truth, this year hasn’t been the finest for Rant’s prediction engine, with our pre-season forecasts largely turning our wrong – just 5/29 events in fact. After all, we believed Manchester United would take the Premier League title and, worse still, Newcastle United would face relegation! In the past two years we have predicted 9/29 and 13/29 correct events.

On the other hand we did pick Robin van Persie as our player of the year, Atlético de Madrid as Europa League winners and Neil Warnock to be sacked.

How did you do?

United’s Season

  • Premier League: winners SECOND
  • Champions League: semi-final GROUP STAGE
  • Carling Cup: semi-final QUARTER FINAL
  • FA Cup: fifth round FOURTH ROUND
  • Player of the Year: Nemanja Vidic ANTONIO VALENCIA
  • Reserve Player of the Year: Paul Pogba MICHAEL KEANE

Premier League Top Ten

  1. Manchester United MANCHESTER CITY
  2. Manchester City MANCHESTER UNITED
  3. Chelsea ARSENAL
  4. Arsenal TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR
  5. Liverpool NEWCASTLE UNITED
  6. Tottenham Hotspur CHELSEA
  7. Everton EVERTON
  8. Aston Villa LIVERPOOL
  9. Sunderland FULHAM
  10. Fulham WEST BROMWICH ALBION

Relegated

  • Swansea BOLTON WANDERERS
  • Norwich BLACKBURN ROVERS
  • Newcastle WOLVERHAMPTON WANDERERS

Champions League

  • Winners: Barcelona CHELSEA/BAYERN MUNICH
  • Runners-up: Real Madrid CHELSEA/BAYERN MUNICH

Europa League

  • Atlético de Madrid ATLETICO DE MADRID

FA Cup

  • Liverpool CHELSEA

Carling Cup

  • Manchester City LIVERPOOL
Euro 2012
  • Spain SPAIN

Player of the Season

  • Robin van Persie, Arsenal ROBIN VAN PERSIE

Young Player of the Season

  • Javier Hernández, Manchester United KYLE WALKER

Sack Race

  • Steve Keen, Blackburn Rovers INCORRECT
  • Alan Pardew, Newcastle United INCORRECT
  • Neil Warnock, Queens Park Rangers SACKED

Season review and ratings 2011/12

Ed May 14, 2012 Tags: , Opinion 69 comments

Barely 12 months on from the glory of a 19th league triumph the season has ended in disappointment on five fronts: beaten by Manchester City in the Premier League, knocked out of two European competitions at a premature stage, and defeated early in the domestic cup competitions too. Trophyless for the first time since 2005, Manchester United’s players and staff will depart for their summer holidays with much to ponder.

While a year ago bold terrace chatter was centred on how to match Barcelona after a Wembley chasing that lives long in the memory, the mood among United’s support today is of a far lower key. Defeat to Roberto Mancini’s City may have come by the narrowest of margins, but it is hard to argue with the conclusion. After all, for large parts of the campaign Sir Alex Ferguson’s side flattered to deceive; results achieved seemingly not through stylish football, but the force of the manager’s will.

Yet, the campaign began in such positive fashion – defeating City in the Community Shield at Wembley, running up a cricket score against Arsenal at Old Trafford, and securing eight league victories on the bounce before defeat. Ferguson’s side played some delightful football in the process, with Tom Cleverley and Anderson weaving pretty patterns in the centre of the park.

It didn’t last of course, with Cleverley injured at Bolton Wanderers in mid September, before City spanked United for six the following month. Ferguson’s side recovered, but the spirit of adventure was broken as the manager led a re-think of United’s open, attacking strategy.

Then, Anderson succumbed to injury once again, along with a dozen other first team players, leaving Ferguson to field Park Ji-Sung and Rafael da Silva in central midfield in the calamitous 3-2 loss at home to Blackburn Rovers in December. Old Trafford’s physio room has never seen anything like it.

Through the winter United ground out results, facing down an injury crisis of Biblical proportions while remaining in touch with Mancini’s outfit. Indeed, while defeat at Newcastle United sparked talk of another form of crisis, United secured a remarkable run of results post-Christmas that first ate in to City’s Premier League lead, and then put clear blue water between the clubs. It proved a false dawn.

Meanwhile, in Europe Ferguson had seemingly believed all the post-Wembley talk of surpassing Barcelona and sent out a scratch side to face Benfica at Estadio da Luz, securing a fortunate draw in the opening Champions League group clash. It proved to be a pattern though, with United taking to the competition with such conceit that a group exit was thoroughly deserved. Benfica and FC Basel are not among Europe’s elite, but Ferguson’s side was taught the hard way that the opponents had earned more respect.

The disastrous exit from the Champions League was compounded by a horrific triple knee injury to captain Nemanja Vidić during United’s defeat in Basel that appeared to sum up a season of injury calamity.

Ferguson, though, was not to be turned from his course, treating the Europa League with the same disdain as its bigger brother. Ajax was surpassed despite the Dutch side’s bright performance over two legs, only for United to be thoroughly humiliated by Athletic Bilbao. Committed, technically gifted, and adventurous, the Basque side was everything United was not. So much for conquering Europe, the Reds were relegated to the continent’s third tier.

Meanwhile, back at home Ferguson used the Carling Cup not to blood youngsters as many had hoped – with Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison drawing particular attention from supporters – but to offer minutes to fringe players including Park, Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Owen. Defeat by Crystal Palace at Old Trafford followed in November in a match where Ferguson fielded nine internationals – as slipshod and muddled performance as any this season.

In the FA Cup United beat City at Eastlands in January, but only after the Blues’ captain Vincent Kompany has seen red for a crude lunging challenge. United’s 3-2 victory told only part of the story though, with City dominating much of the second half despite being a man light. If anything while United progressed, City ended the match with renewed belief. The Reds welcomed Paul Scholes back into the fold in what proved a pivotal day.

Then, in the fourth round United travelled to Liverpool amid the storm created by Luis Suarez’ racial abuse of Patrice Evra. Liverpool’s Andy Carroll inspired battering of United’s callow goalkeeper David de Gea won the home side victory as United tumbled out of the FA Cup for another year.

Two weeks later Ferguson’s side met the Merseysiders again, this time at Old Trafford in the Premier League, and this time with Suarez and Evra meeting for the first time since the Uruguayan used the word “negro” seven times in a race-inspired tirade of hatred. After United secured victory Evra danced for joy in front of the Liverpool striker, who had refused to shake the United captain’s hand.

With Ferguson’s side out of four cup competitions the schedule was surprisingly light in the spring, allowing Scholes to find imperious form alongside Carrick in central midfield. Ferguson’s defence stopped leaking goals, and Danny Welbeck formed an impressive partnership with Rooney in attack. Antonio Valencia was simply dazzling in attack.

Yet, the good form couldn’t last and much of what would come to pass in April and May bore the old signs of complacency. Defeat at Wigan Athletic was, quite literally, unprecedented; throwing a two goal lead away against Everton simply criminal.

While Ferguson’s players bore the brunt of supporter criticism, the manager’s decision-making for once failed to pay dividends. Resting Scholes at Wigan disrupted United’s rhythm, while the decision not to throw an extra body into midfield with 15 minutes to go at home to Everton proved desperately short-sighted. The Reds’ negative tactics and subservience to City at Eastlands was simply not ‘the United way’. So much so, in fact, that it is still barely forgivable. It is on that day that United’s hegemony was broken and City’s long wait for domestic superiority ended.

And so to the final day drama, which almost ended with United as Champions. Yet, in truth, for all the media talk of the ‘finest Premier League season’, it was little more than a remarkable end to an unspectacular United campaign.

Hope will grow in the coming weeks though: that Ferguson will refresh his squad with new faces, and that injured stars will return good as new. Hope always springs eternal. Whether Ferguson and his pay-masters will dash it on the rocks of value is another concern altogether.

Sir Alex Ferguson – so many contradictions in the great Scot’s season. After all, with a weaker squad than for some seasons, and with key positions not strengthened during the summer, United’s 89 point Premier League haul is a fine achievement. Indeed, with an injury crisis to boot, Ferguson has dragged far more than the sum of the parts out of his squad, pushing City’s £500 million team to the very limit. Yet, whether by misjudgment or design, United sacrificed a European campaign during the process – defeat bedded on a dubiously arrogant view of the opponents. Then, during critical games over the final month Ferguson made more mistakes, not least Scholes’ absence at Wigan and the negative tactics deployed at City. Moreover, the United manager is unlikely to address the root cause of his squad’s limitations this summer. The Scot may be reinvigorated by City’s challenge, but unless he is allowed to invest, he will only find next season harder still. 7/10

David de Gea – 39 appearances, 0 goals – it took little more than a game against City in the Community Shield last August for the young Spaniard’s critics to crawl out of the woodwork. Early season mistakes, while 20-year-old de Gea was finding his feet on English soil, were always inevitable. So too was the media over-reaction. Yet, from adversity de Gea found a new strength in the spring, finishing the campaign strongly and eliminating any doubt, at least from those of a more rational perspective, of the youngster’s enduring quality. 6/10

Anders Lindegaard – 11, 0 – had injury not struck just as de Gea reached his lowest ebb, it may well have been Lindegaard, and not the Spaniard, who took charge between the sticks during the run-in. Solid, if unspectacular, Lindegaard could be an outstanding number two. The challenge for the Dane, with de Gea’s quality no longer in doubt, is whether he wants to warm the bench for lengthy periods next season. 6/10

Patrice Evra – 47, 0 – not the finest campaign from United’s experienced Frenchman, but then surely an improvement on 2010/11. Evra’s attacking verve returned in the second half of the season, especially once vindicated by the Suarez verdict in late December. We may never see a return to Evra’s outstanding form of 2008-2010 when the Frenchman was the world’s finest left back, but Ferguson will squeeze at least another season out of the 31-year-old. The question is, is Evra on the wane? 6/10

Phil Jones – 41, 2 – the youngster’s barnstorming start to the season gave way to injury, burn-out and inconsistency at the business end. There is much more to come from Jones, whose natural talent and physical assets mark the former Blackburn Rovers player out as a future star. Ferguson’s temptation to tinker with Jones’ role can’t help though. Needs to hold down a place in one position, but which one? 6/10

Rio Ferdinand – 38, 0 – the veteran’s injury plagued years are now behind him. Who would have predicted it after three season’s of back injuries? And with Vidić injured in December, Ferdinand’s form has been key to holding United’s defence together. Made mistakes, not least in the 4-4 draw with Everton, but a key player this season. 7/10

Chris Smalling – 30, 2 – not the season of progression Smalling would have hoped for after such a promising campaign in 2010/11. Injury, and Ferguson’s decision to shift the former Fulham player to right-back have not helped though. Will want to challenge for a permanent place in central defence next season. 6/10

Nemanja Vidić – 10, 0 – simply outstanding prior to injury against FC Basel in December. How would United’s season have turned out with the Serbian fit? Supporters will, of course, never know. Yet, turning 30 and coming back from a triple knee injury places a large question mark over the defender’s future career. Will miss the start of next season and may never be the same again. 6/10

Jonny Evans – 40, 1 – breakthrough season from the Northern Irishman who has shown such composure first to fill in for Ferdinand, and then take over from Vidić. Gone are the concerns about Evans’ ability to compete physically, and what’s more the Irishman’s levels of concentration have increased ten-fold. Evans’ disappointing performance in the draw with Everton does little more than demonstrate how far he has progressed. 8/10

Rafael da Silva – 18, 0 – it could, should, have been a breakthrough season for the Brazilian. Although Rafael started the campaign on the sidelines with injury, he performed strongly in the spring. Concentration levels were better, and defensively the youngster was far less of a liability. Yet, Rafael’s disastrous performance against Everton was ruthlessly punished by Sir Alex. 6/10

Fabio da Silva – 15, 0 – after finishing the previous campaign in Ferguson’s Champions League final line-up, Fabio’s progress has once again been hampered by injury this season. A loan away, possibly to Benfica, will make or break Fabio’s United career. 5/10

Ryan Giggs – 33, 4 – undoubtedly the legendary Welshman’s worse campaign in a United shirt, with a series of worryingly poor performances in central midfield. Gary Neville retired once the performance levels dropped below the acceptable. Giggs, by contrast, has taken another year’s contract. 4/10

Park Ji-Sung – 28, 4 – Park’s United career will now be defined by the calamitous inclusion in Ferguson’s selection for the derby at Eastlands in April. The South Korean hadn’t started a game in four months and it showed, with a performance of mediocrity bordering on the embarrassing. Good servant though Park has been it is hard to define his enduring value to United. 4/10

Michael Carrick – 41, 2 – Carrick’s finest season in a United shirt since 2008, with the Geordie outstanding in the centre of midfield after returning to Ferguson’s team in November. Near perfect pass completion stats, with a positive distribution that bust many a myth. Held United’s midfield together at times. Rant’s player of the season. 9/10

Luis Nani – 40, 10 – another positive season from, at times, the most frustrating player in Ferguson’s squad. Brilliant and wasteful in almost equal measure. One goal in every four appearances is acceptable from one of Ferguson’s key attacking players, with a strong assists contribution too. Yet Nani has not progressed from an excellent 2010/11 campaign. 7/10

Paul Scholes – 21, 4 – there’s no doubt that Scholes’ return to Ferguson’s squad in January came at the right time for club and player. Shorn of so many midfielders, Ferguson’s was an act of desperation amid tight budget concerns. Yet, matches against City and Everton aside, Scholes has been outstanding for Ferguson once again. Rolled back the clock, although unlikely to repeat the feat across a full campaign next season. 8/10

Ashley Young – 33, 8 – a productive season from the former Aston Villa man, who has contributed some outstanding goals and far better set-piece distribution than in previous campaigns. A very public row about diving was unfortunate, as was a severe mid-season dip in form followed by injury. Young is a quality player, but probably not the signing United really needed last summer. 7/10

Antonio Valencia – 38, 6 – Valencia’s exclusion from Ferguson’s line-up for the April derby was simply inexplicable given the Ecuadorian’s outstanding spring form. Valencia’s may be an old-fashioned form of wide play amid the prevailing taste for inverted wingers, but it’s certainly effective. Must be one of the first names on Ferguson’s team sheet next season? 8/10

Tom Cleverley – 15, 0 – such a positive start to the season for the youngster seeking his breakthrough campaign at Old Trafford. Yet the promise was shattered at Bolton in mid-September when Kevin Davies’ late tackle put Cleverley on the sidelines for six months. Could not break into the first team when returning to fitness. 5/10

Darren Fletcher – 10, 2 – another illness hit season, with the Scottish captain taking a long-term break from the game in a last-ditch bid to save his United career. His long-term condition is such that he may yet be affected once again, even if the midfielder makes a first team return as hoped next season. 5/10

Anderson – 16, 2 – the burger-eating Brazilian brought hope, for about a month, that after nearly five years at the club he would finally justify the €30 million transfer fee. Sadly, Anderson is always an injury waiting to happen and missed much of the season once again. Likely to be given yet another chance at Old Trafford though as Ferguson seeks to make the best of a small summer budget. 4/10

Wayne Rooney – 43, 34 – it comes to something when Rooney scores more than 30 goals in a season, yet was not United’s best player. It’s not that Rooney hasn’t been outstanding at times – he has excelled in a far deeper role – but there was also inconsistency of performance. Critical to United’s chances next season, assuming he hasn’t come to realise the scale of the ‘other’ Manchester team’s ambition. 8/10

Javier Hernández – 36, 12 – a difficult second season you say? Well, yes, although there are plenty of caveats for the diminutive Mexican striker. Last summer’s Gold Cup, followed by injury on pre-season, and further spells on the sidelines have not helped Chicharito’s rhythm. Neither has Rooney’s partnership with Danny Welbeck in attack. There’s plenty more to come from Hernández, but he needs to improve his all round game. 6/10

Dimitar Berbatov 21, 9 – what a sad end for the outrageously talent Bulgarian, who has been ostracised for large parts of the season. Having scored more than 20 league goals in the previous campaign many hoped that the former Tottenham Hotspur would put any lingering doubts about his United role behind him. It wasn’t to be, with Ferguson seemingly losing trust in the striker. 5/10

Danny Welbeck – 39, 12 – breakthrough season for the England international who formed a fine partnership with Rooney in attack. Welbeck’s all-round game, vastly improved first touch, and awareness have catapulted the Longsight-born striker into Sir Alex’ first team ahead more celebrated rivals. Needs to improve his finishing if he is to become a striker of the very highest class. 7/10

Tomasz Kuszczak – The Pole in Goal spent another season of slavery on the Old Trafford sidelines before departing on loan to Watford in January.

Ben Amos – four games in a frustrating season for Amos. Must seek loan football elsewhere next season.

Bébé – spent the season on loan with Besiktas, where the £7.4 million misfit first suffered a serious knee injury and then was consigned to the reserves after a breach of team discipline.

Paul Pogba – much vaunted French midfielder is set to leave United for pastures new after failing to break into the first team this season being offered a lucrative contract at Juventus.

Michael Owen – United’s resident oxygen abuser has picked up another year’s salary. Well earned for being Ferguson’s in-house tipster.

Federico Macheda – another frustrating season beset by injury for the Italian youngsters. Will either be sold or loaned away during the summer