Silverware! One, two, three – just like that new manager José Mourinho secured two major trophies and the season-opening Community Shield. Victory over Ajax in the Europa League final upgraded the campaign from disappointing to promising – and with it Mourinho secured just Manchester United’s fifth ever European trophy and passage through to next season’s Champions League. Yet, there’s no hiding the club’s poor finish in the league, and if there’s any measure that truly counts, it’s United’s performance against peers. There is much work to do and plenty of decisions to make over the summer.
… and breathe! It ended with Manchester United missing out on fourth place in the Premier League for the second time in three seasons, an FA Cup win, Louis van Gaal’s inevitable dismissal, and José Mourinho’s much-discussed arrival. There was drama at the last to follow an otherwise immensely forgettable season. Van Gaal’s second campaign in charge should have brought real progress. It didn’t, and anything less was always going to be viewed as failure after another summer of significant spending. After all, when Rant wrote that “few at Old Trafford should celebrate becoming England’s fourth best side” this time last year, it reflected an obvious reality – failure is just not United.
“Success,” claimed Manchester United captain Wayne Rooney – an assessment is already a debate among United’s legion support. After all, the key performance metric has been achieved: United will qualify for the Champions League, bar for any slip in a mid-August play-off against what is likely to be a tough opponent. Yet, Louis van Gaal’s side has earned the second lowest points total of any United side in the past 25 years, while being dumped out of the Capital One Cup by League One Milton Keynes Dons. United’s passage to the FA Cup quarter-final and eventual limp home defeat to Arsenal was hardly inspiring stuff either.
Indeed, any debate around the merits of United’s season rests on the nuance of relative versus absolute performance. The Reds’ performances have been superior to almost anything during the failed David Moyes experiment; a freak-show so grotesque almost no manager could fail to improve United’s situation. This is also a side that has achieved just six more points a year hence. It says something for United’s trajectory that the relative performance feels more positive than just two Premier League wins extra.
Inevitably the campaign’s narrative is wrapped up in the impact of Van Gaal’s arrival, although the Dutchman’s quirks have also been masked by the influx of genuine, if expensive, talent that has not always performed to the levels expected at Old Trafford. No longer is under-investment a charge that can be levelled at United’s hierarchy, even if the root of the team’s regression over the past 24 months surely lies in years of austerity instilled by the Glazer family, and supported by Sir Alex Ferguson.
It is just two years since United gloriously lifted the Premier League trophy in Ferguson’s last campaign, but the squad now bares little resemblance to the shell the Scot left for Moyes. Van Gaal’s acquisitions last summer have undoubtedly boosted the squad’s quality from a year ago even if few of the new players can claim unmitigated success. After all, £150 million spent is scant reward for just six extra points even if comparing performances across seasons is a challenging errand.
In the end this has been a season when Van Gaal righted a listing ship and little more. In absolute terms few at Old Trafford should celebrate becoming England’s fourth best side. It’s just not United. Much more is expected when the new campaign kicks off next August. 6/10
– – –
Louis van Gaal
There is an aura about Van Gaal that affords the Dutchman greater leeway than many coaches could expect. Moyes might well look at the inconsistencies of Van Gaal’s team, together with the huge amount of money spent last summer, and wonder what might have been. After all, Van Gaal’s team has only occasionally excelled this season, albeit in games including fixtures against Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and Manchester City when it really counted during the spring.
There is also much to be frustrated with as well. Van Gaal’s constant tinkering with personnel and systems has probably hindered not helped his side. There will be a time when tactical flexibility is a huge boon for United; during a period of rebuilding it looked very much like Van Gaal simply couldn’t make his mind up. Then there is the in-game management that has often left much to be desired and the, as yet unexplained, decision both to retain Rooney no matter how poor the captain’s performances. Meanwhile Van Gaal benched Adnan Januzaj and Angel di Maria for large parts of the season. Surely a coach of Van Gaal’s standing could draw more from that duo?
The positives outweigh any criticism though. Van Gaal’s aura counts for much more than a superficial observation about the Dutchman’s charisma. Here is a man that a squad can rally around and for whom many of the continent’s best players will want to play. The Dutchman may well spend no more time at United than the three years on his contract, but there is at least some belief he hold’s a real plan for success. 6.5/10
– – –
David de Gea
Rant’s Player of the Year in 2013/14 holds on to the (not in the least bit) coveted trophy. No surprises there; De Gea is United’s only genuinely world-class performer over the past 10 months. Save for a small group of indifferent performances during the beginning and end of the campaign, De Gea has been near immaculate this season. Performances against Everton, Liverpool, Crystal Palace and others have probably netted United an extra 10 points beyond the total that might have been gained if the side had included a lesser ‘keeper. Such as shame that the Spaniard is almost certain to return to Madrid this summer. United is poorer for it. 9/10 – Rant’s Player of the Year.
– – –
There is plenty of hope that the former Southampton full-back will prove an astute purchase, if one that cost United an eye-watering £30 million for a teenager defender. Shaw’s raw ingredients are strong: pace, a natural attacking instinct and solid defensive nous. It is, then, such as shame that the youngster’s body has let him down this season. Van Gaal points to burnout, which may well be a factor after Shaw played most of Soton’s games last season and travelled with the England squad to Brazil. He is not a player with a long history of injury so the hope is for a stark improvement over the next 12 months. 6/10
Rafael da Silva
The past seven years should really should have been so much better for Rafael. The diminutive Brazilian was supposed to have matured into an international class full-back by now. There has always been much to admire: pace, natural attacking instincts and genuine tenacity in the tackle. On paper the 24-year-old should offer much in an attacking Van Gaal team. Yet, once again, Rafael’s propensity for injury and inconsistency have come to the fore. There were a clutch of stand-out performances in the autumn, but these will be forgotten from a player who is so rarely fit and, ultimately, Van Gaal could not trust. 3/10
The Ecuadorian has been a disappointment as a right-winger for much of the past four years. In that assessment it is perhaps odd that Valencia has taken, albeit with mixed results, to a permanent defensive role. He has many attributes at full-back – pace and athleticism is a boon, while Valencia rarely gives the ball away, which Van Gaal appreciates. The former Wigan Athletic player’s defensive instincts remain a concern though and Valencia’s propensity to wander out of position has cost United this season. It has been a solid campaign, but little more. 6/10
There is just a touch of regret in looking back on the Argentinian’s season. In one sense Rojo has surprised with his quality on the ball, determination and defensive leadership. In another, injuries have disrupted a debut campaign to much frustration. Rojo started just 19 of United’s 28 Premier League matches. It’s not enough for a player who could well be a fixture in the side for years to come. Fitness and United’s summer acquisition strategy will determine whether that forecast comes true or not. For the moment Rojo deserves credit for impressing when fit this season. 7/10
There were questions about just how far Evans could go at United a year ago. There is little doubt that the Northern Irishman has regressed over the past two seasons. The trouble with Evans is that a mistake always appears imminent and, at 27, the defender is no longer the inexperienced kid returning from a loan spell at Sunderland full of hope. There’s no brook with the player’s effort or attitude. Yet, there has always been the nagging feeling that he was never quite good enough to represent United. After a season in which injury, poor form and an unfortunate suspension have hit the player hard, a move might well revitalise his career. So long Johnny. 3/10
Jones has enjoyed a season of some progress at Old Trafford after being restored to the heart of United’s defence. It is a step forward, although injuries have again restricted the former Blackburn Rovers defender to less than 30 games for the club. This is simply not good enough. At times Jones has become the defensive leader many hoped for in the departures of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. Yet, there is also the nagging feeling that Jones has progressed too little after five years with the club. Once again we lament fitness for robbing United of the consistent application of talent, albeit one that is still a little too raw for the palette. 7/10
Smalling’s career is, said Rant one year ago, a “at a cross-roads.” Form, fitness and consistency had always plagued the former Fulham defender. Moyes’ decision to field Smalling at right-back did not help. Nor did the brain-dead red card against City at the Etihad earlier this season; it was a mistake that might well have broken lesser men. Yet, Smalling has emerged as one of United’s successes this season. If not the best outfield player’s during the campaign then close to it. Post-City Smalling has been a model of consistency in central defence. Should the 25-year-old progress at the same rate from next August then United will have, at last, found Vidic’s natural successor. 8/10
There is credit due to Van Gaal for offering McNair a chance and even more to the player for demonstrating a rare maturity in a defender so young. McNair has played 18 times for United this season; far more than expected of a player who was not a regular fixture in United’s under-21 side. The club’s likely acquisition of an experienced central defender will push McNair down Van Gaal’s preferred list, although a loan away from the club should suit all parties. Van Gaal might well have uncovered a gem for the long-term. 6/10
Blackett enjoyed an unexpected rise to the first team before Christmas, although has rarely featured in the subsequent months. United’s probable purchase of an international-standard experienced central defender in the summer is likely to cut Blackett’s chances further. Still, it has been something of a breakthrough campaign, with a series of largely composed performances. There have been mistakes too – something that will be eradicated with experience. Blackett’s United future is not guaranteed, with a loan away next season a beneficial move. 5/10
– – –
Angel Di Maria
Remember the excitement? Nearly £60 million spent on a truly world-class star; Europe’s leading assist-maker in 2013/14 and the Man of the Match in Real Madrid’s La Decima Champions League final victory. The season started well for Di Maria too. There were stunning performances to go with that magical goal against Leicester City. It lasted not long enough. The Argentinian’s form wavered and a house break-in seemingly robbed the player of his spirit as well as his possessions. The challenge isn’t physical so much as mental and a level of adaptation to Van Gaal’s ‘philosophy’ is required. While Di Maria is United’s leading assists-maker this season a renewed sense of focus on his performances next season is required of truly wonderful talent. 5/10
Once the poster child for United’s midfield failings, Young has enjoyed a season of progression at Old Trafford. The former Aston Villa player has never been of the requisite quality and the question has often been asked about his value with more than £5 million a season paid in wages. Yet, there has been a level of consistency to admire over the past 10 months, even if that has brought just five assists and two goals. Young remains mediocre by almost any data point of relevance, yet he has also moved from being a player that earned only rejection at United to being a very solid Premier League performer and a good squad player next season. 7/10
There was little the Belgian could do about United’s astonishingly haphazard acquisition two summers ago, nor the offensively large fee. It is to Fellaini’s credit that the midfielder has recovered from last season’s epic failure to become a significant part of Van Gaal’s squad. Six goals have proven useful as has, at times, the opportunity for Untied to enact a ‘plan B’. Still, performances towards the latter end of the campaign have been far more reminiscent of those under Moyes and the former Evertonian is yet to register an assist this season. It will surprise if Fellaini remains as big a factor next year, with Van Gaal seeking to challenge on all fronts. 6/10
Carrick has recovered from his worst campaign in four years last season under Moyes only to suffer injury for almost half of the current campaign. When fit the Geordie remains a calming and influential force, both his terms of United’s defensive nous and attacking verve. Carrick’s passing remains outstanding and his defensive coverage all the more impressive for the failure of others in his role over the season. Still, Carrick is approaching the autumn of a very successful career. Van Gaal needs a replacement this summer for all Carrick’s enduring quality. 7/10
It seemed, at first, as if United’s £30 million acquisition could do little right. Van Gaal benched the former Athletic Bilbao midfielder for significant periods during the late summer and autumn. It proved a frustrating time for player and supporters alike. Still, Herrera has emerged from a tough start to the campaign to become United’s best midfielder – a player whose ability to quickly play neat and penetrative passes has proven critical in securing a Champions League spot. Goals have come too and perhaps the greatest praise on offer is that Herrera has actually improved on the player United acquired for a not insubstantial sum. 8/10
United’s opportunistic acquisition of Mata in January 2014 has only intermittently looked good business. After all, Mata’s performances remain inconsistent and there is a tendency to for the player drop out of view during the biggest games. Mata is not aided by Van Gaal’s decision to deploy the Spaniard as a “false winger” – a role that Mata has enjoyed if only for the freedom that it proffers the player to move inside. He is a number 10 waiting to escape and still United’s most creative player. That said Mata has offered a decent number of goals and assists this season – and there will always be that double at Anfield. 7/10
Blind is a player that divides opinion, although not about the Dutchman’s good looks or fine hair. It says much that the Dutchman’s greatest achievement is to reinforce the impression that Carrick is indispensable. Blind’s best performances have come at left-back, yet the former Ajax player was largely acquired for a defensive midfield role. In this position Blind’s lack of pace and dubious defensive coverage have too often been exposed. In defence Blind enjoyed a fine spell at full-back, but with Shaw likely to enjoy a full summer of recuperation, the Dutchman could find that the bench is an unhappy location for much of next season. 6/10
There are few bigger disappointments this year than Januzaj’s regression. This is, after all, the “boy who can do anything.” Those twinkle toes, classy distribution and eye for a goal have been missing too often. There is so much talent in the Belgian’s dancing feet that United has lost a significant attacking force in Januzaj’s absence. In part, Van Gaal simply doesn’t trust the youngster yet; in part the player has failed to adapt to new methods. Mostly the Januzaj simply didn’t fit in his manager’s system. In the 4-3-3 formation Van Gaal is planning for next season Januzaj might flourish, but with confidence shot a move away on a season’s loan could be a sensible path forward for all. 3/10
– – –
Robin van Persie
Well, we’ll always have 2013! Van Persie’s second disappointing campaign in succession should spell the end for the Dutchman at United. Something turned sour for Van Persie under Moyes. It is a problem that has not been fully rectified. Although where Van Persie simply did not take to Moyes, injuries an age have become far more of a factor over the past season. Van Persie’s £24 million fee may not turn out to be great value as United will recoup only a fraction of the fee should Van Gaal push out his countryman this summer, but it feels like the right time to let him go. The striker has spent too few minutes on the pitch this season and too many in the treatment room. When Van Persie has played too much of the old pace and movement have ebbed away. It is the cruel passage of time. 4/10
The Colombian joined with much fanfare on deadline-day last summer, with United paying a £6 million loan fee to Monaco and picking up the tab on Falcao’s £265,000-per-week wages. It has proven to be a huge investment for very little return. The striker has scored just four goals in 29 appearances across all competitions this season, while spending much of the campaign on the bench. There is no doubting Falcao’s commitment or workrate, but that extra explosive sharpness has, sadly, gone. In the end the cruciate knee injury suffered in January 2014 has fundamentally changed Falcao for the worse. It is has, in truth, been hard to watch Falcao’s descent from one of the world’s truly élite strikers to a man struggling to make any impact at all. 3/10
Rooney spent much of last season being fêted by Moyes. This has been a campaign in which Rooney has enjoyed the “special priviliges” of club captaincy. Yet, the number of strong performances this season have numbered very few. The return on huge wages and sycophantic fawning too little. Rooney has, after all, scored fewer goals this season than during any over the past decade at United. That stat is skewed by some 14 games played in midfield over the season – a clutch of performances that were among the worst of any United midfielder. Up front, the old dynamism is all too rare, despite Gary Neville’s widely shared praise of the forward’s tactical discipline. That point is still under debate – as is Rooney’s enduring value to United. It has, in truth, been a mediocre campaign set against even more mediocre performances from attacking colleagues. 6/10
The striker has featured in 16 games – 12 as sub – scoring two goals for Van Gaal’s side this season. It has not quite been the breakthrough campaign for which many hoped. Wilson’s immediate United future probably depends on whether Van Persie remains at United next season and whether the club chooses to spend on a new forward this summer. A loan away is possible even if Van Gaal was reluctant to sanction it this season. Still, there is also a sense in which Van Gaal is looking for Wilson to kick on next season. 5/10
* ratings given to players who have made 10 appearances or more in all competitions
There is a risk in analysing this most disappointing season that supporters become trapped in the accusation of infantile complaint. After all, Manchester United’s fans have enjoyed two decades of almost unbroken success. Now is not the time to become churlish. That success was enjoyed until Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, the Glazer family’s parsimony and David Moyes’ incompetence combined to take the club down.
Still, it has been – as a matter of record – United’s worst season since the 1980s. More than results alone, it was a campaign in which the football was rarely enjoyable and the manager came to dominate in such a negative fashion that the overwhelming emotion on David Moyes’ departure was relief – and hope that the old United might return again. It is a damning assessment of Moyes’ reign; he is a man patently unsuited to the club whatever his previous record with Everton.
In truth the season is wrapped up in an assessment of Moyes: negative tactics, anemic thought processes, and a stunningly adverse reaction from United’s multi-millionaires players to the former Everton manager. That United’s board retained faith in the 51-year-old until the spring is perhaps the only surprise in Moyes’ eventual departure.
In retrospect it is hard to reconcile United’s thought process last summer with a club that depicts an image of ultra-professionalism. There was simply no due diligence undertaken on the Scot’s appointment – and United has paid a heavy price for it. Indeed, that price is around £50 million over the next year and untold damage to a reputation hard earned.
Yet, failure is apportioned not only to the now departed manager. Years of underinvestment left a squad shy of Sir Alex Ferguson’s best, no matter Ed Woodward’s belief that United needed “no major retooling” last summer. And where United did chase new players the club did so to comical fashion. Even Juan Mata’s winter purchase was one of expediency over strategy. The approach left Moyes short of players and his masters bereft of credibility.
Still, there is little left to say about Moyes that has not already been written. United’s decision to end the Scot’s reign has empowered the club and fans to move on from a campaign that most hope is a one-off.
Yet, failure has also brought into sharp relief the rebuilding challenge in the coming weeks. United’s test is to ensure that the process is managed correctly this time around. 3/10
– – –
The Scot wasn’t everybody’s choice as United manager. In retrospect it was an appointment in which Moyes was ill-equipped to succeed and one, at least, in which he failed reasonably fast. Foot-in-mouth public relations, a pre-historic tactical approach, an omnishambles of a summer – the campaign could hardly have been worse, nor the Scot’s humiliation greater. Moyes will learn from this, if nothing more than his level is not among the continent’s élite. That is no real criticism. Moyes has many positives, just none of them suited to United, a club too big, too ambitious, and far too political for the Scot’s limited skill set. 3/10
Ryan Giggs – (Player – Interim Manager)
Four games, two wins and a draw. If Giggs’ United had played that form out over the season the Reds would have finished with 66 points – in seventh place. How the saviour hath come. Giggs’ time will arrive as manager and probably at United in three years, although the Welshman is no more qualified to take over the club now than Moyes was last summer. He is United bred, but completely inexperienced in top level management. Still, it was a joy, Ryan.
On the pitch Giggs’ performances were among the best of any United midfielder this season. That says more about the squad than a 40-year-old’s endurance, but there is every reason to believe that if the Welshman retires this summer he does so on a high. 6/10
– – –
David de Gea
There are few ‘keepers in world football that claim to reach the young Spaniard’s standard. De Gea enjoyed a fine campaign in 2012/13, but he bettered it over the past 10 months. It says much when a goalkeeper is the club’s best performer, yet De Gea earned all the plaudits that have come his way in recent times. Brilliant with his hands, superb off the ground, and commanding in the area – there are now few faults. The former Atlético Madrid player should have been named PFA Goalkeeper of the Year and will enjoy a summer in Brazil with the Spanish World Cup squad. 9/10 – Rant’s Player of the Year.
– – –
One final campaign for Potty Paddy the old stager. It has been a mixed year indeed. Moyes’ aggressive search for a new left-back in the summer appeared to signal the end of Evra’s Old Trafford tenure only for the Frenchman to enjoy a fine first half of the campaign. Still, while Evra has continued to surge forward with alacrity, he has simply ignored the defensive responsibilities that come with being United’s left-back. There is still much to value in Evra’s experience and dressing room leadership, but there is also plenty of evidence that his legs have gone. United will recruit a replacement this summer. Whether Evra remains at Old Trafford beyond the summer must be in doubt. 5/10
Rafael da Silva
Unfortunately the Brazilian has regressed this season, in part due to Moyes’ apparent lack of faith in the youngster, but more with injuries again persisting. No player has missed more games through injury this season than Rafael – a data point that suggests United must buy adequate cover this summer. There is hope though. Should Rafael finally reduce those lengthy spells in the physio room prospective manager Louis van Gaal will enjoy use of a fine attacking full-back. 5/10
The limited but willing Dutchman has taken some of the pressure of Evra this season, although not always to positive effect. There has been the odd game in which Büttner’s defending hasn’t been totally calamitous. In that the 25-year-old has certainly improved. But in truth there is little about the former Vitesse Arnhem player that is good enough for United’s level, although Evra’s likely departure may proffer Büttner one final season at the club. 4/10
So long, Rio, not soon to be forgotten. This was in truth not Ferdinand’s finest campaign. Off the pitch there remains more than a little suspicion Rio was among the co-conspirators easing Moyes out of a job. On it, the former England international proffered too many calamitous defensive performances. It wasn’t all his fault of course given the manager’s poor use of a squad containing five international central defenders. It has been an outstanding career, if a mediocre end to 12 fabulous years at Old Trafford. 4/10
No longer a kid, there are questions about just how far Evans can go at United. There is little doubt that the Northern Irishman has progressed each year over the past four, but with a patchy injured record and a penchant for the odd positional mistake, it is not obvious Evans is United’s real answer. At least not at the very top level. The question, of course, is about ambition. If Evans isn’t the man to take United towards domestic and European glory then the club will spend heavily this summer. Evans simply must stay fit to be useful next season. 6/10
One step forward, too many back once again for the talented Jones. The Englishman has appeared in midfield, central defence and right-back this season – it has not helped his progress. Neither have stubborn injuries that have come through ill luck and poor judgement. Experience should push Jones into an élite group of high class central defenders, but as ever time spent with the physio is time not applied on the pitch. The next 12 months are crucial if Jones is to mature into the fine central defender for which many believe he has the raw talent. 6/10
Vidić’s final season at United was not of the rare vintage sometimes enjoyed by the Serbian in the past eight years, but he was still United’s best defender over the campaign. Vidić suffered for injury and inconsistency at times, but if anything his performances improved after the new year when most of his colleagues regressed. The player’s departure should have been handled with more grace, but United will still miss him – and credit is due to a campaigner who refused to let his standards drop to the very last. 7/10
This is now a career at a cross-roads. Smalling has failed to progress over the past two seasons, where injury and deployment out of position have obviously hindered. Smalling is simply ill-equipped to play right-back at the highest level. Natural though defending may come, the former Fulham player is still to improve on sub-par distribution. There is more to come from a player still the right side of 25, but it needs to come soon if he is to make a real impact at United. Like many of his defensive peers at United Smalling must stay fit. 5/10
– – –
One wonders how many times Valencia has put in a cross this season without first knowing where and when his team-mates were arriving. The low success rate is in part due to the one-dimensional nature of United’s tactics for much of the campaign, but so too is the Ecuadorian at fault for the low quality of his delivery. This is to say little of Valencia’s confidence, which has been shot for some time. It is a serious and suspiciously permanent failing in a player who may well have reached the end of his lifespan at Old Trafford. 5/10
The Portuguese signed a contract extension last summer, although it was one of the more curious pieces of business taken by the club. Just 13 appearances this season say much – both for the winger’s poor injury record and the lack of faith demonstrated by the former manager. Nani has talent, but it is worthless without application, and there has been so little over the past 12 months. The assumption is United will take whatever fee is available this summer. Only the hopeful believe that Nani will finally find the consistency of performance that his natural talent demands. 4/10
The poster child for United’s midfield failings. Young has never been of the requisite quality, but when there are just 13 Premier League starts the question must be asked about what value the former Aston Villa player brings for more than £5 million a season in wages? Mediocre doesn’t do Young’s performances justice; they are much worse than that. Upgrade required. 4/10
There was little the Belgian could do about United’s astonishingly haphazard acquisition last summer, nor the offensively large fee. Perhaps the former Evertonian was not at fault for a poor injury record either. That is where the sympathy ends though. On the pitch mediocre performances have been his highlight this season – it has often been much worse. The raw materials are simply absent too. Poor distribution, a chronic lack of speed and a coward’s use of the elbow are permanent failings. United might even do well to take a huge loss of the player this summer. 3/10
Cleverley has regressed from a low base this season. This observation is true whether United’s ‘scapegoat’ has received unfair criticism or not. Those who watched the youngster in loan spells at Watford, Leicester and Wigan Athletic hoped for much more by now. Instead, there are tepid performances followed in rapid succession by another marketing blitz by ‘Team TC23’. The brand may not impact on Cleverley’s game, but it is the source of mirth when the Basingstoke-born midfielder is so abject on the pitch. Much more is required if Cleverley survives the summer cull. 4/10
Carrick’s worst campaign in four years is the one for which the Geordie deserves most criticism. Those who chide the former Tottenham Hotspur player as passive rarely understand Carrick’s real value as a player who expertly rotates possession and offers understated defensive nous. Yet, all his critics came home to roost this season – a campaign in which Carrick’s total lack of ‘oomph’ is compounded by an awful sense of complacency. Must do better. 5/10
Kagawa’s quality is not in doubt; it is the Japanese playmaker’s impact that counts. True, he has too often been deployed out of position, first in wide areas and then, somewhat bizarrely, deeper under Giggs. The former Borussia Dortmund player has so much to offer, but with Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata competing for the same position there remains a question about whether Kagawa will fulfill his fine potential at United. Deserves one more season to turn his Old Trafford career around; there is enough talent to do so. He may even find a place on the left side of van Gaal’s 4-3-3 formation. 6/10
It has been a stellar campaign for the teenager, even if the Belgian appeared sparingly after new year. Januzaj’s rise from academy, to reserves, and then United’s first team has been rapid and spectacular. Yet, it is on merit that the player has earn so many plaudits this season. Januzaj is surely a future world star in the making and likely to be a major factor in new manager van Gaal’s first choice team. Kudos also goes to United’s executive team for sorting out the youngster’s contract early. Lessons have apparently been learned from Paul Pogba’s departure. 7/10
It was, at first, seemingly sentimental: Fletcher’s return to United’s first team. Yet, there have also been some positive performances from the Scot. Just about enough to believe that Fletcher retains a future at the club in some capacity. It still appears unlikely that the midfielder will ever attain his very best standards, but if infrequent appearances augment a squad light on midfield talent, then there is much to be gained from keeping the former academy player on the club’s books for another season. 5/10
The Spaniard’s acquisition formed part of no United transfer strategy. This was all about opportunism. Yet, United have signed a player of rare class who should, all things being equal, enjoy many successful seasons with the club. True, Moyes deployed the playmaker out of position in wide areas for much of the spring, while Giggs did not use the former Chelsea man in each of his four games in charge. Moments of sublime skill interspersed a mixed bag of performances. There is much more to come, but will van Gaal find room at number 10 for the 25-year-old? 7/10
– – –
Robin van Persie
It was the year in which a new term was coined: ‘Moyesitis’. It may well be coincidence, but van Persie’s return from seclusion in Holland, where the striker was apparently recuperating from injury, came just days after Moyes’ dismissal. van Persie and the Scot were simply never on the same mental page. On the pitch injury has curtailed the Dutchman’s impact, although 18 goals in 23 starts across all competitions attests to the striker’s enduring quality. It should come as no surprise when the Dutchman enjoys an injury-free, goalscoring campaign next season under his fellow countryman! 6/10
Rooney spent much of the summer fêted by Moyes, and too many weeks with smoke blown firmly up his rear. There have been outstanding performances, but in truth far less frequent than the established narrative might have supporters believe. The obsequious sycophancy of the autumn has been replaced by a new reality – Rooney is not guaranteed a place in van Gaal’s team. Still, the numbers are undoubtedly good for a player who has been deployed in a deeper role most of the season. It is another big campaign for the Englishman next year. 7/10
One wonders just how long the Mexican will remain at United as understudy to Rooney and van Persie. Hernández suffers for being inflexible in an age when pliability is king. Given more than 40 games a season Chicharito would score at one in every two. Yet, he will never become first choice at Old Trafford. It should surprise few, but sadden many, if Hernández chooses to leave United after the World Cup. The Mexican deserves to be more than a reserve, although just nine goals in all competitions tells a perfunctory tale of the campaign. 5/10
For a period during the middle of the campaign Welbeck scored freely – enjoying a rare spell deployed at centre forward. There is much to admire in the Longsight-born striker, whose all-round game is maturing nicely. Goals count though – and there have been just 10 in 36 games across all competitions. It’s not a poor return, but the suspicion remains that Welbeck may never become United’s first choice striker, even if he will always be much loved. 6/10
* ratings given to players who have made 10 appearances or more in all competitions
What to make of a season that ended with the Premier League trophy being returned to its frequent resting place at Old Trafford? Certainly, regaining English pre-eminence is success by any measure. Yet, while the drama of Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement masks everything in the narrative of the campaign, premature defeat in three cup competitions, especially the Champions League, leaves a just modicum of anti-climax come the season’s the close.
Indeed, the Premier League was captured with such ease that it is tempting to wonder what might have been in Europe, or perhaps the FA Cup, which Manchester United hasn’t captured in almost a decade. Regrets can wait for now – certainly over trophies lost – with Ferguson having captured more than 30 during his time at the club. It is, after all, a campaign that will be remembered primarily as Ferguson’s glorious last.
But amid the tears over the Scot’s departure – and celebrations over title number 20 – it is easy to forget quite how shambolic was United’s start to the campaign. Defeat on the opening day at Everton was followed in rapid succession by chaotic defensive performances in victories over Fulham and Southampton. The latter brought a comically missed penalty and then a hat-trick from expensive new acquisition Robin van Persie.
But it wasn’t so much United’s early season results that drew concern than the propensity to ship goals in such quantity. Three goals conceded in home defeat to Tottenham Hotspur as September drew to a close proved to be a pattern too often repeated, rather than a defensive watershed.
True, injuries to Jonny Evans, Nemanja Vidić, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling left Ferguson’s back-four in constant flux during the autumn. But there was a larger, structural, problem too, with Michael Carrick often exposed by a lightweight midfield, and an almost suicidal attacking ethos from wide positions. It was a philosophy much changed after the Christmas break; Ferguson had little other choice.
Yet, the European campaign started in positive fashion, with the Reds claiming victory over CFR Cluj and Braga twice to seal early qualification for the knockout stage that had eluded Ferguson’s team a year before. Defeat to Galatasary and then Cluj in dead rubbers mattered little, although served as a pointer to the fragile complacency that crept into the Reds’ play towards the season’s end.
Whatever United’s defensive weaknesses the side’s ability to rack up points through the winter proved decisive. Defeat to Cluj in early December, with a much-changed side, was not repeated in any competition until Real Madrid won at Old Trafford in controversial circumstances in February.
Meanwhile, rivals Manchester City lost to United, Sunderland, and Southampton during the same period as Ferguson’s side created a healthy league lead. It proved to be an advantage too great for City to claw back this time.
However, the domestic cups proved far more disappointing than the league campaign. United’s youngsters lost to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the Capital One Cup, although Ferguson’s bravery in using his substitutions to blood ever more inexperienced players should have brought greater rewards. That the west Londoners also removed United from the FA Cup in one of the Reds’ most insipid displays of the campaign proved a season low-light.
And whatever United’s frustration on the road to Wembley it paled into comparison with Ferguson’s much-publicised anguish over Madrid’s victory at Old Trafford. Nani’s controversial red card, followed by two rapid-fire Madrid goals, dumped Ferguson’s side out of the competition and ended the Scot’s hopes of a final European fling. Ferguson’s pain in defeat was surely only amplified by the Reds’ positive performances home and away against Los Merengues.
The consolation was substantial at least with the Premier League secured by mid-April; a full four games from the finishing line. In that the campaign will be remembered fondly – for the decisive victory over City.
Yet, Ferguson’s side has rarely reached the heights of performance to go alongside those excellent results. In the great Scot’s last season the abiding memory is of a team that captured glory through substance rather than style. Much like Ferguson’s team of the early 2000s this side is perhaps just two high-quality acquisitions away from greatness. It is quite possibly an Eric Djemba-Djemba away from mediocrity as well.
Premier League victory should lead to another crack at Europe next season, although Ferguson’s retirement and significant back-room changes may undermine that lofty ambition.
Sir Alex Ferguson – Fergie’s final season brought victory at least for the 71-year-old. The Scot was determine to retire “a winner” and that ambition came in emphatic style. Yet, this final team is one of function above all else; a side not good enough to play with freedom lest a brittle defensive unit cracks under the pressure. It is a side that scored less, conceded more and gained no more points than the previous year when City captured the title at the death. This despite van Persie’s expensive capture. In misty-eyed reminiscence this season will be remembered fondly. Just not for the quality of football. 7/10
– – –
David de Gea – 41 appearances, 0 goals – a tremendous season of growth for the Spanish youngster who by the campaign’s close was voted the PFA’s goalkeeper of the season. That assessment, in truth, is based on growth from the autumn onwards, but the 22-year-old is certainly now one of the best in the Premier League. Now far more confident under physical pressure and less prone to error, de Gea can thank outgoing goalkeeping coach Eric Steele for the strong improvement in performances. 8/10
Anders Lindegaard – 13 appearances, 0 goals – the Dane began the campaign challenging de Gea for Ferguson’s attention. He ended it having been offered the sympathy vote by the retiring Scot. In truth Lindegaard has only himself to blame; a calamitous performance against Reading in December consigning the Dane to the beach for all but two games between Christmas and April. The former Ålesund player returned for the final the matches of the campaign, but only due to Ferguson’s mistaken belief that the player required 10 Premier League appearances to earn a medal. 5/10
– – –
Rafael da Silva – 40 appearances, 3 goals – the Brazilian’s finest campaign yet in four years at Old Trafford. Rafael’s natural attacking instincts are now allied to a greater sense of positional awareness and superior discipline. Where the youngster was once guilty of letting his impetuousness dominate, a sense of maturity is slowly growing. The red card received against Chelsea is ammunition for the few critics remaining, but where Ferguson was once loathe to trust the former Fluminense player, Rafael is now solidly United’s first choice right back. 8/10
Patrice Evra – 43 appearances, 4 goals – much criticised following a dip in form during the 2010-12 campaigns, the French left-back was near his best in the campaign just concluded. Foraging runs, encouraged by Ferguson’s decision to afford his full-backs plenty of freedom during the first half of the campaign, enabled Evra to contribute four goals and five assists in the Premier League. It was by far Evra’s best haul for the club. Add just three defensive errors all season and the Frenchman is perhaps the ‘best of the rest’ in Ferguson’s squad. 7/10
Alexander Büttner – 12 appearances, 2 goals – it took, perhaps, two appearances to work out Büttner’s essential problem – he’s not a full-back, and certainly not one able to perform at the very highest level. After all, defenders are normally required to defend – a requirement far outside Büttner’s skillset. But there’s plenty of willing and an attacking mindset that could yet prove useful against lesser opponents. It’s hard to foresee a long-term future for the Dutchman at Old Trafford. 4/10
Rio Ferdinand – 34 appearances, 1 goal – logic dictates that injury and age should have ended Ferdinand’s time at Old Trafford before now. Yet, the 34-year-old will stay into his 12th campaign as a United player – surely one of the very best central defenders to have graced the club. Indeed, Ferdinand’s form in 2012/13 was central to United’s cause – an outstanding, largely injury-free contribution, especially in the second half of the season. Ferdinand has his critics, but his performances have been without peer for more than a decade. 7/10
Nemanja Vidić – 23 appearances, 1 goal – the Serbian is not yet back to his very best and it is tempting to speculate that the 31-year-old may never regain the powers of old. Two serious knee injuries have taken half-a-yard from the player’s pace, although all the old defensive instinct remain. The summer’s rest may yet invigorate Vidić, but it remains an open question whether he can still play with Ferdinand, especially when each needs to drop a little deeper than in the past. Needs to stay fit after two injury disrupted campaigns. 6/10
Jonny Evans – 30 appearances, 4 goals – injury disrupted the defender’s season at a time when the Irishman is coming into his playing peak. Yet, mature performances and a new sense of confidence mark a very solid campaign. Evans is now firmly established in the defensive triumvirate including Ferdinand and Vidić. Fitness permitting, Evans should take over as United’s first choice central defender during the coming season. For now, the 25-year-old will be happy with a solid campaign. 7/10
Chris Smalling – 22 appearances, 0 goals – there is so much potential that will remain unfulfilled if the former Fulham defender cannot complete a season without time in the physio room. Injury affected his campaign once again, although Smalling can at least look back on some creditable performances. Yet, with Ferdinand and Vidić ageing there is a significant opportunity for Smalling to claim a regular starting place in new manager Moyes’ team next season. Can the 23-year-old remain fit enough to realise his considerable talent? 6/10
Phil Jones – 24 appearances, 0 goals – the bombastic defender ended the campaign with Ferguson lauding his potential to become ‘the best player in United’s history’ – a claim that can be put down the post-match giddiness, or an over-eager sampling of the Brunello di Montalcino Riserva ’64. After all, Jones spent much of the season on the treatment table, in common with many of his defensive colleagues. But a very strong finish to the campaign augurs well for the new season, where the the former Blackburn Rovers man will want to nail down his favoured role in central defence. 6/10
– – –
Antonio Valencia – 40 appearances, 1 goal – it is hard to reconcile the player of 2012/13 with that of a year ago. After all, Valencia’s truly outstanding displays during United’s unsuccessful run-in last season saw the Ecuadorian attack with pace, confidence and genuine menace. On current form Valencia offers none of that and it is hard to foresee how or when the player of old will return. Yet, there is some hope, with the 27-year-old offering some improved performances late in the campaign, although there was little left to play for. 5/10
Ashley Young – 23 appearances, 0 goals – mediocrity thy name is Young. Ferguson’s temptation in signing Young surely owes it place to price, with the winger’s contact running down at Aston Villa, enabling the Londoner to arrive without the usual ‘English premium’. But Young has offered little in two seasons to suggest anything more than a squad place is merited. Add injury and poor form to the limited game and Young made very little impact in the campaign just concluded. 5/10
Nani – 21 appearances, 3 goals – a hugely disappointing campaign from United’s most naturally talented wide player. During the Reds’ unsuccessful run at the title in 2012/13 Nani contributed 10 goals and 13 assists. The numbers this season, impacted by injury and a dispute with Sir Alex, is three and five. Nani had always been inconsistent, but his numbers told a story; the Portuguese wins United games. Without the goals and assists Nani becomes a liability – just one reason is why Ferguson kept him on the bench this season. 4/10
Ryan Giggs – 32 appearances, 5 goals – the irrepressible Welshman just doesn’t know when to quit. But that’s enough about Giggs’ love life. On the pitch Giggs continues to contribute, especially through a patch of outstanding form in midwinter. True, he gives the ball away cheaply in central midfield and no longer has the legs to play wide, but in his 40th year it is remarkable that the player is still performing at all. Giggs is likely to play a peripheral role in Moyes’ high-energy direct brand of football, but he has earned the rest. 6/10
Michael Carrick – 46 appearances, 2 goals – another outstanding campaign from United’s only reliable midfielder. Carrick allies sound defensive instincts with a world-class possession game – recycling possession rapidly to convert defence into attack. United simply could not have won the Premier League without him – a fact finally recognised in song from the terraces. Carrick should benefit from Moyes’ apparent desire to strengthen United’s central midfield. 9/10
Anderson – 25 appearances, 2 goals – “Andersron” said the shirt in one of Albert the kitman’s more infamous moments. Back in August, with Anderson recovering from yet another injury, hope remained high that the Brazilian could get fulfil the potential that his talent suggests is possible. Yet, the campaign again proved to be a false dawn. In truth Anderson’s best performances for United are now five years thence. The club should cut and run, but does the new manager believe he can finally unlock the secret to the midfielder’s under-performance? 5/10
Paul Scholes – 22 appearances, 1 goal – one last hurrah too many, perhaps, with Scholes playing only a peripheral role in his final season as a professional. Injury disrupted the campaign of course, but by the New Year the 38-year-old maestro was firmly on the fringes of Sir Alex’ team in any case. Still, few United fans will think any less of the Ginger Prince for playing one season too many. After all, it has been a real pleasure watching him these past 20 years. 5/10
Tom Cleverley – 32 appearances, 4 goals – is it ok to use the bastardised cliché – ‘a season of two halves’ – about Cleverley’s performance this season? For much of the campaign the Basingstoke-born player seemed to be fulfilling supporters’ lofty expectations. Deployed in a deeper role, Cleverley’s ability to retain possession and then speed up the pattern of United’s play offered much to the midfield dynamic, even if the defensive side of his game needs some work. But then the wheels fell off amid unconfirmed reports of an unprofessional attitude towards his profession. There is much in the locker, but can Cleverley seize his chance under new management? 6/10
Shinji Kagawa – 26 appearances, 6 goals – there is magic in those dancing feet, although injury and Ferguson’s propensity to deploy the playmaker out of position severely impacted on Kagawa’s contribution this season. It is a scenario that prompted Borussia Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp to claim that his “heart cries” for his former charge. Does Moyes have the courage to deploy Kagawa at ‘number 10’ next season? The answer may determine whether United ever realise the Japanese player’s true value. 6/10
– – –
Wayne Rooney – 37 appearances, 16 goals – has the former Evertonian suffered a more traumatic campaign in United’s colours? True, the numbers stack up, with 16 goals and 13 assists claimed from a deeper role than in the past. But the sparkling performances of old have largely deserted the 26-year-old. In truth Rooney is at a watershed moment. He should have grown into one of the world’s finest players. He didn’t. But is there still time, and can it happen at United? Many, including Sir Alex, now harbour doubts on both fronts. 5/10
Javier Hernández – 36 appearances, 18 goals – remarkably the Mexican ends the season as United’s second top goalscorer, behind van Persie. The return is phenomenal given the low number of starts afforded the 24-year-old this season. Will that accolade satisfy a player who surely desires a more regular starting role? An answer in the negative leaves the new manager with just one season to use or lose the prolific striker – an outcome that would represent a terrible waste of talent. 6/10
Danny Welbeck – 40 appearances, 2 goals – the Longsight-born player has become an enigma; a striker that doesn’t score, a winger that can’t play wide, a squad player who is invariably picked for the biggest games. Welbeck has excelled at times this season, most notably in United’s draw with Real Madrid at the Bernabeu. The youngster possess a rare, multi-faceted talent and a physical presence that is a real asset in the modern game. Yet, with just two goals Welbeck’s output is shockingly poor. True, the United trainee is typically deployed out of position, but the quality of his finishing is also just short of the mark. Room for improvement on an excellent natural base of talent. 6/10
Robin van Persie – 48 appearances, 30 goals – an outstanding campaign from the Dutchman who joined United for £24 million last summer. Yes, expectations of the former Arsenal striker were high – as they should be for the lofty price. But van Persie’s experience, gravitas and goals has squarely contributed to United’s success this season. In fact United couldn’t have secured the Premier League without the 29-year-old’s considerable talents. More, the Dutchman has won over the fans off the pitch. van Persie does, says and seemingly thinks all the right things. Rant’s player of the Season. 9/10.
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
In this most unpredictable of seasons Manchester United’s final game played both to form and quality. Barcelona’s superiority, especially in the centre of the park, was hardly surprising given United’s failure to upgrade central midfield last summer. Indeed, the Reds progression to Premier League champions, by a substantial margin to boot, and the Champions League final was surely an over-achievement driven by Sir Alex Ferguson’s enduring brilliance. Ferguson rejects the inference, but United has surely regressed since the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez in summer 2009, along with ageing limbs and injuries to other key players.
Yet, the Scot’s ability to draw more from his squad than the logical sum of its parts means there is much to celebrate this season not least the unexpected and remarkable 19th domestic title, achieved against the backdrop of an outstanding home record where Ferguson’s men dropped just two points.
Old Trafford’s impenetrable fortress witnessed victories over key rivals Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, confirming United’s domestic superiority. Moreover, the Reds also played some of the division’s best football at Old Trafford, hammering Birmingham City and Blackburn, while scoring 49 goals in the process.
Away from home United’s patchy form brought just five Premier League victories, including a barren period from August to late October when Ferguson’s men finally beat Stoke City 2-1 at the Britannia Stadium. That the record is the worst of any domestic champions since the mid-1970s is irrelevant of course but a weakness that Ferguson will surely want to address over the summer. After all, relegated Blackpool won as many games away from home as United.
More worrying perhaps was the sometimes dire performances on the road, where the side’s lack of imagination came to the fore. Ferguson’s lack of a genuine defensive midfielder seemed to count against United, despite the now famed determination. Defeats at Liverpool, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Chelsea, and Arsenal during the run-in could have severely damaged United’s chances.
The Reds’ weaknesses during a period of transition have not been exposed by domestic rivals, leading to the accusation that United is the least worst winner this season. Chelsea’s aging squad and bizarre mid-season transfer splurge worked against Carlo Ancelotti’s ambitions. The Italian has paid with his job but the suspicion remains that club policy is largely driven by a fickle owner, who will hire yet another new manager this summer.
Arsenal’s problems in central defence, midfield and at goalkeeper were a direct result of manager Arsène Wenger’s negligence in last summer’s transfer market; a problem that the Frenchman has finally acknowledged. It is perhaps too late to keep star players Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabragas beyond the summer window.
United’s eventual failure in the domestic cups owe much to Ferguson’s experimentation and the FA’s willingness to create policy on-the-fly. The Red’s 4-0 defeat during at snowstorm at West Ham United in November did Gabriel Obertan, Bebe and Darron Gibson no favours. It proved the one bright spot in an otherwise dismal season for the Hammers.
Meanwhile, United’s run to the FA Cup semi-final, including victory over Liverpool at Old Trafford, affording supporters another day out at Wembley. It is hardly a novel experience, of course, but one spoiled by the FA’s bizarre disciplinary processes. Rooney claims he will “never get over” the two match ban handed down for swearing.
It is in Europe that United has truly exceeded expectations, despite the humbling defeat to Barça at Wembley. Save for Saturday’s 3-1 loss, United remained undefeated in Europe, with Ferguson’s men retaining a record of clean sheets away from Old Trafford up to Saturday’s fixture. Negative tactics have helped but Ferguson has certainly found a way to win away from home in European competition.
It has also been a season in which Ferguson has faced many off-the-field challenges. Rooney’s October revolution, coming so soon after newspaper allegations that player slept with prostitutes brought the media’s full glare to Old Trafford’s doorsteps. The incident marked a new low in Ferguson’s relationship with the media, which has at times descended into all out war.
Rooney’s improved spring form has bought forgiveness from supporters but few will need reminding of the fickle nature of player loyalty, whatever that means in the modern game.
The season has also seen the successful integration Javier Hernandez, Chris Smalling and Fabio da Silva into the United squad. The Mexican’s impact has been significant, with 20 goals scored in an outstanding first season in England. Meanwhile, Smalling has demonstrated composure and a genuine physical presence during 33 matches for the first team. By the season’s end Fabio had supplanted Rafael in the first team, although 2011/12 was also a season of progression for United’s number 21.
This progress bodes well for the future, although Ferguson must surely be mindful of the weaknesses in United’s squad, so brutally exposed by Barcelona. Multiple retirements – Edwin van der Sar, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes – and Owen Hargreaves’ release means that the summer market will dictate whether United must run to progress or simply stand still next season.
Sir Alex Ferguson – in the face of squad degradation, off-the-field trouble, an FA suspension and a hamstrung budget Ferguson has certainly over-achieved. Spoilt perhaps but the United faithful demands the best. This is certainly not the best side of Ferguson’s 25-year tenure at Old Trafford. Yet a superb Premier League title, FA Cup semi-final and Champions League final is better reward than most pundits and many fans could have predicted. Ferguson is United’s greatest asset, even if he continues to defy logic by supporting the Glazer regime at every turn. Momentarily jeered by the Old Trafford crowd for thanking the Glazers during his post-season address. 9/10
Edwin van der Sar – 46 appearances, 0 goals – van der Sar’s consistency is matched by the great Dutchman’s enduring excellence. There is little doubt the former Ajax star could carry on in a United shirt but age and family priorities have prompted retirement at the age of 40. Yet to the end, van der Sar has ensured defensive confidence rarely matched by United’s ‘keepers since Peter Schmeichel’s retirement 12 years ago. A great season to cap off a fine United career. 8/10
Tomasz Kuszczak – 10, 0 – there are few that will shed a tear for the Pole when he leaves Old Trafford this summer. Kuszczak’s inability to provided any consistency in four years at the club ended with a hapless performance against Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park. 4/10
John O’Shea – 32, 0 – United’s utility player rarely excites but his consistency – consistently average critics might argue – adds something to Ferguson’s options. O’Shea has been superseded by the da Silva brothers but will continue to provide useful cover in the coming years. 5/10
Rafael da Silva – 28, 0 – despite losing his place in the United side, first O’Shea in the autumn and then his brother Fabio in the spring, the Brazilian youngster has made encouraging progression this season. Fewer rash tackles and better defensive positioning mark a step up in class from the former Fluminese right-back. Missed out on the Champions League final. 6/10
Fabio da Silva – 25, 2 – Fabio’s United career has been disrupted both by injury and his brother’s role in the United side. But a late season injury-free run in the United side has provided compelling evidence of the defender’s potential class. Is likely to fight his brother for a place in the United side next season. 5/10
Patrice Evra – 48, 1 – a disappointing season by Evra’s very high standards, arguably the worst of his five and a half year United career. The Frenchman’s enduring class still manifests but Evra has increasingly been caught out of position defensively and, anecdotally at least, seems to offer less going forward. United supporters will hope that the World Cup hangover has subsided by August. 6/10
Rio Ferdinand – 29, 0 – the Londoner is hugely important to United but for the third season running injury has decimated a campaign. Ferdinand’s class during the run-in was central to United’s Premier League success but it is not without reason that Ferguson considered moving the defender on last summer. An injury-free pre-season is essential should the 32-year-old not find his position under threat. 6/10
Nemanja Vidic – 47, 5 – perhaps a surprise choice as Ferguson’s new captain last summer but what a decision it has proven to be. The Serbian’s lead-by-example style has brought the most consistently outstanding season from the giant central defender. How Ferguson must be grateful for tying the 28-year-old down to a new four-year contract last August. 9/10
Jonny Evans – 21, 0 – a disappointing campaign from the Northern Irishman who has far more to offer than this. Evans has been consistently poor against the high ball and physical opponents this season, and seemingly lacked confidence for much of the season. Returned to the side only to see Red for a crude tackle on Bolton’s Stuart Holden. Needs to man up over the summer. 4/10
Chris Smalling –33, 0 – an excellent début season from the £10 million former Fulham defender. Smalling’s composure, physical presence and growing maturity mark the player as a future star. Of course, the 20-year-old still needs to learn the game, evidenced by his sometimes poor positional play. 6/10
Wes Brown – 15, 0 – there seems little chance of Brown forcing his way back into Ferguson’s plans, with the smart money still on a transfer out of the club this summer. Naturally gifted but rarely fit, Brown cut a peripheral figure at Old Trafford this season. 4/10
Antonio Valencia – 20, 3 – bar a traumatic broken ankle in September, Valencia would have played a far greater part in United’s season. Still, the determined Ecuadorian forced his way back into the side in the spring at Nani’s expense, providing a series of strong performances. Ashley Cole will not soon forget the roasting handed out at Old Trafford. 6/10
Nani – 49, 10 – outstanding in autumn and winter, Nani lost his place to Valencia during the run-in. But this should not deflect from the Portuguese’s outstanding campaign, the most consistent and productive of his United career. Why then is the player open-minded about a move away from Old Trafford? 8/10
Park Ji-Sung – 28, 8 – it is hard not to consider Park the ‘coward’s winger’. After all the South Korean’s qualities have little to do with his technical ability and far more about the 30-year-old’s tactical discipline. More productive in front of goal than in previous years. Deserves his place in the United squad but at the loss of how much quality? 6/10
Ryan Giggs – 38, 4 – the Welshman’s enduring value was highlighted in a series of outstanding late-season performances in central midfield – from flying winger to playmaker who can still dictate the tempo of a game against all but the very finest. Exposed in the Champions League final but then so was United’s entire midfield. 7/10
Gabriel Obertan – 15, 1 – United’s forgotten winger who, after two years at the club, will surely be on his way this summer. No closer to a breakthrough and the impending arrival of Aston Villa’s Ashley Young will only accelerate Obertan’s return to France. 3/10
Paul Scholes – 33, 1 – the Ginger Ninja’s outstanding early season form tailed off during the winter months. Scholes’ brain worked to the end but physically the 36-year-old had deteriorated badly, to the point that the midfielder’s famed ‘time and space’ began to erode. Will be hugely missed but retirement will preserve his legacy. 5/10
Anderson – 30, 4 – another frustrating season from United’s €30 million Brazilian. An excellent performance in the dead rubber against Schalke and a goal against Blackpool on the final day are seemingly exceptions that prove the rule: Anderson’s contribution is flitting at best. Look back far enough and the 23-year-old can be influential, but it is in the distant past. 5/10
Darron Gibson – 20, 2 – it is hard to pinpoint the thinking behind Ferguson’s continued faith in the Irishman, who shoots at every turn but with very little accuracy. He boasts neither the range of passing skills, technique, nor pace to succeed at the very highest level. A hyper-critical assessment perhaps, but then this is United and standards are high. 4/10
Darren Fletcher – 37, 3 – the Scot has become a key asset in Ferguson’s midfield over the past three seasons, especially as Owen Hargreaves fought a losing battle against injury. Yet, this was not the finest of campaigns for the Dalkeith-born midfielder, even before a springtime virus laid the 26-year-old low for the best part of two months. Fletcher remains a valuable member of the United squad whose performances over the past nine months are just a touch below those of previous campaigns. 6/10
Michael Carrick – 44, 0 – the Geordie’s performances markedly improved this season in comparison to those of the past two campaigns. At times Carrick’s use of the ball and excellent defensive instincts have contributed fully to United’s success. Yet there is the nagging feeling that Carrick’s ability to influence is in reverse correlation to the opposition’s quality. See exhibit A: Barcelona. 7/10
Dimitar Berbatov – 42, 22 – by far the Bulgarian’s most productive season at Old Trafford. Without the striker’s autumn contribution United could not have won the Premier League. After all, Berbatov scored more winning goals this season than any other striker. But with a record that is skewed towards performances in games against lower-ranked opponents it is still hard to resolve that Berbatov is fundamental to United’s chances. 8/10
Wayne Rooney – 40, 16 – truly awful pre-Christmas, yet outstanding during the run-in. Ferguson’s decision to return the striker to his natural position at ‘number 10’ proved a masterstroke both for the player and the team. But it’s hard to forget Rooney’s October revolution, nor the series of truly dreadful performances before the year turned. 5/10
Javier Hernández – 45, 20 – it is hard to recall a début season being more impactful given the full context. Transplanted from central America to the Premier League aged just 22, ‘Chicharito’ not only changed the way United play for the better but has scored vital goals to boot. Hernández, as Gary Neville argues, should go on to score “hundreds of goals” for United. 8/10
Michael Owen – 17, 5 – “Michael has proved to be a top footballer,” Ferguson said today on handing the former Liverpool striker a new contract. How the mighty Blackpool, Southampton, Scunthorpe and Bolton Wanderers rued the striker’s contribution this season. A symbol of Glazernomics if ever there was one. 3/10
Federico Macheda – 12,1 – the Italian will return to United after a less than auspicious loan spell at Sampdoria, with whom he was relegated from Serie A. Yet, with seven strikers on the books it is hard to imagine the 19-year-old remaining at Old Trafford next season. 3/10
Anders Lindegaard – 3, 0 – two cup appearances before knee injury curtailed his season. Will serve as back-up to David De Gea next season.
Ben Amos – 2, 0 – cup appearances against Wolverhampton Wanderers and Valencia this season. Needs to head out on loan once again for his the sake of his own development next season.
Gary Neville – 4, 0 – retired at the right time if his appearances against Stoke City and West Bromwich Albion are anything to go by. Low key end to a great career for this one-club man.
Owen Hargreaves – 1, 0 – five minutes match time before inevitable injury ended his United career. That was four minutes more than the previous season.
Ravel Morrison – 1, 0 – far more will come from Morrison than this brief substitute appearance in the Carling Cup.
Bebe – 7, 2 – not one of Ferguson’s finest decisions. Barely a footballer, let alone a United player worth £8.3 million. Value?
Manchester United’s season closed with a win over to Stoke City yesterday afternoon; the bittersweet taste of success tempered by the title heading to London after more than 1000 days in Manchester. If the season’s outcome was somewhat inevitable after the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo then at least the side’s shortcomings are clear.
Remedy is perhaps a creative midfielder, some thought away and better luck with injuries away. Whether Sir Alex Ferguson has either the financial means or desire to invest in the transfer market is moot.
United’s league form has largely frustrated. Five defeats before Christmas threatened to derail the Reds’ campaign. In earlier seasons so many pre-Christmas defeats may have ended the title bid. This time round competitors’ inability to find any consistency kept the race close.
Some of United’s performances before the year’s turn – think Aston Villa at home and the catastrophic loss to Fulham at Craven Cottage – were hampered by injury to key defenders including Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans and Nemanja Vidic.
Indeed, injury has been a season’s theme, with a dozen players missing at least a month this campaign. Perhaps relying on squad over-filled with aging stars and those with a history of injury means that the crisis should have been far less surprising than it seems to many supporters, unprecedented in scale though it was.
The end of 2009 was not wholly gloomy. One of the season’s highlights came in the autumn – the stunning 96th minute Michael Owen winner against Manchester City at Old Trafford. Owen’s acquisition on a free transfer worth it for that moment of magic alone, although the former Liverpool forward contributed little else. Former United favourite Mark Hughes called foul over the official’s timekeeping. He was proven wrong and departed his job before January was out.
United coasted through a Champions League group that brought few highlights. Defeat to Besiktas at home in United’s fifth game necessitated a stunning performance against Wolfsburg in Germany with a back three that included Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher.
As the year turned, defenders rehabilitated and Edwin van der Sar returned to the side, United’s performances picked up, save for the humiliating FA Cup third round loss to Leeds United at Old Trafford in January.
It was however, United’s Carling Cup semi-final two-legged victory over City that sparked some life into Ferguson’s campaign. Victory over Villa followed in the final at Wembley, although Vidic’s foul on Gabriel Agbonlahor could have brought yet another dismissal for the Serbian.
Victory in Milan in the Champions League first knockout round and then again at Old Trafford brought even greater belief, while David Beckham’s decision to don a green and gold protest scarf sparked a storm of media coverage. When has the former United midfielder not?
It proved a false dawn though, with defeat at Everton in the Premier League, at home to Chelsea in April and the tame draw with Blackburn Rovers derailing United’s domestic season. Referees failed to help United’s cause but failure is an internal problem to address.
Ever greater disappointment came in Europe, with four goals shipped against a Bayern Munich side high on attacking endeavour but very low on defensive talent. That the Germans faced a distinctly average Olympique Lyonnais in the semi-final, with Barcelona beaten in the other half of the draw, only adds to the sense of frustration at Old Trafford.
An opportunity lost in a season of far too much mediocrity.
If United’s current side is far from a Ferguson vintage then a great deal of credit is earned for the team’s response to the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo and recovery from a severe injury crisis. Ferguson’s drive has, if anything, taken his team to greater heights this season than the squad should have achieved.
Indeed, United has scored more goals in the Premier League than last season and conceded fewer than any of its competitors over the course of the campaign. In all competitions United hit the back-of-the-net on 115 occasions, 11 more than Rant predicted at the season’s start, although the side’s 86 in the Premier League fell someway short of Chelsea’s 103.
The question that United supporters will now ask: what has management learned from a season that has failed to hit the peaks of the previous three and how the squad will progress from here?
The worry is that the board’s short-term goal may no longer be domestic and European superiority, even if Ferguson is absolutely focused on returning United to the top.
The board, burdened with £716.5 million of Glazer debt must cut costs and reduce transfer market spending. The American’s bond prospectus outlines just where the majority of United’s free cash will head for the next seven years – into debt repayment and mysterious management fees.
This season’s disappointment may – in the face of competitors’ planned transfer market assault in the coming summer months – become the norm.
It means United will rely heavily on the unproven talents of Federico Macheda, Mame Biram Diouf, Gabriel Obertan and Javier Hernandéz next season.
It is to Ferguson’s eternal credit that United came so close this season. Now he’ll need to squeeze even more out of the squad if United is to return to the top.
Sir Alex Ferguson – 7/10 – Ferguson’s assertion that he alone chose not to spend vast sums available from the sale of Ronaldo on established stars left United vulnerable to an aging squad, with unproven youngsters and cheap acquisitions. The serious charge that the Scot migrated his side to a tactical formation reliant on – or perhaps because of – Wayne Rooney’s form and fitness is proven; disastrously so once the Scouser succumbed to groin and ankle injuries late in the season. Worryingly Ferguson is talking up next season’s prospects without changing the make-up of his squad or adding additional class. His assertion that nobody bar Lionel Messi or Ronaldo would improve his squad is miles wide of the mark. Ferguson is still the master but he is working on limited resources. The frustration is that he won’t admit it.
Edwin van der Sar – 7/10 – another solid season after an injury and illness effected start. Will spend one further campaign at the club before retirement in June 2011.
Tomasz Kuszczak – 6/10 – an able deputy through the Autumn months, although only finances will dictate a permanent spot past van der Sar’s retirement.
Ben Foster – 4/10 – given his big chance at the season’s start, the former Stoke City ‘keeper largely disappointed with some high-profile mistakes and confidence sapping nervousness.
Gary Neville – 6/10 – remarkable comeback from the United veteran, whose determination is a lesson to the squad’s younger members. Poor against Bayern Munich and Chelsea in crucial games exposed his advancing years.
Rafael da Silva – 5/10 – injury has disrupted the youngster’s season with the Brazilian regressing this campaign. Positional naivety and a tendency to pull back speedier opponents must be stamped out.
John O’Shea – 6/10 – solid and dependable when fit. The Irishman will never generate headlines but a vital member of Ferguson’s wider squad.
Patrice Evra – 9/10 – another outstanding season from one of only a few genuine world-class talents at Ferguson’s disposal. Untied fans will hope that rumours of a transfer to Madrid this summer are without foundation.
Wes Brown – 6/10 – 29 games is one of Brown’s better efforts over a carrier blighted by injury once again. Solid at right-back or the centre of defence, Brown is still an important squad member.
Rio Ferdinand – 5/10 – the Londonder’s career is now at a crossroads. Ferdinand’s class is without doubt but injury has severely affected his form and appearances over the past 18 months. It looks chronic.
Nemanja Vidic – 6/10 – afflicted by a mystery nerve problem and a suspicion that the Serbian is no longer committed to the cause. Denials of a summer departure are not helped by an agent who continues to hawk the defender around Europe.
Jonny Evans – 7/10 – a new four-year contract rewards another season of progression from the Irishman. Frustrating late autumn ankle injury caused a mid-season dip in form but Evans is now a genuine contender to permanently take over from Ferdinand.
Antonio Valencia – 8/10 – an outstanding début season at the club. Grew in confidence as the campaign progressed. He is no Ronaldo, of course, but Valencia’s long-term Old Trafford future is assured.
Darron Gibson – 5/10 – Ferguson is convinced but aside from the midfielder’s shooting, his distinct lack-of pace, wastefulness in possession and inadequate technique are worrying.
Nani – 7/10 – talk about a season of two halves. Poor before Christmas, Nani nearly left the club in January. Ferguson kept faith and Nani has excelled during the run-in. Further progression next season and Nani will become a hugely potent weapon.
Paul Scholes – 7/10 – still technically the finest midfielder of his generation. Give time and space Scholes will still dominate a match in a way no other midfielder can. Sadly he is rarely given such time and space these days. Will retire next summer.
Ryan Giggs – 6/10 – excellent in the opening weeks of the season, the Welshman’s performances have deteriorated post-Christmas. Worrying tendency to lose possession.
Anderson – 5/10 – billed as the Brazilian’s last chance by Rant, he’ll probably be given yet another one to prove he isn’t the expensive jack-of-all trades and master of none that many suspect.
Michael Carrick – 5/10 – by far the worst of Carrick’s four seasons at the club. At fault for two of Bayern’s goals in United’s Champions League exit. Regressed badly and may leave in the summer.
Darren Fletcher – 8/10 – that United have so rarely missed Owen Hargreaves’ dynamism is largely down to the Scot’s energy this season. One of the most improved players in the modern era and a certainty in Ferguson’s first eleven.
Gabriel Obertan – 4/10 – injury delayed the Frenchman’s debut before a run of promising cameos. Failed to make the side post-Christmas and at 21 must progress next year.
Owen Hargreaves – ? – less than 30 seconds of action. At least the former Bayern Munich player is now fit. We think.
Ji-Sung Park – 6/10 – dependable and energetic, United’s ‘defensive attacking midfielder’ is a little short on class but high on consistency and endeavour.
Wayne Rooney – 9/10 – a wonderful season from the Scouser, who has adapted to yet another new role in his six years at Old Trafford. PFA/FWA awards fully deserved for 34 goals this season. The striker failed to score post April injury against Munich.
Dimitar Berbatov – 5/10 – frustrating and brilliant but no longer in equal measure. The Bulgarian’s talents too often wasted or eliminated in a tactical system that does not suit him. He’s not lazy; he just doesn’t fit at Old Trafford.
Mame Biram Diouf – 4/10 – loads of goals in the reserve team point to a bright future but it hasn’t manifested itself yet. Injury has hampered his progress in six months at the club to date.
Federico Macheda – 4/10 – persistent injuries and reports of an attitude problem have limited the Italian’s progress. Much more is expected from the teenager next season.
Michael Owen – 5/10 – nine goals, including goals in the Carling Cup final and the derby, before succumbing to the utterly inevitable long-term hamstring injury the player’s history always suggested he would.