The obituaries being written about Manchester United’s OAPs for the last five years are now finally relevant. Gary Neville and Edwin van der Sar have retired, Paul Scholes might have by the time you read this article and Ryan Giggs is holding back the development of younger players with more long-term value to the club.
Add that to the expected departures of Tomasz Kuszczak, Owen Hargreaves and Michael Owen (and / or Dimitar Berbatov) plus the need to push out younger players with no future at the club, and you have an expected 9-10 exits from the club this summer. These players will need to be replaced, from the youth team as well as through new signings.
Despite the heart-breaking numbers of Manchester United’s debt and interest payments, the new owners have also brought a windfall in commercial revenue and Ferguson will have significant transfer funds available to him if he deems it necessary to buy talent.
The first thing Ferguson needs to do is to sit down with his staff (or in a room by himself and a bottle of wine) and select the United side for next year’s Champions League final. Simply put, if United were to face Barcelona again in the 2011/2012 Champions League final, which of the current United players would Ferguson pick for the starting XI (and the bench)?
Players not fit to fight for the Champions League final next year, or players lacking the potential to develop into future stars – these need to leave this summer. The only caveat is that squad players that are essential for winning the domestic league can stay, provided that they are delivering more value to the team than the money they are being paid.
If Barcelona have become the benchmark against which every team is measured, United, a team unsatisfied with being second-best, must find the tactics and personnel to beat them. It is time for United to knock Barcelona off their perch, and that starts with rebuilding the current squad.
If you look at the current Manchester United squad in this light, especially the starting XI from Saturday’s final, only Rooney, Carrick, Ferdinand and Vidic would be sure starters. United will need a new keeper regardless, while Fabio has much to do to prove his worth as a starting option (although he has enough value to the club as a long-term option), and Evra, while still an important player, needs a successor who is more positionally aware and defensively sound than the French left-back.
Valencia, Park and Hernandez would make the bench at best in an ideal United side for next season, but each offers plenty of value to the squad (similar to Evra), while Giggs in my books, value or not, should not be near the 18 players making up the matchday squad for the next final.
That is a remarkable challenge that Ferguson and the United players face. Ferguson now has another year to develop his current players to the levels required to beat Barcelona, and also to bring in new players that can play at those levels and fit in with his philosophy (hopefully with better tactics).
Ferguson has spoken about the need for United and other top teams in Europe to catch up to Barcelona. He’s right about football teams moving in cycles – Manchester United’s were themselves overtaken by Arsenal, who were then overtaken by Chelsea, before United fought back and has, to the dismay of many observers, stood firm in the face of strong challenges from Liverpool (another cycle), Chelsea and Arsenal in the last five years.
But if we’re talking about cycles, Ferguson knows as much as anyone else the value of knowing what to aim for. The days of asking players to give their absolute best at half-time are long gone, Manchester United are effective enough in the Premier League and the initial stages of the Champions League by being brutally consistent, but to overtake (or catch up to) Barcelona they will either need to retool the team or develop an effective plan B that wins them games not just against Barcelona but at times, the likes of Arsenal and Liverpool.
This new cycle for United must start now. United have learned to bypass their midfield completely in the last five years but that cannot continue forever. This summer they will play a friendly against Barcelona in the US, a nonsense game that will nevertheless show what United have learned tactically (if anything, they should learn to press more and play as a more compact unit). This summer they will also embark on a substantial revamp of the playing squad, both in personnel and in expectations as young players are pushed to take on more responsibility.
Quite a few potential transfer targets have been mooted – but idle speculation does us no good. David De Gea and Raphael Varane are the only two players who are in advanced discussions and close to signing, while United only have Liverpool as competition for Ashley Young. Whoever else Ferguson signs will be based on the players leaving the club, and it might be that a central midfielder like Modric or Rodwell or even Nasri, and a striker (no clues but if Berbatov goes there will be a signing required) will also be coming in alongside these 2/3 players.
New signings will need to fit the team’s tactical outlook for the next five years, and have to be balanced alongside the promotion of youth / reserve players such as Cleverly and the sending out on loan of players in need of match experience. Ferguson must decide on the long-term future of Nani and Evans. Both are talented, both are also exceedingly frustrating. United’s experiments with Evans and Smalling in the left and right fullback positions were promising enough to suggest that Evans might be more at home on the left as a backup for Evra.
With Nani, Ferguson should either give him more responsibility (ahead of the likes of Giggs, Park, Valencia and Hernandez), or consider cashing in on him in an year where his stock is at it’s highest since his arrival at Old Trafford. Fergie typically sells late, so Nani is unlikely to go until he’s become completely expendable.
Manchester United will survive this ‘hiding’ from Barcelona, but they must work hard to make sure this doesn’t happen a third time, and equally important, they need to start preparing the team for the next Champions League final, just as Ferguson prepares his team for winning the league title each season. The challenge for Ferguson is to pick the right tactics and the right players, and he has an year, not a couple of weeks, to plan for it.