A club of such magnitude within the game, having firmly established themselves as one of the greatest in the world courtesy of their storied past and recent successes, ushered in a new era at Old Trafford back in May.
Manchester United bode farewell to legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson and announced the arrival of fellow Scot David Moyes to face the unenviable task of replicating the successes of his predecessor.
Yet for a club that has regularly topped the Forbes rich list across the last decade, boasting superstars that have attracted fans from all corners of the globe en route to countless trophies, times are tougher than ever. A black cloud has formed and the winds seem to be changing.
In my 22 years of existence I have never seen the Red Devils fall outside of the top three within the top tier of English football, firmly cementing their place as the best team in the country within my generation.
We have been bloated with an array of superstars through the years as the likes of Eric Cantona, Peter Schmeichel, David Beckham, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Cristiano Ronaldo have all arrived at Old Trafford, blessed the league with their skills, won trophies, and moved on.
Yet what is undoubtedly the most impressive factor at Manchester United is their longevity thanks to the uncanny ability to constantly refresh and evolve their team throughout generations. Challengers to the crown have come and gone, but Sir Alex Ferguson has forever remained.
Yet this inspirational leader has now gone, and it looks as if the wheels are finally coming off of this monstrous steamroller under its new driver.
While of course it is still early days within David Moyes’ helm, a man whom I shall get to later, the stats are undoubtedly worrying for fans of the Manchester club. At the time of writing the side are currently languishing in 9th place with 22 points, having suffered back to back home defeats in the Premier League for the first time in over ten years.
That is an average of just 1.47 points per game; significantly lower than the 2.20 points per game they have averaged in the 21 seasons since the formation of the Premier League. Even their lowest averages in a season are still 1.97 points per game – enough to win the league in 1997 and finish third in 2004, with a grand total of 75 points.
To look at these statistics over the course of a season, we can see that Manchester United average about 83 points per campaign, yet based on their current form their projected total would be just 56 points (I am not saying this is how many they’ll get, but based upon the first 15 games this is what the math predicts).
Averaging across all Premier League seasons, 56 points is enough to secure an 8th placed finish. Forget the title, forget the Champions League – forget even the Europa League: that could be regarded as nothing more than mid table mediocrity. But should this shortcoming at Old Trafford really be of any surprise to any of us?
I for one have certainly been amazed over recent years at the performance of this Manchester United team. Once a club with a vast array of talented stars, deservedly combining to lift the Champions League trophy amongst countless League and Cup triumphs, the most recent generation would seemingly fail to live up to such high standards.
I personally believe that, on paper, Manchester United have had a weaker team than many of their rivals; something that has been echoed by many other fans.
Whilst still nevertheless a gifted team, the influx of foreign talent brought in by the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea along with the fantastic youth developed at Arsenal, mean that Manchester United should not have dominated as much as they have.
Yet somehow, they have. Perhaps this is simply naivety on my behalf, but surely I am not the only one who feels as though the collective team has performed considerably better than the sum of its parts suggests it should?
Now however, the cracks that are appearing are beginning to show that this current team is simply not good enough anymore. Whilst Ferguson should certainly be commended for the terrific job he did in getting 110% from each and every player, there may also be a sense of papering over the cracks.
When the formidable team at the turn of the Millennium began to break apart, new stars were brought in, such as Ruud van Nistelrooy and Rio Ferdinand, whilst the longer term future was secured with the likes of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo being brought in as youngsters.
Further solid acquisitions in the shape of Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Carlos Tevez, combined with those few who remained (Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville, etc) created more fearsome teams across the decade.
Yet times have changed. The star players of previous campaigns have either been sold or are in decline, yet the talent has not been successfully replaced. A midfield four of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Roy Keane and David Beckham would surely be disappointed to see their legacies being ‘continued’ by the likes of Tom Cleverley, Nani, Anderson, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia.
This current crop reminds me very much of former Red Devil John O’Shea: reliable and steady but not going to win you the title and probably better suited to a club lower in the league.
Ferguson’s ability at rejuvenating a squad and developing a new generation seems to have been lost in his last few seasons as United battled with the threat of their ‘noisy neighbours’, and thus the decline of Manchester United was inevitable. Change at senior management has merely complicated matters.
It could be argued that Sir Alex has left Moyes with the worst team since he began his tenure at Old Trafford. At the back, injuries and fitness have taken their toll on a once formidable partnership of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, with Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Jonny Evans not yet up to the standard required of champions.
Neither of the Brazilian twins in Rafael or Fabio have lived up to the expectations that were brought following in the footsteps of the Neville brothers whilst Patrice Evra’s future has been greatly questioned.
There is a serious lack of quality in midfield too, with the erratic form of Anderson, Ashley Young and Nani, all of whom have performed poorly more often than not, whilst Tom Cleverley and Antonio Valencia do not appear to have the attributes to distinguish themselves within the ‘world class’ category.
Shinji Kagawa, although an apparent fans pick, has struggled for form having made sporadic appearances; Ryan Giggs, while performing admirably for a man his age, is not the player he used to be; and there will be serious question marks regarding a return for Darren Fletcher, leaving Michael Carrick as the sole incumbent of the Manchester United midfield (I haven’t mentioned Marouane Fellaini due to him being a Moyes signing, yet even he has struggled to settle so far).
While Man Utd are fortunate enough to boast a world class pairing of forwards in the shape of Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney, with Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck as solid options from the bench, along with an improving goalkeeper in David de Gea, the team sheet causes serious concern.
How many of these players could honestly walk in to the first XI at Stamford Bridge, the Etihad or the Emirates? This question could even be stretched to include Liverpool, Everton or Tottenham. RVP and Rooney aside, there is a serious lack of individual quality at Old Trafford.
This immediate future is worrying, yet it is an even bleaker future, with Adnan Januzaj appearing to be the only bright spark within the darkness of the Manchester United youth options. The fact that he has just been nominated for the Young Sports Personality of the Year shows his seeming importance to the club already, despite having a grand total of just 12 first team appearances.
The core of this team that I have mentioned have been together for several years now, which is why it should not be a surprise that this apparent downfall is beginning.
Sir Alex Ferguson has gone and David Moyes is being largely blamed as being unable to cope with the pressure, unable to continue the legacy of this winning club. Under him, Manchester United have lost the aura of invincibility that has surrounded them for so long: teams are no longer afraid of the club, and there is no inevitability of an injury time, or ‘Fergie time’ winner.
Yet while Ferguson’s ability of getting the most out of his players, as I have already mentioned, was indeed the terrific quality of his management, it is unfair to pin this downfall on Moyes.
Moyes isn’t a bad manager; he is simply managing a bad team – one that was beginning to tumble just as he stepped into the dugout, and he is now charged with rebuilding it within the baptism of fire that surrounds being in charge of one of the most powerful clubs in world football.
It would have been incredibly interesting to see how Ferguson would have continued had he decided to postpone retirement for another few years. Change around a club can always cause its roots to become unstable, and there is no doubt that this is an added factor to Moyes’ difficult start to his tenure.
Yet Moyes is a top class manager and will be expected to turn things around. Of course, this will not be immediate, but being afforded time will allow him not only to put his own stamp on the club, but realistically, completely change the personnel. Many of the current players are simply not good enough and thus he will need to gradually bring in new faces, whilst continuing the focus on youth to provide stability that was so successful at Goodison Park.
He has faced a lot of criticism – some fair, others harsh – but his performance as Everton boss on a shoestring budget should not be forgotten.
The Champions League may well elude Manchester United this season – certainly failure to retain the title is already a foregone conclusion – and the impact of that will be huge around Old Trafford.
Not simply because of the revenue that will disappear, but the questions that will be raised from potential transfer targets as to whether the red half of Manchester really is the best destination.
However the worst thing that the board could do right now would be to sack the Scot, unless they wish to see the complete collapse of the United empire. Luckily it is incredibly likely that full backing will be received in any case (the support at Old Trafford, from both the fans and the board, has continually been positive).
Many great teams come and go. Whilst the best plan to rejuvenate and evolve teams to create a continual cycle of success, sometimes it takes time to set the foundations. Not a single person will deny the impact Sir Alex Ferguson had at Manchester United, and certainly fans of the club will begrudge, if not attack, any suggestions that the Scot did something wrong.
But for whatever reason, this cycle of evolution at Old Trafford has broken down in recent years and, despite an impressive farewell title for Fergie to cherish last season, some serious rebuilding is required regardless of which manager started the season in charge.
Speculation and criticism always barrages those at the top when they begin to wobble, and thus this will continue throughout the season. But Manchester United are Manchester United: that alone already puts them ahead of many other clubs.
And with the time that Moyes will be afforded to evolve this club you can be sure that in time – not this season, but very soon – Manchester United will be title contenders once again.
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