AUTHOR: – Bricki
Want to try and name your strongest XI from the squad this season? Not easy is it, now it all depends on the competition, time of year, opposition… the list could go on.
The great United teams of previous years have almost always had a first XI that usually picked itself. The likes of Keane, Scholes, Neville were always the names you saw on the team sheet when it mattered, now ten fans could pick ten different line ups and have legitimate arguments for it being our strongest team.
Making my way back from Old Trafford after the Schalke game the talk began straight away about who would play in the final, what the system would be. Like any successful team several positions do still pick themselves, goalkeeper and three of the back four are certs barring injury. What about further forward though? The only man you can guarantee a place is Rooney and even then he could be in one of 2/3 different roles.
The thought occurred to me at that point, is this is the ‘greatest’ squad we’ve ever had at United? The media have made a lot of noise this season about the team not being as ‘great’ as previous teams under Sir Alex but has the game evolved so much in the last 20 years that it is no longer about having a great team but a great squad?
The demands on the successful footballer in the modern game, by successful i mean any player in a major European league or possibly the tier below e.g. Championship, appear to be a lot more than what was expected of players even in the late 80s/early 90s. The undoubted increase in the game coupled with more technical and tactical ways of playing can lead to greater requirements on the body and mind.
Is this true though that the game today does demand more of players?
The title of ‘Squad Player’ has taken on much more significance in the last 4/5 years. Players such as O’Shea, Fletcher and even Berbatov at £30m have adopted the ability to become players who may not play every game but do specific roles when required. John O’Shea is the best example of this, he made a somewhat fantastic introduction into the United squad which included the ‘Nutmegging’ in the Real Madrid game and the ‘Jonny goes marching down the wing song was born’. Yet he was never able to cement a consistent place in the starting XI and has played in several positions, including even a stint in goal. This was the man who led the team out in the Champions League Semi-Final as Captain.
In the game against Chelsea yesterday we had the leagues top scorer and assist makers in Berbatov and Nani on the bench. This can be viewed as partly due to the fact Hernandez has hit a very rich vein of form keeping Berbatov out of the team and Valencia is now approaching full fitness after a horror injury. It could also be seen though that for the particular style of game we needed to play yesterday, the attributes of Hernandez, Valencia and the machine that is Ji-Sung Park was better suited.
Taking a look at the number of appearances players have made this season makes for interesting reading and shows just how big a role the squad is playing in a team that has competed on four fronts over a season.
Evra - 44 (2)
VDS - 44
Vidic - 44
Nani - 40 (6)
Carrick - 37 (5)
Rooney - 34 (3)
Berbatov - 31 (9)
Fletcher - 30 (6)
O’Shea - 29 (3)
Ferdinand – 27
Hernandez – 25 (18)
Giggs - 25 (11)
Rafael - 24 (3)
Smalling - 29 (9)
Park - 23 (3)
Scholes - 22 (8)
Anderson – 21 (8)
Evans - 16 (3)
Fabio - 14 (9)
Gibson - 14 (6)
Valencia - 13 (5)
Brown - 10 (5)
So there have been 22 players that have made 10 or more starts for the club this season, with only 4 players making 40+ appearances. Compare this with the Treble winning team of 1998-99 who had the following players making 10 or more starts in all competitions.
Schmeichel – 56
Neville G - 54
Beckham - 53 (2)
Keane - 53 (2)
Stam - 50 (1)
Yorke - 48 (3)
Irwin - 45 (3)
Cole - 43 (7)
Scholes - 38 (13)
Giggs – 35 (5)
Butt – 34 (13)
Johnsen - 30 (7)
Neville P - 29 (15)
Blomqvist – 29 (9)
Berg - 21 (8)
Solskjaer - 17 (20)
Brown - 16 (5)
Sheringham – 11 (16)
The first striking thing is the number of games the players at the top of the pile played. No less than 8 players made 40+ starts over the season with 5 starting over 50 games each. if you were to say that’s 2 games a week then it’s an extra 5 weeks in a season for a player and bound to have a toll come the end of the season. The fact that the title was not confirmed until the last day may have kept the adrenalin pumping and been what pushed the players over the line. It could also explain why we were missing some of the fizz and pace of our game in the Champions League Final against Bayern.
If we go back to the first ‘Double’ winning team of Fergusons tenure it makes for some amazing reading. Taking into account that we were out of the European Cup by November but reached both domestic Cup Finals the numbers are very high.
Bruce - 61 (1)
Irwin - 61 (1)
Pallister - 61
Schmeichel - 60
Parker - 56 (1)
Ince - 56
Hughes - 54
Giggs - 50 (8)
Keane - 50 (4)
Cantona - 49
Kanchelskis - 44 (3)
Sharpe - 33 (8)
McClair - 19 (19)
Robson - 20 (7)
A total of 11 players that made over 40+ appearances and 4 players with over 60. Using the presumption of 2 games in a week again that could be another 10 weeks of action and training, compared to the players of today. It is only a simple analogy using the two games in a week idea but players have said the games take more out of them than training does so the impact on body and mind would be felt.
No doubt the pace of the game has increased for players since the early 90s but it still makes for a fascinating comparison and raises several questions about the sides of yesteryear compared to the supposedly ‘poor’ squad we have today.
One of the big arguments we hear from managers and players in the game is the risk of overplaying and no adequate time for players to rest. The figures above though do not seem to agree with this and could go as far as to say that players today have it easy compared to players in previous ‘generations’. With over two thirds of the 93/94 squad starting more games than this seasons squad does that mean they would have been able to match the achievements of this year and go even further?
What if we were to also look at the much improved facilities, conditions and medical care now available to players that were not available even in the mid 90s?
We have seen Antonio Valencia return from an injury in seven months that could very much have ended his career in 1993. Due to playing fewer games in a short period, players do have greater recovery time and more innovative rehabilitation techniques/treatment. This means a players career can last into their mid 30s much easier, perfect examples being Giggs, Van Der Sar, Scholes. The squad approach we are seeing today is clearly benefitting the players and keeping them fit, when with just three or four less players in the squad the workload on the players could increase dramatically. The pitches that players are able to play on consistently today and the way they travel will also have a major impact on what is achievable. Sir Alex Ferguson commented that the current Old Trafford pitch is the best he has experienced at the club. It is akin to playing on carpet these days rather than the usual mud baths and sand pits that were visible even up until the turn of the century. It’s fair to say that your legs may not ache quite so much if you’ve spent 90 minutes on a bowling green compared to battling through mud like many teams had to in the past.
The introduction of innovative rehabilitation techniques like ice baths, oxygen tanks and more effective surgery have meant that injuries can be treated more effectively and reduce the long term effects on a players career. At the beginning of the 1990s a cruciate ligament injury would usually spell the end of a player, now however they can potentially be back playing in 6-9 months. Recent examples of this include Valencia and his broken/dislocated ankle, Alan Smith with the same injury and the Arsenal player Aaron Ramsey who had a serious ankle injury.
Sir Alex Ferguson has now developed a squad that can adapt and play in a variety of styles to suit the occasion. How often have we seen a team selection this season and thought “Oh, I’m not sure about that team Fergie!”? Yet the team has invariably gone out and done the job at hand. In games like the Arsenal FA Cup game with the Da Silvas as ‘wingers’ or the 2nd leg of the Champions League Semi with a ’2nd’ team out we have got the result that was needed. This has also allowed other squad players to stay rested and injury free for the games that followed these.
The rotation has allowed players such as Gibson, Evans and Fabio to gain vital experience and be trusted to step up in games such as a Champions League Semi and perform as required. Men like Gibson, Evans and O’Shea are not everyones’ favoured players and would more than likely miss out if you were picking the strongest team, yet they are stepping in seamlessly where needed.
Sir Alex has to take the plaudits for identifying the need for such a diverse and interchangeable squad. It’s interesting to look at the squad and how it stands up against our nearest rivals.
Chelsea are very much a team with a very strong first XI however one or two injuries like what happened with Lampard and Terry this year leaves a gap that is then difficult to fill.
With the Arsenal squad there is definitely a more rounded set of players and they do have guys to step in where needed. They do lack ‘experience’ though and Wenger himself has admitted that at times this season the team has needed older heads to see out games.
Liverpool have suffered from building a team based around Torres and Gerrard to then have both suffer long lay offs due to injury and in Torres case a complete loss of form. Much like Chelsea it appeared that once you got past the first 13/14 players there was a lack of talent required to compete over a season. Dalglish appears to be remedying this with the purchases of Suarez and Carroll as well as giving players sidelined under Hodgson (Spearing, Shelvey) the chance to stake a claim.
Manchester City appear to be building a squad but have suffered to an extent at times this season due to an over reliance on Carlos Tevez. This is understandable to a degree however as they are trying to both build a squad to compete on various fronts but also show fast progress for the vast sums injected by the new owner.
Sir Alex has had the precious commodity of time in which to mould and build a squad that is able to compete on all fronts. This is not something that other managers, bar a few, have been given. It could be argued that if Liverpool or Manchester City intend on being title challengers then the development of the squads needs to continue and the managers given time to put the squads together.
Back to the subject in hand, Is this the greatest ‘Squad’ that we have ever had? One game from an FA Cup Final, League Champions elect and a Champions League Final for a team that at times was wrote off as in ‘transition’ this season and was questioned by one of their own as to whether they were good enough. Its a fantastic return and maybe more than Sir Alex himself may have realistically expected in August.
The squad is always evolving and the retirements of Van der Sar, Neville and in the next couple of years Scholes and Giggs may just ask the biggest question as to whether the rest of the players have what it takes to continue moving forward.
We have had this question many times before though, when Cantona retired, Keane left and Ronaldo/Tevez moved on the same questions were asked and the squad adapted and changed to meet the needs at that time.
In my own personal opinion, I still look at the squad of 98/99 and the intensity they approached every game as my favoured squad but the collection of players we have now are meeting nearly every challenge thrown their way. If they were to beat the odds and triumph at Wembley on May 28th that may just be the achievement that makes this squad the greatest we have produced…