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As the reality of failing to qualify beyond the group stages of the Champions League sets in; now is as good a time as any to reflect and consider what might happen next for United.
No offence to our opponents but…
…not qualifying from a group that contained Basel, Benfica and Otelul Galati is unacceptable and embarrassing. Whatever I go on to say, that stands. United have been way too casual and confident in this competition and ultimately got what’s been coming to them. That stems from the manager down, even he has been too arrogant and recently ended a press conference early when asked if United were struggling. The bottom line is we’ve made an easy group appear difficult.
Injuries and rotation
Injuries are something every side has to deal with but United seem to be going through an unfortunate spell at the moment. All six strikers have been injured at some point so far this season whilst similarly at the back, only Jones has been forever fully fit. However, more pressing is the CM area – Cleverley and Anderson injured with Carrick suspended saw the unfit pairing of Fletcher and Gibson benched against Basel in favour of Jones and Giggs. More on that to come though.
As eleven individuals, most United sides should have been able to qualify through from that group but the weekly team rotations surely cannot help to create a settled side.
This could be a blog entry in itself. The thing to make clear is there is no obvious answer – the midfield lacks imagination but then it also lacks bite. I’ve blogged before on why I believe grit and balls should come before creativity – and then suggested a solution. In short; just because other sides play a ‘creative’ CM (note in a 4-5-1) that doesn’t mean we have to follow their lead. United’s midfield has traditionally been built upon winning the ball and being effective; allowing the wide players and forwards to take the lead on more creative parts of the game.
It seems incredible that United entered into a game, let alone a Champions League game with a 19 year old centre back and a 38 year old former winger as the central midfield pairing. Even so, United created 22 chances away from home and scored one goal; similar to the 29 created vs. Newcastle recently. So to what extent is the problem in the central midfield area anyway? The lack of movement up front isn’t a central midfield issue and seemingly neither is creating chances.
However there is real klout to having someone like Carrick available. He, like Parker and Lucas is somewhat unfancied because he’s limited in the final third of the pitch. Yet his ability to help prevent goals being conceded is just as vital as being able to create goalscoring chances as I shall explain…
Why can’t we score?
So far in the PL this season, United have gotten 35.7% of their shots on target and scored 12.9% of total chances. Last year, United got 34.7% of their shots on target and scored 12.2% of their total chances. So if anything, chances being created and goals being scored are both slightly up on last year. Unlike last year though, United are no longer conceding less than a goal a game. Importantly, teams seem to be understanding that they are quite likely to get a chance to score against United and then be able to put everyone behind the ball to see a game out. For this reason, United need to stop the leaking of goals as much as they need to score more.
A dose of reality is needed too – Welbeck has been largely injured; Hernandez missed pre-season and took time to get his fitness back; Owen’s injured; Macheda’s been injured; and Rooney’s had to drop deep to help cover in the midfield. There’s been a real lack of a strong regular centre forward, not allowing any kind of ‘instinctive relationship’ to build between midfielders and strikers like Valencia and Rooney in 2009/10 or Nani and Berbatov in 2010/11.
I believe we need to stop giving teams something to defend and in turn, need a bit of luck with injuries – Welbeck and Rooney seems a tasty pairing to run with.
Do we need to spend?
Buying players isn’t always the answer. Coaches talk a lot about finding the right player for a system and more frequently are making out personality to be a key factor. However, United certainly aren’t as competitive as they once were in the transfer market. In the last 5 years, seven clubs including Stoke, Aston Villa and Sunderland have a higher net spend than United whilst Spurs, Chelsea, Liverpool and Man City are spending on average between £4m and £75m net a year more than United on new players.
Whether the manger has or is being denied the funds is not something we’ll ever know but it’s hard not to marry up United’s yearly interest payments with the drop in net spending. It might be the case that actually the staff are very happy with the squad and genuinely fail to see how it can be improved; but the pursuit of certain midfield players this summer suggests otherwise.
It is of course true that United, along with other clubs are not able to compete with Man City financially in the transfer market right now. Only City can afford to make a 12 month loss of -£197m. If they want to continue to spend and build their team then so be it; it’s just something we’re going to have to accept for now and hope that the FFP rules do their job in the future.
Ultimately, United probably should spend something. Fresh competition in certain areas can do no harm and there is a precedent set for January spending; but, there is always an alternative too.
When’s this happened before?
In 2005/06 United failed to get out of a group containing Benfica, Lille and Villarreal – losing two games, enduring three nil-nil draws and winning just the once. It prompted two January signings – Vidic and Evra; but importantly it was a wake-up call for a team that had gotten somewhat stale. Van Nistelrooy was shown the door and Rooney and Ronaldo became the focal points for a new United side.
The new United combined youth with the likes of Carrick, Evra, Vidic and Fletcher to form the core of a fresh side who’d go on to reach three Champions League finals and four semi-finals in the next five years. They were a team moulded by the feeling of disappointment having gone out of the Champions League criminally early and against AC Milan in 2006/07 at the final hurdle in the semi final.
Starting a new squad cycle
The idea of squad cycles should be something United fans know about only too well. Fergie has built at least four successful United teams already and is now embarking on his latest one. Maturity and know-how take time to ripen – a lot of the current squad are seriously young footballers in the grand scheme of their careers. The transition from one squad to a new squad can take time to get right – in the past it has seen relatively barren spells for United before the league has been regained.
The problem this time is that this ‘new start’ may take longer than others have previously. Last year’s winning FA Youth Cup team were crowned champions of the U18 age range not by chance but based on their ability. It’s very unsurprising to see so many given both squad numbers and debuts this season. Fergie will be acutely aware of the problems of throwing them in too soon but they do provide a genuine long-term alternative to signings which is causing something of a dilemma. Take Paul Pogba for example, a very talented young player but he’s not really ready for regular action yet. However, compare his progress into the first team with those before him. These players got to 3 first team United games aged:
Darren Fletcher – 19 and 7 months
David Beckham – 19 and 5 months
Nicky Butt – 19 and 3 months
Paul Scholes – 19 and 11 months
Darron Gibson – 21 and 1 month
Paul Pogba – 18 and 9 months
You see, the signs are there that Fergie knows he has a bunch of talented kids so maybe we’ll have to now be patient for 18-24 months in order to properly reap the rewards of their progress. Oddly enough, when Fergie recently celebrated 25 years in charge I considered whether the starting line up in 2015/16 could represent his best ever United side once the current young players had matured.
Finally, it seems apt to point out that the man in charge knows what he’s doing. We’ve had a lot of success lately and cannot always be the best team in the country or Europe. We have some very talented kids and now have to be patient and let them blossom. It might even take 2 years to bring them through but however long it takes, it’s likely to be worth the wait. United have come a long way in the past 35 years, from playing seriously awful football right up to today where the expectations are for constant success. As fans, we’ve been spoilt lately and whilst it’s great to always expect to come first, we have to be somewhat realistic. What happened against Basel has been on the cards for some time; it was no less than we deserved and as embarrassing as it feels right now. However, if it triggers some squad changes for the better and for the long-term then that can only be a good thing.
In the meantime, if the Europa League is treated as a second Carling Cup and Fergie decides to go with some of the younger players; then that’s an added bit of experience and competitive game-time for them that can’t hurt. Best off that we just pool all our resources into the league again and hope that we somehow manage to overachieve again this year. The future though, whenever it arrives, is bright – United will rise again.