Ferguson's 2013 crop are far from vintage
Sir Alex Ferguson believes the current Manchester United squad is the best of his trophy-laden Old Trafford reign. It may seem churlish to disagree so soon after United’s 3-0 victory over Aston Villa and conformation of their 13th Premier League title but the truth is the current crop of Red Devils are not yet in the same league as some of their celebrated predecessors.
The league table of course is the epitome of truth and United are the best side in the country.
Ferguson’s side have cut down the opposition this year with a broadsword rather than the rapier.
And yet by the club’s own high standards, it’s difficult to escape the stark conclusion that this has been the most underwhelming of all of United’s title-winning seasons. There was certainly nothing muted about last night’s celebrations in the red half of Manchester but this has been far from a vintage campaign.
United have lacked a clear, creative identity this term. The verve and attacking flair that has been the hallmark of their previous successes has been conspicuous by its absence and the subdued atmosphere that has shrouded Old Trafford at times has reflected the sense of unease. The champions have only intermittently sparked and had their city rivals or the trio of challengers from the capital been more consistent, it could have been an altogether different story.
The statistics belie the reality. United have already scored as many goals this season (78) as they did in 2010-11 when they were last crowned champions. They have registered more victories than the 23 they did two seasons ago and Robin van Persie, buoyed his hat-trick against Villa, has already eclipsed Dimitar Berbatov’s league tally of 20 in 2010-11 to head the club scoring charts.
But Ferguson’s side have cut down the opposition this year with a broadsword rather than the rapier.
The defence, despite the endless changes in personnel, has been solid. David de Gea has proved he can cope with the abrasive nature of the Premier League while Van Persie has proved Ferguson knew exactly what he was doing when he convinced the Glazers that £22.5million was a price worth paying for an injury-prone 29-year-old.
The Dutchman has almost had as big an impact this year as Cristiano Ronaldo in his United pomp between 2006 and 2009 but when the Portuguese was at his coruscating best, the supporting cast was more glittering. Van Persie hasn’t carried the team but he has borne a disproportionate weight of responsibility.
Beyond that however there has been little to truly fire the imagination. Van Persie’s goals have hidden a multitude of sins and the United midfield in particular has been uncharacteristically prosaic. The flair players – Nani, Ashley Young, Shinji Kagawa, even the evergreen Ryan Giggs – have only been occasional guests at the party while the thrusts down the flanks from Patrice Evra and Rafael Da Silva have been willing but rarely wonderful.
The threat that they could dismantle all comers, has been replaced by an admirable but more workmanlike resilience
The demeanour and increasingly infrequent deployment of Wayne Rooney has only exaggerated the sense of United not quite firing on all cylinders. The striker has kept his own counsel after what has been a difficult season but while he used to embody United’s energy and incisiveness, he has struggled to recapture much of the old magic.
By definition, United have been the team to beat but the fear factor they once boasted, the threat that they could dismantle all comers, has been replaced by an admirable but more workmanlike resilience. They have won only half of their games against the other ‘top five’ sides so far this season and each time only by a one goal margin.
The side’s stuttering Champions League challenge was equally revealing. Jose Mourinho may have insisted the best team lost when Real Madrid disposed of United in the last 16 but defeats in the group stage to both Galatasaray and Cluj and a failure to reach the quarter-finals for the first time since 2006 strengthens the argument that this is not yet a great United side.
United’s mission statement at the start of the campaign was crystal clear. The noisy neighbours’ temporary tenure of the trophy had to be brought to a swift and conclusive end and after the dramatic events on the final day of last season, Ferguson and his players have achieved that. From an Old Trafford perspective, the status quo has been restored and perhaps a more expansive United will emerge next season.
But this term has been all about results. There have been handsome victories (not least the 4-0 defeats of Wigan home and away) but the fact remains United have played better, more entertaining football in previous seasons. Pragmatism won out over artistry.