A summer of change for Manchester United
It's a crucial time for the club with a new generation replacing the team that established the club's winning streak.
The summer of 2011 promises to be one of major changes for Manchester United. Having finally displaced Liverpool as the most successful side in English League history, United are now set to begin the new season with a different and somewhat inexperienced squad to the one that recently lifted a record-breaking 19th league title in May 2011.
Long-serving defenders John O’ Shea and Wes Brown have both joined Sunderland while the retirements of Paul Scholes and Edwin Van Der Sar in addition to the retirement of Gary Neville in February has left the English champions short of experienced players to match the ambitions of their manager Sir Alex Ferguson to overcome Barcelona in order to become the supreme team in European club football.
While it would be stretching it to say it is a time of transition, it can be said though that it is a crucial time for the club to continue their long-running success into the new generation by making the right choices in relation to new recruits replacing the recently departed for the objective of staying afloat with the other contenders and of course the rise of local rivals Manchester City.
Questions are raised every year on whether the United side of the upcoming season will be good enough to challenge for top honours and this season is unlikely to be any different.
The pace of change in club football, particularly in England, is mercilessly rapid and failure to build your squad even for one season can put your team in the shadows of fellow contenders. The vital area to strengthen for the European Cup runners-up is without doubt midfield.
With Paul Scholes hanging up his boots, a source of beautiful visionary passes and long-range strikes has now been crucially lost. It is a big gamble for Ferguson to rely on players from within to replace Scholes; a decision that could make or break United’s season. The uninspiring Darren Gibson is almost certain to move on while Anderson has shown in his four years at the club so far that the occasional Samba magic cannot supplement for consistency needed week after week. Michael Carrick did not score a single goal in the whole of the 2010/11 season and Darren Fletcher is not an attacking central midfielder.
In fact, to calm the nerves of those with United blood in their veins, Fletcher is a good example to prove that like for like replacements are not always possible or for that matter necessary. The sudden departure of Roy Keane in October 2005 led to the conclusion that an aggressive hard-tackling midfielder would be needed to carry on what Roy Keane had been doing for over a decade and media speculation immediately began on possible transfer signings as replacements. Instead, it was Fletcher, an academy graduate who after being a regular in the squad for the last two years slowly took up the mantle without him being singled out by anyone. Even the arrival of Carrick in the summer of 2006 and his subsequent inheritance of Keane’s number 16 shirt did not underline him as a direct replacement for Keane. Fletcher is less temperamental than Keane but is a big-game player and has made sure Roy Keane has not been sorely missed as was initially feared.
An exciting but unlikely prospect of filling in the position and role of Scholes is young midfielder Tom Cleverly who has just returned from a season-long loan at Wigan and who is confirmed to be part of the manager’s plans for this season.
With Ferguson denying any interest in signing Wesley Sneijder and Luka Modric and ruling out a move for Samir Nasri, it appears that the midfield might lack prestige and flair in this campaign. Perhaps it was United’s former Norwegian defender Henning Berg who once aptly stated that ‘no player is irreplaceable but there is only one Paul Scholes’.
And what will happen of the last remaining member of the ‘Class of 92’?
Having won every competition with the club –including a dozen league titles- Ryan Giggs knows that while his achievements have been sensational and while most players would stop playing at the top level at his age of 37 (he will turn 38 in November), this season might be his most important. After allegations against his private life and the retirement of best mates Neville and Scholes, the Welshman finds himself in an uncomfortable position. He cannot go on forever of course and may have to use his experience to guide the youngsters at the club which would be more of a contribution off the pitch than on it.
The three new signings made so far provide encouragement for the fans to believe that the squad is stronger this season. New goalkeeper David De Gea faces a daunting challenge of replacing the legendary Edwin Van Der Sar at a young age with a high transfer fee and without any command of the English language. The arrival of Ashley Young from Aston Villa means that with an overload of wingers, Ji-Sung Parkmay have to shift to central midfield which would provide a dynamic solution to the problem of replacing Scholes. Perhaps the most encouraging signing is that of defender Phil Jones from Blackburn Rovers. With Rio Ferdinand playing less with rising age and frequent injuries, Jones seems a solid acquisition that would keep things tight at the back and his understanding in the heart of defence with Chris Smalling forEngland’s under-21 team is an invaluable bonus.
The squad that achieved the premier league triumph of 2011 was almost universally said to be the least impressive of the Ferguson era, which actually makes the achievement on Ferguson’s part all the more impressive. Only time will tell whether the Scot will be able to successfully navigate the midfield problem and the threat of the emergence of the ‘noisy neighbours’ (his term to describe Manchester City) but based on his legendary managerial record, don’t bet your mortgage against him finding a solution.