It is perhaps a little understandable that Manchester United fans are looking ahead to next season with some apprehension. Life without the greatest manager of all time, Sir Alex Ferguson, will take some getting used to, particularly after 26 years. All I’ve known is a Ferguson United and it has produced some of the best moments of my life. But the great man is no more and United are entering a period of unknown.
The grandness of the unknown comes in the fact that that highly-rated first team coach Rene Meulensteen as well as assistant manager Mike Phelan and goalkeeping coach Eric Steele have all departed too.
All three have overseen the most successful spell in United’s history and now have been replaced by David Moyes and his coaching team. It’s uneasy times for the club and it’s fans but in a strange kind of way, it’s also exciting.
Change isn’t such a bad thing. In some ways, it may be for the best. However good the Ferguson era was, it wasn’t perfect, particularly in recent years where United have been winning but we haven’t been winning with style. There’s been little of the United bravado, none of the slick, swashbuckling attacking play that blows teams away week in, week out.
United have lacked identity in recent seasons – a set style of play. Ferguson has always used wingers to great effect and the list of world-class wingers to play for the club is endless in the Ferguson era. Ryan Giggs, Cristiano Ronaldo and David Beckham to name a few, but it’s been a slightly different story recently. United almost seem confused as to how they should play.
Wingers were largely ineffective last season while the diamond formation has been tried with varying results. The title was won more down to the sheer class of the individuals involved, Van Persie and Carrick predominantly, rather than playing well together as a team. It all seemed a bit messy at times.
Ferguson repeatedly sticking Kagawa on the left wing was an indication of how he struggled to accommodate our best players in the same starting XI and fully maximise the effect they had on the game. Rooney, Kagawa and Van Persie are all outstanding individuals but putting them in the same team affected the cohesion of our play going forward.
The extraordinary amount of goals scored from headers, the most in the league, as well as from defenders in 2012/13 highlighted that point. The team lacked an identity on the pitch. There’s no doubting the quality of the squad but the shape of the team suffered and the game plan was not easy to work out.
Past United teams have had a distinct identity. Teams would be built on a strong centre-back duo and strong wing play. Current Premier League sides lower down the table have an obvious playing style such as Liverpool’s short passing, Tottenham’s pass and movement and Arsenal’s fluid attacking play. United don’t currently have that, and it’ll be fascinating to see if Moyes can stamp his own personality on the current squad and get them playing in a certain manner.
And, to the crux of the point, this is also why I don’t want us to splash out £80million on Cristiano Ronaldo.
United fans often marvel over how Borussia Dortmund or Barcelona play but to play like that you need a clear identity throughout the whole team rather than going all out to buy individual superstars.
It’s not all about the end product. It’s also about how you get to that end product. Most people would counter that by saying results are all that matter which is, of course, true. After all, United did win the title by a massive 11 points last season.
“Ryan Giggs is my idol. He’s from Wales, left-footed and played left-wing like I do. It was an obvious choice. I’ve watched him a lot over the years – he’s an unbelievable player and a true legend of football.” Gareth Bale
But to enjoy a sustained period of success, you need a clear and systematic approach to every game. Buying Ronaldo would be a Van Persie type signing, an impact player who would increase our chances of success but it’s not a long-term solution – it’s a quick-fix and would continue to paper over the cracks that were so evident last season.
A lack of midfield depth is clearly the biggest worry. A box-to-box midfield enforcer would be first on my summer wish list closely followed by a creative, goal-scoring midfielder such as Cesc Fabregas.
There is also a need for a winger, someone with more experience than Wilfred Zaha and, ideally, a left-winger. Gareth Bale, however unlikely, would be the obvious choice and United spending money on him rather than Ronaldo would make far more sense to the make-up of the squad.
An experienced centre-back will also be required with both Ferdinand and Vidic likely to leave over the next couple of years. Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Jonny Evans are all good enough to play at the highest level but more depth and experience is needed despite Michael Keane’s potential.
One of my other biggest frustrations under Ferguson and his coaching team was how poorly United played without the ball. Often, United are far too passive when they were not in possession and were happy to let the other team play without much pressure on the ball.
Games against Liverpool in recent years are a perfect example of how we struggle to cope against a team playing with high energy and high intensity. The same goes for Everton at the start of last season. They were much quicker than us, much sharper and they harried and hassled us into mistakes. We always struggle in games against teams that press high and force us into mistakes.
The pressing game is criminally underused. Dortmund implement it and it’s been shown to be a lethal weapon when used correctly. United have the players for it and Moyes used it at Everton, so it could be one area that will improve noticeably under Moyes.
Youth is another reason to be looking forward to the Moyes era. United’s values have always focused on youth and giving young players the chance to shine and make a name for themselves. Moyes will carry on that tradition.
At Everton, he gave debuts to Wayne Rooney and Ross Barkley when they were just 16 and he will undoubtedly show the same faith in youth at United with the likes of Adnan Januzaj, Nick Powell and Jesse Lingard banging on the first team door.
“Manchester United have always relied hugely on young players and my priority will always be to promote these talents.” David Moyes
Moyes will give those guys a chance on the biggest stage. Would Mourinho or many other managers? It’s something that the club values highly and Moyes knows it. He gets it. Not to mention the fact he’s already appointed Ryan Giggs and Phil Neville as coaches. Young, enthusiastic, knowledgeable men who know football inside out and know the club as well as anybody.
I’m not criticising Fergsuon or Meulensteen in the slightest. What he did for the club can never be over-stated. He is, without doubt, the greatest manager there’s ever been but that doesn’t mean Moyes can’t enjoy his own success.
It may not be on the same scale as Ferguson but he’s an intelligent man and a student of the game and will have his own ideas for the future and that is something to be extremely excited about.
Ferguson has left at the perfect time. He’s left behind a title-winning squad capable of going onto winning more, a squad that is full of experience and have that winning mentality installed but there’s also room for improvement.
Of course, there is plenty to worry about ahead of the Moyes era.
How will he be able to handle the media attention? Can he manage the world-class personalities? Will he be able to attract the biggest names? Is he experienced enough?
But he’ll learn on the job. It may take a while, we may have to be patient but, eventually, he’ll get it right.