Sir Alex Ferguson is gone. It doesn’t feel real to me yet. I’d never put it past him to announce his retirement so that all of United’s rivals relax just a little bit over the summer only to find that he’s back on the sidelines come August. No, it isn’t going to happen nor is it even rumored but such is my respect for his creativity, deviousness, and desire to give himself an edge over his competition in England and Europe. Until I see David Moyes on the sidelines for a match that counts, I’ll harbor this fear at least a little bit.
Assuming that my fear is baseless, there are a lot of questions facing Manchester United this summer as they approach the Transfer Window. In order to arrive at our proscribed priorities at Old Trafford over the summer, we’ll take a look at how the season went and where the potential holes are as the David Moyes era begins.
Sir Alex Ferguson rode off into the sunset carrying his millionth trophy (what, it was fewer than that? Are you sure?) which seems appropriate. Robin van Persie arrived and did what everyone expected he would do – score lots of goals. Outside of van Persie and the much-improved David De Gea though, the roster was very much in flux all season. Wayne Rooney never really found a home after being displaced by van Persie’s arrival. Shinji Kagawa, a creative force at Dortmund, never really settled in to a regular role. The wingers – Nani, Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia, and Ryan Giggs – were a shadow of the incredibly productive 2011-12 group. At the back, injuries and age meant United were consistently rotating players in front of DDG. Make no mistake, United’s title is owed very much to SAF’s rare ability to get the most out of his players and Manchester City’s inability to maintain anything close to their pace from last season. This may sound like a bit of a dismal review for a team that won the title going away but with Moyes coming in there are definitely major questions that must be asked about how prepared this group is to challenge for a title without their legendary boss guiding the way.
One of the big issues for United is that there aren’t many players on the roster who showed a positive trajectory in 2012-13. Here is the limited list of players who improved significantly this past season and appear capable of even more this coming season:
- David De Gea – The young Spanish goalkeeper went from question mark to unquestioned #1 this season which certainly helps. He was almost always steady and spectacular at times. Unlike 2011-12, I don’t recall any major headline-worthy gaffes that cost United points and, if I’m forgetting some early, any issues were certainly ironed out over the second half of the season.
- Rafael – The Brazilian right back still has a temper that gets him into occasional disciplinary trouble but he finally made the right side of the defense his this season. He will likely never be an exceptional defender but he is at least better-than-average at that part of his task and in 2012-13 he was exceptional going forward on occasion. If he can continue to grow as a very useful two-way player then United won’t have to spend much time thinking about this position for a number of years.
- Jonny Evans – People have questioned Ferguson’s faith in Evans on many occasions before this season but there were stretches this term where Evans was United’s best defender. The final match of the season was certainly not the lasting impression he would want but he moved forward this year and it doesn’t seem unreasonable for him to continue to build on that base.
Declining or Returning to Form
One of the major reasons that Manchester United didn’t win the title by 20 points was that they suffered down seasons from a number of players. Here is a quick rundown of the players who didn’t meet expectations and whether we think it is likely that they will return to former heights or are actually in permanent decline:
- Ashley Young – Young saw a marked decline in production from 2011-12 to 2012-13. Part of that was due to injury and age 27 it seems unlikely that he has entered a physical decline stage of his career. My guess is that he will seem like the proverbial “new signing” come August.
RETURNING TO FORM
- Antonio Valencia – Like Ashley Young, Valencia is 27 and suffered a dramatic dip in form from 2011-12 to 2012-13. Unlike Young, the reasons seem less clear. Even at Wigan where he was a featured player, Valencia was inconsistent and it seems that has carried over to his United career. With Ryan Giggs another year older and Nani seemingly on his way out, Valencia seems likely to continue as a starter but expecting a return to his 13 assists from 2011-12 seems like a stretch. A reasonable expectation is that he performs at a happy medium between two seasons ago and this past season.
RETURNING TO FORM…SOME.
- Patrice Evra – The French left back had what can best be described as an up-and-down season. As the season kicked off he looked like he was done and occasionally looked no more useful than a traffic cone when trying to defend. As the season wore on though, his performances improved – especially going forward. At 32, it may well be that decline has set in at a position where speed is important. My guess is that United recognizes that a decline has at least started and will try to fill the left back hole with a Leighton Baines-sized replacement with Evra relegated to “experienced back-up” much as Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs were this season.
- Wayne Rooney - The million (OK, many million) dollar question is “what was up with Rooney this season?”. Clearly the goal production was down significantly. The popular narrative was that Rooney was out of shape and wanted to leave. That may be true but it is my guess that his reduced production had much more to do with his change in role than any physical decline. THE question of next season for United, assuming Rooney stays, will be what role he plays and how well suited he is for that role. My expectation is that Moyes will find more opportunities to play a 4-4-2 with Rooney and RvP partnering which will allow Rooney to recover at least some of his lost goalscoring productivity.
- Rio Ferdinand/Ryan Giggs – Father Time is undefeated when it comes to players declining and you have to expect that the aging process for both will continue to drop their productivity.
- Darren Fletcher/Tom Cleverley/Anderson – This group – for various reasons – has been disappointing. Cleverley didn’t take advantage of his early chances after being pipped for a larger role. Darren Fletcher’s tragic injury leaves his future up in the air. Anderson, well, he just isn’t very good. Not much reason that a team with title aspirations would count on any of these guys making a significant difference next season. It could happen for Cleverley but you wouldn’t want to bank on it.
If we make the assumption that Rooney is staying then for my money, the order of priorities at United for this summer looks like this:
- Central Midfield – There is a lot of disagreement on exactly what United needs in central midfield – do they need a Keane-like destroyer to cover the back? Do they need the “next Scholes”? Is it something else? – but just about everyone agrees that there is something missing in the spine of United’s midfield. In my mind the ideal candidate is a jack-of-all-trades type who may not be great at any single thing but who can play off of Carrick/Kagawa/Cleverley and do what is necessary given who he is partnered with.
- Left Back – Alex Buttner isn’t young enough to be considered a prospect at age 24 and his performances so far don’t scream “heir apparent to Evra” so much as they scream “nice squad player” which means that the search continues for the future starter.
- Winger (preferably right-sided) – It appears that Nani is on the way out and even the ageless Ryan Giggs will stop being even somewhat useful one of these years. Even if Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia return to their former glories (or at least something better than last season) then a third option is still required. If there is even the slightest worry that either or both of Young and Valencia might be in significant decline then this becomes a major priority.
This is Manchester United that we’re talking about so there will always be a lot of names associated with them, here are some prominent ones and how they might, or might not, fit:
- Cristiano Ronaldo – That would fill the winger gap quite nicely now wouldn’t it? Seems like it might be possible given Real Madrid’s desire to go after Gareth Bale.
- Marouane Fellaini – He would certainly add some bite and intimidation to an otherwise fairly bland United central midfield. As with anyone coming up from the middle of the pack the big question would be how the volatile Belgian would react to huge matches against the likes of Barca with tiny midfielders flying all around him.
- Leighton Baines – Everyone pretty much has this one done given his relationship with David Moyes – my only hesitation in being the next on the bandwagon is that United tend to buy younger when they still have potential to make some of their investment back after selling the player on. Robin van Persie was the exception at United, not the rule transfer-wise.
- Luke Shaw – If you want a less famous left back option that fits the United buying pattern then Luke Shaw is the name you’re looking for. The Southampton left back is very popular among the big clubs this summer and United will likely be fighting it out with Chelsea and City to get him.
- Gareth Bale – United aren’t mentioned as frequently as you’d imagine but when I see young/entering his prime, Welsh, left-footed, transcendent talent, and potentially available on the transfer market I get the feeling that he’d be a better fit than Ronaldo.
So, who do you think United will be going after over the summer? Do you think Rooney will stay?