Sir Alex Ferguson was mesmerized as he stared at the freshly cut Wembley pitch. Ferguson stood motionless at the halfway-line, minutes after Barcelona had defeated Manchester United in the 2011 Champions League final for the second consecutive time, and the Scotsman had no alternative but to accept that the better side had won.
“It’s not easy when you’ve been well beaten like that to think another way. No one has given us a hiding like that. It’s a great moment for them [Barcelona],” Ferguson stated. “You shouldn’t be afraid of a challenge. We want to improve. Of course, next season, we must improve even more. But we have a challenge with Barcelona. We all do. It’s no consolation being the second-best team.”
Barcelona had set the bar with their emphatic victory at Wembley, and they became the template for European success. In fairness, United overachieved in Europe that season – the 2007- 2009 side was much stronger, and here, they were thoroughly outclassed by the best side in Europe. This should’ve been a lesson for Ferguson, it was time to revamp the squad – at the time Ryan Giggs, Michael Carrick and Park-Ji Sung were their best midfield options.
However, while Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal and Ilkay Gundogan made moves around the continent for a combined fee of £15m, Ferguson spent £18m on Ashley Young. That season United crashed out of the Champions League group stage, and was subsequently blitzed in midfield by Athletic Bilbao. Despite taking advantage of Manchester City’s poor away form in the league, United conceded a seven-point lead in the final weeks, and their Premier League title on the last day of the season – courtesy of Sergio Aguero’s stoppage time winner – ending their campaign trophyless.
Conceding a title at the final kick of the season left a sour taste in Ferguson’s mouth, but he persisted on remaining optimistic, even at United’s darkest hour. “Normally 89 points would be enough to win the league – but it wasn’t our turn,” Ferguson said minutes after City had claimed the title. “”It’s a cruel way to lose out but I have experienced many ups and downs in 26 years…. for us it’s still a challenge; we’re good at challenges and we’ll kick on from here.”
The drive to win the Premier League title was at an all-time high – but is desire inhibited his awareness to the side’s necessities. The decision to purchase Robin van Persie was a wise short-term fix, whereas Shinji Kagawa’s arrival to Old Trafford is still peculiar – especially when Ferguson was reluctant on signing Mesut Ozil for a cheaper fee a few years prior. Kagawa thrived in a system at Dortmund based on Gegenpressing and quick transitions – explaining why the Japanese playmaker flourished against Bayer Leverkusen, but has failed to consistently perform throughout his spell at Old Trafford.
City’s failure to bolster their title-winning squad, along with Van Persie’s fine form and ability to stay fit, saw United wrestled the title away from their ‘noisy neighbours’ – and with the newly-crowned champions far from being legitimate European contenders, Ferguson decided to call it quits.
The dawn of a new era approached, and Ferguson handpicked David Moyes to be his successor. Ferguson’s decision shocked the world – Moyes’ lack of European experience and trophies raised a few eyebrows. The pressure was high, success was expected at any cost, and Moyes was faced with a difficult job ahead of him. This was supposed to be an easy transition for the former Everton manager – considering the Scotsman inherited a side that won the league by 11 points.
But, subsequently, six months to his hiring, many supporters believe Moyes isn’t the ‘chosen one’. United currently sit in seventh place, five points off fourth and 11 behind league leaders Arsenal – and in the process have lost five matches at home this season.
Is the Old Trafford fear factor gone? Is Moyes responsible for their mishaps at home? Certainly not – opponents were taking the game to United over the past 12-18 months, the difference being they always found a way to score. Now, the atmosphere at Old Trafford is nervy, goals aren’t being produced, penetration in the final third is minimal, and their grit and relentless waves of constant pressure has vanished.
Despite all the negative criticism Moyes has received during his tenure, he can’t solely receive all the blame for United’s shortcomings. The performances, and the results have been putrid, but United’s sharp decline was forthcoming. Ferguson left Moyes with a limited squad – as their league success from the prior year flattered the talent available – and Moyes has been unable to maximize his squad’s performance levels like the former United manager; in fairness it’s a difficult task to replicate.
The obsession with signing world-class players to fix issues within a squad may sound easy, but in hindsight, it rarely occurs, specifically at United. Over the past decade, United hasn’t been renowned for acquiring highly rated foreign talent, or world-class players around the continent. After failing to capture the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Thiago Alcantara and Ander Herrera, the club was forced into the £27.5m desperation deadline day purchase of Marouane Fellaini.
Acquiring world-class talent doesn’t lead to instant success, nor is it required to build a successful squad. Likewise the ability to evolve a squad yearly, and rid surplus personnel is also pivotal – a feat Ferguson ignored. United’s previous core squad was built around young talent that developed into world-class players in Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney, Premier League acquisitions such as Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick and Carlos Tevez, while foreign talent in Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra were purchased for a combined £12m in the 2005 January transfer window.
Only two of those players have left United – Ronaldo and Tevez in 2009 – and the rest still play a significant role in the squad. Ferguson’s rebuilding process was wise, and successful in comparison to his final years at United, and he left Moyes with the scraps. Apart from the strikers at his disposal, United has only succeeded in providing adequate cover at centre-back. While Ferdinand and Vidic enjoy their final days as first-team regulars, Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans and Phil Jones provide a new generation of competent centre-backs.
Width has always been a key component in United’s play over the years, but Moyes’ arrival has seen it become their main attacking outlet. The issue here is his wingers are average, whereas pushing two fullbacks into advanced positions hampers natural balance and leaves United vulnerable on the counter. 18-year-old Adnan Januzaj has been the clubs best wide player this season – which is an indictment on the wingers at their disposal – while Wilfried Zaha has yet to feature regularly. The issue with this concept is the strikers aren’t receiving adequate service from the flanks – whereas last season, most of the play was going directly through van Persie.
Apart from Evra – who has been exposed defensively this season – the fullbacks haven’t impressed either. Moyes has been forced to field players out of position at right back, and Rafael still can’t be trusted on the big stage. Also Evra’s departure at the end of the season has forced Moyes to find an ideal replacement. United doesn’t possess a defensively astute fullback, and from an attacking perspective they’ve rarely influenced matches.
The main concern United supporters possess regarding their side’s deficiencies is their feeble midfield – in hindsight, Ferguson didn’t purchase a midfielder in his final six seasons. United’s midfield could use a dynamic box-to-box midfielder – that can provide a goal scoring threat from deep – or a destructive holder that can break up play. Also, they no longer possess a player in the mold of Paul Scholes – that can dictate the tempo from deep positions – and without the former or the latter, United has consistently encountered problems against opposition that possess quality midfielders.
While Moyes can be held accountable for a few of United’s issues, it’s clear that Ferguson didn’t pay his fellow Scotsman any favours. Money was available for Ferguson to spend; excessive bids for Lucas Moura and Eden Hazard, along with their willingness to spend £100m on Gareth Bale exemplify the funds available. Ultimately, Moyes needs time to introduce players that fit into his system, and he doesn’t need to follow the farcical misconception and spend big on world-class players.
He can emulate rivals Chelsea, and invest in young talent – individually Oscar and Mata were cheaper than Fellaini – and develop them into world-beaters, or locate foreign talent at affordable costs. Old Trafford hasn’t necessarily been an ideal destination for established foreign talent, but United hasn’t utilized the transfer window to it’s fullest; frankly Borussia Dortmund, Juventus, Atletico Madrid and to an extent Arsenal – financially restricted clubs – have displayed that success can be attained through proper scouting.
While United flirt with the possibility of being the worst reigning champion of the Premier League era, Moyes still deserves a full transfer window to steady the ship. The entire squad needs to be revamped, and patience will be required if United supporters intend on seeing their squad rejoin Europe’s elite.
With majority of the top-sides in England vastly improving, United’s overdue transitional period won’t be as straightforward as 2004-2006. Ferguson, arguably the most influential figure in United’s history has left his mark on the club, but the latter stages of his career have potentially jeopardized United’s long-term success.