2010-11: Premier League winners, Champions League finalists
2011-12 (not even midway): Carling Cup quarterfinal loss to Crystal Palace (at home), 6-1 defeat to Manchester City (at home), and failure to qualify from a Champions League group that Sir Alex Ferguson might have hand-picked himself. And now Nemanja Vidic is out for the season with a ruptured cruciate ligament.
So what on earth has gone wrong for United this season? In a word: everything.
The defense: Many people were fooled by the 8-2 demolition of Arsenal earlier in the season. The warning signs were always there; even as United were scoring goals for fun, they were conceding more goals than usual. With Rio Ferdinand clearly in the twilight of his career, the defense depends on Nemanja Vidic more than ever. This season, with Vidic injured, the kids have been forced into action and have been panic prone, particularly in European matches. Chris Smalling and Phil Jones are excellent young prospects, but have made crucial mistakes that they will be expected to learn from. Jonny Evans, on the other hand, is a walking disaster of a defender.
Injuries: They’ve decimated United. A list of players who have been/are currently injured this season: Javier Hernandez, Dimitar Berbatov, Michael Owen, Darren Fletcher, Tom Cleverley, Anderson, Ashley Young, Rafael, Fabio, Ferdinand, Vidic, and Jones. It doesn’t matter how big the squad is; that list would cripple any team’s efforts. A telling statistic: Ferguson has deployed no less than six different players at right-back so far this season (Rafael, Fabio, Jones, Smalling, Valencia, Fletcher). The defense simply cannot compete at its best when it is constantly being changed, whether intentionally or not.
But none of this excuses United from failing to qualify from what should have been an easy Champions League group. My theory is that the players were overconfident and half-assed their way through these six matches. Wayne Rooney in particular was culpable on Wednesday, missing numerous scoring chances and only looking half interested. After a terrific first month of the season, he again looks like the Wayne Rooney of last season, a ghost of his old self. With Hernandez, Berbatov and Owen all out injured, United looked to him for inspiration. They looked in the wrong direction.
We already spoke about the issues with the defense, but another problem has been the glaring lack of a creative central midfielder. Why oh why, Sir Alex, did you not go and get Wesley Sneijder when you had the chance? Depending on 38-year-old Ryan Giggs, god bless him, to be the creative spark in midfield is embarrassing for a club of United’s stature. Ferguson also tried to deploy Phil Jones (center-back) and Wayne Rooney (forward) in the same role; it was practically an admission of defeat. Without a Snejider-like midfielder, the likes of Carrick, Anderson, Giggs and Fletcher have been woefully predictable in attack, and this particularly showed in European matches.
Finally, the issue of the goalkeeper. David de Gea has been somewhat slaughtered by the English media so far this season. I’m here to say: lay the f*** off. He’s a 20-year-old kid who’s arrived in a new country at one of the world’s biggest clubs; of course he’s going to make some mistakes. It’s acceptable when Jones and Smalling do it, so why do we slate de Gea for it? He is young, and like any other kid, he will learn from his mistakes. Ferguson followed this kid for two years before signing him; he obviously believes in him. A certain Wojciech Szczesny (google/copy/paste name into document) was full of mistakes when he first got his chance at Arsenal, and look how he’s blossomed.
Another issue with de Gea is that, especially for a goalkeeper, he appears quiet and even somewhat reserved. Perhaps it is somewhat intimidating having to command all these experienced internationals, but as he becomes more comfortable, I believe he will grow into his role.
All in all, Manchester United fans may have to accept that this is something of a rebuilding year, what with the combination of kids and injuries. I personally don’t think they will win any trophies this season, so even though moneybags City appear unstoppable, I’ll be enjoying sitting back and watching the youngsters develop. Give them time, and have faith in Fergie. Remember the Class of ’92?