Well it finally happened. Last summer, when Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez both left Manchester United, the three time champions were always being written off as a title contender for the 2009-2010 season. They lost two important stars and all they added was an aging Michael Owen, and replaced Ronaldo with Antonio Valencia who had no hope of filling Ronaldo’s boots. The big United fans kept hope however, the rest of the league was a bit weaker, Rooney was going to play down the middle this year and score more goals and we would be ok.
What then happened was Rooney played down the middle and scored 34 goals in all competitions. With Rooney firing away, United were back on top of the league, with Rooney going, United were going. Still, it soon became obvious United were too dependant on Rooney, and questions arose as to whether they would be able to hold on and win the title again. Soon it became obvious they wouldn’t, and at the end they came up 1 point short of Chelsea.
So United just missed the title by one small point this year and now I will ask, did they even have a plan for this season?
While it may seem hard to question a team that finished one point behind the champions the question of whether United had a plan needs to be asked. Last season, many of United’s younger players earned the chance to shine throughout the Carling Cup competition and ended up winning the cup for United. The future looked bright with these young players coming through the ranks. When Tevez and Ronaldo left last summer, many fans saw this upcoming season as a rebuilding this year. The team had only made one new signing, bringing in the young Antonio Valencia, but we had many young guys that we figured would start to get more playing time and experience this coming season.
But then the season started and the young guys weren’t playing. United, who have a lot of players who are beginning to get up there with age seemed to be throwing their chips in for one last hurrah with the older players. One more shot at the title. But then the older players weren’t getting it done, and it was clear that we just weren’t going to win with this team. Fergie started sprinkling some young players in here and there to mixed results. The end result was not winning the title.
It is very easy to look back in hindsight and second guess, but I was ready to write this post back in December. When things were just lackluster for United I decided, this team needed to make a choice. Throw all your chips into the pot for one more title this year, blow it up next season and start again, or start getting ready for next year now. Truthfully I thought they should have taken the latter.
While the performances of guys like Paul Scholes, Gary Neville, Ji-Sung Park, and John O’ Shea were very good towards the end of the season, would it have been better for the team if they didn’t play as much as they did. United have bright young stars that were not seeing the field this year. Fergie spoke of how much he liked the games of guys like Federico Macheda, Darren Gibson, and the Da Silva twins. When it came down to it, with the exception of Gibson, these players barely saw the field this season. I know they all battled injuries but they still should have played more. Gibson went through a fantastic run of form at the end of December, but after United’s youngsters lost their FA Cup match against Leeds at the beginning of January, Gibson took an extended spell on the bench. Macheda started the season healthy, but only played a half hour in the first Carling Cup match when he was the one who was subbed off after Fabio had been given a red card. He wasn’t heard from again until coming on to score a goal against Chelsea in April. Fergie then said he’d be an important player for the rest of the season, but even though Fergie had already lost faith in Dimitar Berbatov, he still chose the Bulgarian over taking a gamble and giving the young Italian even a chance.
While United got hot towards the end of the season, and during March it looked like they had legitimate chances to win both the Premier League and the Champions League, I was still indifferent. At this point, we had almost killed our chances for next season. Our young players weren’t gaining experience, and it was clear that we would bring in one or two new big names, but we would still be relying on our older players to turn in stellar performances again next season.
Fergie claims that part of the reason United have been so good late in games and in close games is because when his older players were young, they played in those games, and lost those games. They gained the experience by losing. But somehow that didn’t transfer to this current crop of youngsters. After the FA Cup loss to Leeds, many of them didn’t see the field again for a while, even Gibson who had been playing well. Gibson then got a chance to impress again in the home leg of the Champions League, he played well and even scored the first goal of the game for United, he was rewarded by not starting another game all season. Young defender Rafael, who for a time had won the starting right back job last season, got the call at the San Siro against AC Milan. His task was to contain Ronaldinho. At first it looked like it would be a disaster, but after 10 minutes Rafael settled down and played beautifully the rest of the game. After the game Fergie said Rafael had played very well in a big game and had gained valuable big game experience. His reward, for the home leg Fergie picked Gary Neville at right back, citing reasons as “experience” for why Neville was chosen. Rafael did get a chance against Munich, where he was sent off, possibly causing United to bow out of the Champions League. He only made one more appearance for the rest of the season after that.
It’s easy to say I’m wrong right now and that United still came very close to winning the title. It’s easy to quote reasons like, “if the referees would just enforce the offside rule on Didier Drogba then United would have won the title by 5 points,” or “if Michael Carrick doesn’t miss a penalty against Burnley on the second day of the season then we win the title,” or even “there was a point in the season where we only played with a back three, and two of them were midfielders.”
While all those reasons are true, back in December I decided that I would rather have been watching the young players more often. While I enjoyed the ride all season, and dreamed of what could have been, that thought was always in the back of my head, we still should have and should be playing the young guys. Rafael should have been playing over O’ Shea and Neville. Gibson should have been getting many more starts then he was. Macheda should have been getting many more appearances. When the young guys impressed in their Carling Cup outings Fergie would glow about them and talk about how more first team appearances would come. But when 9 first team defenders were injured and Fergie decided to play with a back three of Fletcher-Carrick-Evra instead of giving a young guy a chance I grew more and more confused.
So at the end, when United came up short, the question must be asked, did United have plan? At the beginning of the season they were mixing in the young guys, talking about getting them big game experience, but when it all came down to what matter, Fergie turned towards his older players time and time again. Now I worry that we may have set ourselves back for next year, and may be going through more of the same next season.