United’s class of 2013: indifferent, insipid and uninspiring
With 8 games to go in the Barclays Premier League, Manchester United sit 15 points clear at the top of the division. Despite their obvious supremacy in the English domestic league, there is very much a feeling of indifference about the current United side. Many believe that they’re not really up to scratch; a team that is benefitting from a reduced level of competition within the league itself. United central defender Nemanja Vidic regards this as an unfair assessment. He has stated recently that he feels United have performed better this season than any other season.
Yet this opinion expressed by Vidic is not one shared by many others. So why is this? United have won 25 games out of a possible 30 – that’s a pretty fantastic achievement by anyone’s standards. Why, despite the fact that they are very clearly a better side than their rivals, is this United side not regarded as one of the ‘great’ United teams? I believe there are a few reasons for this, and there’s certainly some value in exploring them.
Talk to any United fan about the Champions League and they’ll wax lyrical for you about the injustice served to them in the form of Cuneyt Cakir’s decision to send Nani off in their Second Round tie against Real Madrid. For most United fans, the red card was the defining reason why they failed to progress.
However, the fact remains that United have been underwhelming in Europe for quite a few years. One would think that a team who have been such a dominant force in their own domestic league should be able to translate that form to the European arena; but in recent years that has quite simply not been the case. Until this current United side manages to make a real impact on European competition, they will never be regarded alongside the great United sides of yesteryear.
One can make a strong case for Ferguson being the greatest manager ever. He has won 12 Premier League titles with Man Utd, as well as 5 FA Cups and 4 League Cups. However, during his lengthy tenure at Old Trafford he has only managed 2 Champions League wins. Quite rightly, the respective teams who won the European trophy – ’99 and ’08 are regarded as ‘great’ United sides. Until this side prevails in Europe it appears likely that they will continue to be regarded as the best of a relatively bad bunch.
It may be argued that because Manchester United have been involved in 3 Champions League finals in the last 6 years that the point of view that Man Utd have struggled in Europe is erroneous. However, if one is to inspect the performances in 2 of those 3 finals it is clear to see that they have finished a distant second-best to Barcelona. Despite Alex Ferguson’s claims to contrary, he has consistently struggled to deal with the threats that Barcelona pose. Ferguson claimed in 2011 that he had a ‘plan’ – no such plan was evident as Barcelona strolled to another victory. There’s no doubt that United have at times been competitive in Europe, but they have clearly struggled to exert any level of dominance in recent years.
Less stardust, more grit
The treble-winning United side of 1999 boasted the talents of Schmeichel, Stam, Keane, Scholes, Beckham, Giggs, Yorke, Cole, Sheringham and Solskjaer. The team that lifted the Champions League in 2008 included such luminaries as: Van der Sar, Ferdinand, Ronaldo, Rooney, Vidic, Evra, Scholes and Tevez. All the players mentioned who participated in those two European triumphs were true class and many of them were at the top of their game at that point in time.
Fast forward to 2013, and the current United side appears to contain far more filler than in the two previously mentioned ‘great’ sides. Rather than a midfield general like Scholes or Keane, you have the cautious Michael Carrick. In 1999, Man Utd had 4 world-class strikers; these days it’s Robin van Persie who is relied upon for the majority of goals; with Hernandez and Rooney operating more or less as backups. In 2008, Ronaldo was regarded as one of the hottest properties in world football, and yet now we see a workmanlike Danny Wellbeck in his place.
The point I’m trying to make is that in days gone by, Man Utd had teams primarily filled with world-class players. My view is that if one was looking to assess the level of talent on display in the current United squad, only a handful would fit into the ‘world class’ bracket. This is not a point missed by the public and the press, and quite clearly contributes towards this team not being viewed as a vintage United side.
The United team of 1999 and the early 2000’s had swagger. This is perhaps encapsulated best in one of the best team goals ever – Paul Scholes’ effort against Panathanaikos in 2000 (check it out on YouTube if you don’t know what I’m talking about). They were confident on the ball and in their ability to threaten the opposition all over the pitch. Similarly, in 2008, the Red Devils had the triumvirate talents of Rooney, Ronaldo and Tevez who all operated in a wonderfully expressive and effective way.
In 2013, we see the fading stars of Evra, Ferdinand and Vidic alongside young developing players like Smalling and Jones. We see a selection of misfiring wingers (Young, Nani and Valencia) and a few unexciting midfielders (Carrick, Cleverley, Anderson). It’s true that they possess one of the most talented strikers in the world in Robin van Persie, but it’s certainly as true to say that his talent is not matched by almost any other United player.
When one watches United in 2013, they don’t see victories executed with true aplomb and panache, but rather they see a team toiling to a languid narrow win. In 2013, United don’t tear teams apart; they slowly creep past them. The lack of aesthetics on show at the ‘Theatre of Dreams’ is no doubt a contributing factor to the increased indifference surrounding this United side.
Will it change?
It has no doubt irked Sir Alex that he has only managed 2 Champions League wins. It seems a strong possibility that Ferguson is holding off his retirement until he gains that elusive third. Perhaps if this United side is triumphant in Europe it may alter people’s perception of them. The trouble is, in order to truly compete with the Madrid’s and Barcelona’s of this world, this squad needs quite a few new faces. It remains to be seen whether this will happen, and if it doesn’t, United could be waiting for quite a few years to be reinstated as a team that neutrals love to watch.