During the past weekend, a friend and I were discussing the depth of Manchester United's squad. As a simple exercise, we decided to take turns picking United players until we each had a starting XI -- this was the result:
Team 1: David de Gea | Rafael, Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans, Alexander Buttner | Michael Carrick, Anderson | Antonio Valencia, Shinji Kagawa, Danny Welbeck | Robin van Persie
Team 2: Anders Lindegaard | Phil Jones, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra | Paul Scholes, Tom Cleverley | Nani, Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs | Javier Hernandez (Chicharito)
The beer-fueled discussion that followed was essentially summarized by this thought, "wow, both of those XI's (assuming no injuries, of course, and filler depth as well) could hypothetically compete for UEFA Champions League spots." Even if one puts the pints down and later reflects, I think that this is a reasonable argument.
Back in February, not long after United's 1-1 draw with Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, United manager Sir Alex Ferguson raised some eyebrows* when he suggested that his current squad is stronger than his famed 1998-99 treble winning side. Here are the exact words from the gaffer in regards to those remarks:
* A bit off-topic, but for my money, nobody quite gets their eyebrow cooking like Carlo Ancelotti or 'The Rock' from the WWE.
"The squad I had then is not nearly as strong as the squad I have got today. But the reality is that we should not get carried away. When we went to the Champions League final in 1999, Roy Keane and Paul Scholes were suspended, but Henning Berg was the only injury. I had to pull in a player, Jonathan Greening, who had only played once or twice in the first team. He got a medal for being on the bench. That gives you an idea of the strength of the squad. Now I could change a whole team. We have a whole group of internationals who weren't involved on Wednesday [at Real Madrid]. We lost to Middlesbrough in December and we never lost again. It was a tough FA Cup run that season, really tough. We were up against Premier League teams in every round. It's nice to look back at these things and how it was done with the squad of players I had, which is not nearly as strong as the one I have now I could have played a completely different team on Wednesday and I think we still would have got a result. It's not just the four strikers I could change, you could change the entire team now. There were good internationals who weren't even involved on Wednesday."
This was, somewhat predictably, taken a bit out context by some. Nonetheless, the point was clear: Ferguson appreciates his squad's tremendous quality of depth but he's not declaring this year's team as his best one during his long Old Trafford reign.
This, indeed, is a great squad. It's one that has been blessed with relative good fortune in regards to injuries this season as well and this no doubt has helped the club to successfully navigate a grueling 10-month, 38 game Premier League campaign with rare and relative ease. It's also one that was given a needed boost last summer by Kagawa and in particular, van Persie. Overall, the squad was well constructed to wrestle back the back the title from Manchester City and it's expected that the job will be finished in the final seven league fixtures. This United team, though, is also one that many are doubting as a truly great side.
Nearly all top European sides this season have demonstrated, at least at some point in the long season, a performance that suggests they're amongst the elite. And it's been done with a style that demonstrates their clear identity. Barcelona have their unparalleled possession-based football and tiki-taka, Real Madrid have their breath-taking counterattacks, Bayern Munich have their possession and recent pressing emphasis, Borussia Dortmund have their intense pressing which leads to lightning quick transitions high up the pitch, and Juventus have the calm and control that their balanced midfield and stable backline provide. United, though, despite their ruthlessness in obtaining consistent results this season, never quite stamped their authority in any sort of memorable fashion.
Ferguson's side have obtained some scalps to be proud of this season. For example, they've won away at Chelsea, home and away against Liverpool**, away at City, home against Arsenal, and the 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu against Madrid was a respected result. However, none were displays of complete domination by United because they wobbled at some point in each of those contests. The performances never were convincing indications that the Reds were clearly superior to their most formidable foes. As the season endured, United simply (and impressively it should be said) outlasted their domestic rivals.
** The intensity of this long rivalry always makes these fixtures contentious and difficult, no matter what the standing of the clubs are at the time.
Increasingly over the past decade, Ferguson became more pragmatic at a tactician and his ultimate reward for this was the 2008 Champions League triumph. During the legendary manager's time at the club, he's generally had flying wingers, a partnership of a creative striker in support of a clinical finisher, and committed box-to-box midfielders in a 4-4-1-1 sort of system. When the need came to tighten the shape in a 4-3-3 against difficult opponents, particularly for the Cristiano Ronaldo led teams from 2006-09, United were difficult to break down in the back and they were devastating on the counterattack through tricky, pacey, and intelligent attackers. All of this, in the most general sense, sums up United's identity as a playing style.
The troubling form of the wingers this season, along with Rooney's mercurial form as a creative striker, has prevented United from hitting the heights that they're accustomed to in a 4-4-1-1 system. In addition, despite Kagawa's clear talents, it's been a transitional season for him as he, his colleagues, and the coaching staff continue their efforts to find an understanding. Ferguson has rarely gone back to the 4-3-3 counterattacking system this season, but he has used that approach for some big games this season in a 4-4-1-1 shape -- mostly breaking down the flanks through the likes of Ashley Young, Valencia, and Welbeck. While United's ability to counterattack has been very much improved this season relative to recent seasons, it's still doesn't quite possess the precision of the 2006-09 teams.
Assuming that United do close out the title race soon and snatch it back from the noisy neighbours, then this will certainly have been a good season -- the degree of how good likely varies somewhat for each supporter. It's important to keep in mind, though, the context of the season's beginning -- there was genuine trepidation that United wouldn't be able to get the title back and not many realistically fancied their chances for a deep run in Europe. Ferguson has achieved the primary objective and I think nearly everyone who considers themselves a Red is mostly proud of the club's European efforts.
United have a great squad that has aided them in a successful rebounding campaign. The standards of this club, though, are very high. The goal is not only to be the best in England, but it's also to be genuine contenders each and every season for the European Cup. Despite the club's wonderful performance against a Madrid side that are genuine contenders to be the champions of Europe this season, the reality is that United haven't won a Champions League knock-out stage in the past two seasons. Furthermore, it should be mentioned that the team hasn't played a complete game this season against any opponent, including against sides that are clearly inferior.
The hope is that this club isn't far away and with some tweaks in the upcoming summer, and with the further development of this squad's impressive core of young players, perhaps next season is the beginning of Ferguson's truly last great team before he retires. For now, it's a great squad that's well equipped for a long war on many fronts, but it's yet to prove that it's an elite force capable of winning the most difficult battles. That is the step the club must take next season, while holding down the fort on the domestic front against City and Chelsea sides that will likely be stronger next season.