Football is ever changing, but the Premier League especially has radically changed in just the past decade. By the late 2000s the Premier League had already become a hotspot for the world’s best players, but this past decade it’s become the home of the continent’s best coaches, bringing change about at an accelerated level.
Michael Cox recently wrote an interesting piece for The Athletic where he looked back at England’s top players of the 90s and 00s and wondered where would they fit in today. Given how the game has evolved, strikers being asked to do a lot more than just score goals for example, would they still be as effective today? Some probably wouldn’t, some would probably adapt, and for some, their skillset may actually make them a great fit in today’s game, albeit at a position that they are not known for.
It got me thinking. What about Manchester United? How have things changed over the last decade? Are there some players whose skill set could have really shined if they had come along a little later?
Because there’s nothing else to do these days I enlisted The Busby Babe’s resident historian Colin Damms, knowing he would never turn down the opportunity to write the words “Wayne Rooney,” to have some fun with this, and make it a game.
We each drafted a starting XI of players from the last 11 years that can compete to win the title in 2020, with the following strict rules for selection:
- 11 players on the team, from 11 seasons (2009/10-2019/20).
- You must select one player per season to fill out your team.
- You get that year’s version of the player (e.g., if you choose Aaron Wan-Bissaka from this season and Marcus Rashford from 2015/16, you’re getting the skinny, undersized, teenaged Rashford, not the built up more polished version of this year).
- You can arrange your team in any formation and move players into any position
It’s not supposed to be about a player’s stats in a particular year, but what their skillset was at that time. This isn’t supposed to be a “team of the decade” or “best players from different seasons” team. The idea is to make an actual balanced team that could win (or challenge) for the Premier League title in today’s Premier League (the Premier League that has Klopp’s Liverpool, Guardiola’s City, etc.).
Colin and I will then break down our selections, formations, omissions, and tactics.
Went with a classic 4-3-3 formation here, as Sir Alex liked to do in Europe, but I intend to play the no. 10 in a free attacking role. The no. 9 will be flanked by wide forwards, who will also be given freedom to move across the front line and encouraged get involved in build-up play. Full-backs will be given freedom to go forward, and a deeper central midfielder will act as a defensive screen for the backline.
The right-back role is occupied by probably the weakest link in the lineup, but Antonio Valencia’s strength is going forward and sending in crosses, which will be lacking otherwise as the wide right forward is playing a bit out of position.
Going forward on the break would be loads of fun with this team, especially with these particular incarnations of Wayne Rooney and Marcus Rashford. I expect a high energy attack around and behind Zlatan Ibrahimović, plenty of shots on target, and high percentage opportunities from aerial balls.
Getting width on the right side has been a major problem for United over the latter half of this decade. In the early part of the decade Antonio Valencia was the purest right wing we had, but he’s way too much of a one-trick pony (get the ball and hammer in a cross) to succeed in the modern game.
That drawback in his skillset necessitates the use of a back three. Valencia didn’t move to fullback until later in his career, but by 2012 his defensive skills were good enough. As Trent Alexander-Arnold has proven, you don’t need to be the best defensively if you’re good enough getting forward.
Michael Carrick also drops back into the back three. Carrick was never a physical tackler but the way he read the game, could step in for an interception, and his ability on the ball... If he was coming through the ranks now they wouldn’t even consider him a midfielder, he’d slot right in at center-back. He’s a better version of Victor Lindelöf, and he’s taller.
Colin: Like Pauly says below, you can’t make this team without Nemanja Vidić. In 2010/11 Vidić rightly earned player of the season honors as United’s rock at the back, and shone as a leader after being named team captain. To partner him, Rio Ferdinand. It may not be the Great Wall in their prime, but 10/11 Vidić and 12/13 Rio are a stout partnership from the later years of 2 brilliant careers.
At full-back I’ve got 11/12 Patrice Evra at left-back and 17/18 Antonio Valencia at right-back. It leaves this team a bit weak at right-back, but Valencia still had some gas in the tank (at least for the first half of that season) and Evra was at a perfect crossroads of experience, form, and leadership.
The youngest member of the defensive corps is 13/14 David De Gea. This season is not the best version of De Gea, but is perhaps the only player I would have wanted from that dreadful season, and he rightfully won club player of the year for his goalkeeping heroics during one of the most difficult seasons in club history.
This back four has its weaknesses. All four versions of these players were past their best and nearing the end, but have a wealth of experience to go with their aging abilities, and would likely oust most current players at any club from the starting XI (apart from Valencia of course). It gives my team a classic back four with a stout central partnership in front of a young but tried and tested De Gea and tough full-backs that can contribute going forward.
Pauly: You can’t make this team without Nemanja Vidić. Big and fearsome in the middle and very good with his feet. After that, there’s a lot Pep Guardiola would like in this team. I want players who are comfortable with the ball at their feet so we can play out the back.
Daley Blind slots in as the left center-back. Similar to Luke Shaw this year he can get forward and make underlapping runs with Ashley Young staying wide adding a layer of unpredictability to this team.
I originally wanted Patrice Evra in there as well as 2017/18 David de Gea — the best ever version of de Gea — but I had to move some other things around and settled on 2017/18 Ashley Young, a more than serviceable left-back who went to the World Cup. He may not have the pace that he used to, but he has the smarts.
As for David De Gea, any version between 2014-2018 is good enough.
Colin: I spent the most time on this positional group. Paul Pogba was an absolute must, and an easy selection from the 18/19 campaign. He’ll play a similar role to what he’s played under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer: a forward thinking pivot midfielder alongside a more defensive minded deep partner, and in behind the number 10 (which in this case is more of a centre forward).
I chose Ander Herrera from his debut season to partner Pogba. Strong considerations were made for Michael Carrick, old Paul Scholes, and even 09/10 Darren Fletcher, but I ultimately chose the young Spaniard to provide midfield stability, man marking, and a defensive buffer to a very attacking lineup.
Wayne Rooney technically leads the midfield line from the no. 10 position, but will be given the same freedom he was given by Sir Alex for much of his career to move between attacking positions how he sees fit. Given the talent in front of him he’ll do just fine creating, and the 09/10 version of Rooney, pre-injury, still had his youthful energy plus an eye for goals like fans had never seen from him before. He cemented his status as one of the best in the world and picked up the striker’s tools that would see him ultimately become the club’s greatest ever goalscorer.
Pauly: I actually didn’t want to use 2018-19 Pogba. My Pogba is going to be more of a deep lying playmaker and I wanted the 2016-17 version of him because that was his best season in that role, as opposed to last year when he played further forward. Nevertheless Pogba now just has to go back to the role he played the previous summer at the World Cup. Should be a piece of cake.
The obvious “huh?” in there is Fred. As much as I love him, he was far from my first choice. I had Ander Herrera slotted in there but again, needed to make some changes and move things around, so Herrera was dropped and Fred was the closest replacement. It was also oddly very difficult picking someone from this year’s team.
Colin: Number 9 was difficult to fill. I considered Rooney as a false 9 with Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial ahead of him, but couldn’t bear to leave out both Zlatan Ibrahimović and Robin van Persie. Ultimately I chose Zlatan for his work rate off the ball and skill on the ball. His size, athleticism, positioning, and boldness make him the ideal striker for any team, and even as he aged he was able to take the Premier League by storm.
From the current season I couldn’t think of any player other than Marcus Rashford to put at the left wing/forward position. Rashford has transformed into a reliable creator and consistent goalscorer under Ole, and the only obstacle able to slow him down has been his own injuries.
Anthony Martial from his debut season may be a bit out of place as a wide right forward, but his creativity and skill made him a threat from multiple positions in the 15/16 season. I expect he wouldn’t be too happy being on the right, but ideally the wide forward and the no. 10 would move freely behind the no. 9 as the attacking move sees fit.
Pauly: Even though it was his best season, 2009/10 Rooney doesn’t get picked because of his goal return. He gets picked because that was the last year before he suffered his ankle injury that he never really recovered from. He was at the peak of his powers this year and that’s what I need.
I need Wayne Rooney the workhorse. Rooney’s going to have to run, and he’s going to have to cover a lot of space out on the left. He’s going to have to cover if Pogba moves forward. This is when he could do it. This version of Rooney could still defend, could still pass, and could still get in there and score. He’s going to play second fiddle on this team but that’s a role that he’s done many times before.
He’s not going to need to carry the scoring because we know van Persie can do that. He can also do everything else you need a modern striker to do, like play with the ball at his feet, hold play up, and pass. And he’s a shot machine.
Now imagine Pogba picking out van Persie making those early runs in behind time and time again. What a sight that would have been.
Mata makes the cut for his creativity, ability to get in the box, and ability to play out right if needed.
Colin: 14/15 Juan Mata, 19/20 Aaron Wan-Bissaka, 12/13 Robin van Persie
It seems insane that I would build this team without Robin van Persie from a one-off season that made him a club legend, but in the end my desire for pace, and perhaps a bit of presentism, led me to a very different attacking line. This also led me to exclude Juan Mata from the front 3 and midfield. Though he would have added even more attacking creativity to the midfield, I was worried about being left too open in the middle without a more defensive minded presence.
I also strongly considered going with Wan-Bissaka for his defensive prowess and United’s severe lack of strength at the right back position last decade. Ultimately, I just couldn’t settle for another version of Rashford.
Pauly: Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Ander Herrera
It’s crazy to leave off Rashford and Martial, two players who could do so much, but that’s the point of the exercise. Neither one of them can play on the right, as we’ve seen that time and time again.
We could have played around and had Rooney play as the number 10, but Rashford isn’t good enough down the middle and Martial wouldn’t have the work rate that we need from Rooney in that left forward spot. Plus Rooney as the 10 would make the team far less versatile.
As I said, I wanted Herrera, he brings so much to the team, but positional needs elsewhere left me no space.
Overall Assessment: How would this team do in 2020?
Colin: Obviously I think this team matches up well with anyone, but I do worry about width in both attack and defense. The more attack minded approach and the forward thinking midfield and front 3 could leave the defense a bit exposed on the flanks, but I was careful to include players with high work rate in all areas of the pitch.
Against Pauly’s team I worry about the wing play, but I do think that the physicality and work rate of my midfield outmatches his, and could see Fred and Mata struggling against Rooney and Herrera. Fred as a defensive screen may also match up poorly against the forwards, with Rashford and Martial both quicker and stronger, but his ability to read interceptions may interrupt the passing of Herrera and Pogba.
However, I think my forwards would decimate his back line. If his team doesn’t out possess mine they will struggle mightily dealing with the presence of Ibrahimović and Rooney in the box, or the quickness and creativity of Rooney, Rashford, and Martial paired with Pogba’s passing on the break. Carrick out of position is especially enticing, and I expect to win quite a few aerial duels on crosses and set pieces.
Pauly: The key to my team is versatility. We can play a lot of different ways. From the base of that back three we can have Carrick or Blind step forward to form a 4-3-3 with Mata pushing out wide.
We can also push Blind or Carrick forward, allowing Pogba to push up to the no. 10 in a 4-2-3-1.
We can also play Mata as the no. 10 push Valencia up to the right wing and have Young come over and play right-back.
The keys to my team are Carrick and Blind. They have to contribute enough offensively to overcome some of their defensive shortcomings. I’m fine with that because my team is going to possess the ball and possess it some more. We’re going to play right out from the back with Vidić flanked by two very good passers who make line-breaking passes. Runs in behind for days!
Does my back line lack pace? Yea, a little bit. That may get exposed against some teams in the league, though the wing-backs will help out there against the likes of Liverpool and City, but against Colin’s team? Not a chance.
Colin is falling into the same mistakes managers before him have made. He’s taking the young and arrogant Anthony Martial out of the middle and jettisoning him off to the wing to accommodate the square peg in a round hole that is Zlatan Ibrahimović (I can’t imagine that working well). Not only is he pushing him out wide, he’s playing him off the right. Martial likes to cut in on his left foot, he’s pretty useless out on the right wing.
Rashford and Martial both love to run in behind but that’s not happening in this team. Not when you have Zlatan. No matter how Colin wants his team to play, you play the way Zlatan plays. That means balls played in to the feet of Zlatan, not in behind. That makes it very easy for my defenders to mark Zlatan out of a game. You don’t have to worry about the pace in behind. Not when Zlatan is out there forcing you to play Zlatan’s way, even a 35-year-old Zlatan who can’t do what he used to. That’s how Zlatan rolls.
Which team do you think would have a better chance of winning the 2019/20 Premier League?
This poll is closed