Seldom, in recent years, has the gap between the Premier League and Champions League titles seemed so great. In the minds of some, Manchester United’s trip to Wembley for the Champions League final against Barcelona should have been a coronation, a celebration of a uniquely long-lasting dynasty that has dominated English football for almost two decades. This, however, was reckoning without a Barcelona side which some have longingly described as one of the greatest club sides of all time, and on that cloudy, wet evening in North London two months ago, Alex Ferguson’s team was swept aside by an opposition at the absolute peak of its powers. Set against such a conclusion to last season, one of the summer’s most tantalising questions became, “Which way now for Manchester United?”
For with the last kick of last season came something of an enforced changing of the guard at Old Trafford. The retirement of Gary Neville came at the end of February, and that was followed by those of Paul Scholes and Edwin Van Der Saar at the end of last season. It was, therefore, always likely that Manchester United were going to spend considerably during the summer – replacements for that little lot were never going to come cheap, either. The obvious straight swap of the three comes in the form of the arrival at Old Trafford of David de Gea from Atlético Madrid at the end of June was no great surprise. The goalkeeper has been earning glowing reviews for the last year, and £18m seems like money well spent for a player that may solve the club’s first choice goalkeeping question for the next decade or so.
The club’s other acquisitions, those of Phil Jones and Ashley Young from Blackburn Rovers and Aston Villa respectively, seem somewhat more oblique, but they again point towards Alex Ferguson looking to the future. Young, at twenty-five years old, should be heading towards the most fruitful years of his career, whilst Jones remains an unpolished diamond which Ferguson has most likely seen the potential in and decided is worth the investment. There are no certainties in the transfer market these days, but these three signings – £50m’s worth, altogether – seem like astute investments which bring a fresh lick of paint to a team which looked as if it could benefit from an injection of fresh blood at times during last season. As such, it seems difficult to imagine this year’s team being anything other than formidable opposition again this time around.
As for Europe, well, Manchester United’s chances of bringing that competition back may well rest eight hundred and sixty miles away in Catalunya. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Barcelona’s win in the Champions League last season was the relative youth of much of their squad. As such, it is difficult to even claim with much confidence that this team has peaked, and that it will now begin a downward spiral. Even if we disregard every other side in the tournament – as, in all honesty, we could do with considerable ease last season – they remain a daunting prospect on the horizon, and until somebody devises a way to tactically neutralise a way to throw a wet towel over the combination of a strong team ethic with frequent individual magnificence, this situation may well remain unchanged. A pre-season friendly win against Barcelona at the weekend may have lifted spirits, but how much can be taken from such a fixture is open dependent. Psychologically, though, it seems unlikely that it will do the players any harm.
Much of the last two or three years at Old Trafford has been played out against a backdrop of disquiet, but this feels as if it has died away over the last few months. The Green & Gold campaign against the Glazer family’s ownership of the club was always going to be next to worthless unless it was backed by something more substantial, and the overtures made in the direction of the club by The Red Knights were so lacking in substance that they could have been orchestrated by the Glazers themselves. The time to get rid of the Glazers on any terms other than those that will most benefit the family themselves has long passed. The reasons for this are obvious: the club’s financial figures continue to dwarf those of any other club in the Premier League. £100m from match-day income. £104m from the television companies. It is figures such as these which mean that UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations are of little consequence to the club, and if the anger aimed at the Glazer family was transient and has reduced to a murmuring disquiet, then that is a mere bonus to a group of people that demonstrated, if nothing else the thickness of skin of a bull’s hindquarters while the protests were at their peak.
All of this – plus, perhaps, renewed talk of a European Super League – may explain the bullishness of the club’s Chief Executive, David Gill, in recent press interviews. Gill, whose place on the FA’s board may be regarded as an example of the extent to which the English game’s governing body has been usurped by the Premier League, has had a lot to say lately, describing those that have criticised the Glazers as “anti-people” and claiming in a recent book about their championship win, with a channelling of Alex Ferguson’s perpetual bunker mentality that, with regard to Wayne Rooney’s two game suspension for swearing into a television camera against West Ham United in April and the five game touchline ban imposed on Ferguson after his criticism of the referee Martin Atkinson, “I do genuinely believe there have been some poor-ish decisions that, in my opinion, wouldn’t necessarily have hit other clubs”. Whether it appropriate for a member of the FA’s board to be making such comments may be a question that Gill has to answer for to his contemporaries at the FA over the the next few days or weeks.
Manchester United, however, is not David Gill and David Gill is not Manchester United, and even many of the “anti-people” will still be hold the club to their hearts long after he has departed the scene at Old Trafford. One man that will be leaving his current position at Old Trafford in the forseeable future, however, is Alex Ferguson and it is the question of his succession that may prove to be the key to the club’s future in the long-term. Gill states that the club already has a plan in place and it seems unlikely that Ferguson will leave in the next couple of years, but the succession question is one of the few to be hanging over Old Trafford as the season starts. The power and hold that Manchester United holds over those that fall within its gravitational pull was perhaps best personified this summer by Dimitar Berbatov.
The languid Bulgarian striker was frozen out of the club’s Champions League final against Barcelona at the end of last season, but his comments on the subject of why he chose to stay at Old Trafford for next season, “Where can you go? Only down”, speaks volumes about the extent to which the club control the sensibilities of top modern players. Berbatov is thirty years old now, and may be thanking his lucky stars that the club hasn’t purchased any new strikers yet this summer, yet it only seems likely that Berbatov will pay a more and more peripheral role to the team’s fortunes. Yet the fact that Manchester United can continue to retain a player of Berbatov’s rare quality, even though it seems likely that he will spend more and more time on the substitutes in the last year of his contract with the club, speaks volumes about the power of twenty-first century Manchester United.
As such, Manchester United will continue to be the team to beat in the Premier League, and it is difficult – if not impossible – to see beyond the club winning its twentieth league championship next season, and a repeat performance in the latter stages of the Champions League is a near-certainty. If Wesley Sneijder manages to complete a move from Internazionale to Old Trafford before the end of the transfer window they will be even stronger, but whether even this would be enough to match Barcelona consistently remains moot. Still, the prospect of starting the season as favourites to win the Premier League and wondering whether they can go one step further than they did in the Champions League could hardly be described as an underwhelming position from which to start things off. Ultimately, the question that the rest of the Premier League has to ask is that of how it can beat Manchester United to the title next season, and it’s a question without any easy answers. Title number twenty, with all due respect to the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool, is theirs to lose.
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