An Almost Unbearable Ordinariness: Manchester United in the Post-Fergie World

Posted on January 23, 2014

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In what will possibly (read: should) go down as the worst penalty shoot-out in recent memory, Sunderland beat Manchester United to set up a Capital One Cup final showdown against Manchester City on March 2nd. Or, to be more precise and in line with our sporting media, Manchester United lost to Sunderland to continue their season of misery. Sir Alex Ferguson left in the summer to be replaced by David Moyes, and it’s all steadily gone wrong ever since. The vultures are looking for something to feed on, and it seems to be poor old Moyesey that’s receiving the sharp end of the beak. As we head towards the spring, it isn’t far-fetched to say that Manchester United will struggle to finish inside the top four. What has happened?

I’ve spent a lot of this week crowing about how Manchester City are the only club who have taken the Capital One Cup seriously this season, by virtue of playing their strongest side at all possible times. This has led to their top players playing consistently and finding form through it. They’ve been a shining example as to why chopping and changing your side is risky and possibly self-defeating. Of course, as with most things I claim, when I looked into this it wasn’t quite as clear cut as that. The City side that beat West Ham 9-0 on aggregate certainly wasn’t from 1 to 11 their strongest side. Scratch that idea though.

Still, their is a little bit of meat to this pie. Sure, what we all consider to be a sides strongest XI changes from person to person, but there are assumptions we can make. Manchester United’s strongest XI this season have started a combined 231 games, an average of 21 per player. You take into account injuries to key players like Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney, not to mention Darren Fletcher, and that leads to that number. Compare that with 25 per player for Manchester City, 26 and a half for Chelsea, and almost 27 for Arsenal. In fact, that is where Arsenal has excelled this season, in their consistency. They are the only team I’ve looked at here who’s strongest XI through 2013/14 have all started over 20 games. Compare that with Utd, who have four regulars to have started less than 20 games. One of these, Adnan Januzaj, hasn’t started 20 games for the club full stop. It’s debatable whether Januzaj is in their strongest XI, but more on that later. This continues however. If we take 25 as the number to aim for, the stats don’t make happy reading for Manchester United. Only two players, David de Gea and Patrice Evra have started over 25 games this season. Manchester City have six, Chelsea eight and Arsenal ten. Consistency is sorely missing at Old Trafford.

The most telling realisation however, is that the squad of players at David Moyes’ disposal are so very ordinary. Not even first XI now, we’re talking entire match-day 18, but if you were to make one side out of these four there aren’t many Manchester United players who would make it. David de Gea might make the bench, but that might be me being nice. Five years ago, Nemanja Vidic would have been a shoe-in, but not today. The only two who would be penned in to the squad are Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, but who would choose either ahead of Sergio Aguero, Alvaro Negredo or Edin Dzeko on form this year? For a club who have been dominated by star names over the last couple of decades, they are distinctly lacking in stars now. Again, van Persie and Rooney are the only two. Ryan Giggs possibly counts, but he’s as far past his best as he can be before retiring.

As for the rest of the squad, it is frequently a case of not progressing or being surpassed by peers and contemporaries. Danny Welbeck is a fraction of the player Daniel Sturridge is becoming. The idea that Tom Cleverley could possibly be Jack Wilshere’s equal, as was mentioned when the former first broke into the Utd side, seems positively laughable. Phil Jones has gone from future England captain to a confused figure unsure of their role in a decaying side. Rafael, Javier Hernandez and Ashley Young haven’t progressed at all in the last 18 months. You could certainly argue that Young has regressed. Then there is the example of Wilfried Zaha, another next big thing in football. He’s done the equivalent of nothing this year. Where is the sense in not sending him out on loan? (As of typing, Zaha is on the verge of heading to Cardiff on a loan spell). Look at the progress of Romelu Lukaku from his loan spells. Maybe the only bright spark is Adnan Januzaj. He certainly isn’t the wonderkid that he is being made out to be, but the impact of his frequent game-time and confidence boosts from management and media can clearly be seen in performances. Even so, you could argue that Serge Gnabry has had as big an impact in certain games as the young Januzaj has. As far as bright sparks go, it’s a fairly lamentable one.

At the end of the day however, is anyone truly surprised? Most in the media and the general public, myself included on many occasions, tend to treat Manchester United differently to other clubs. There is frequently talk of someone not being a ‘Manchester United player’, something that Marouane Fellaini is having to deal with right now. Even non-Utd fans talk of them with a cautious awe. There is no need for this. They aren’t a mythical giant that will manage to stay above all regardless of the situation. They historically aren’t. Yes, they’ve won more league titles than anyone else, a staggering 20, but 13 of those have come in the Sky era (1992-93 onwards). There is always talk of Old Trafford and the ‘fear factor’ of playing there. Nonsense. In 2013-14 they are a football club with an ordinary squad playing exactly the sort of football you would expect these players to play, if you weren’t aware they were connected to Manchester United.

It isn’t all doom and gloom though, and there are certainly ways out of this mess. Shinji Kagawa is far too good to be ignored and under-appreciated much longer. Either he’ll leave or finally be given a role. Juan Mata is on the verge of signing, and there’s every likelihood he can provide a similar spark that Ozil has provided at Arsenal. Either way, the road back to glory is going to be a tough one for the former kings of English football.

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