Sam Wallace: The curious case of Manchester United, the stuttering champions elect
United have had a curate's egg of a season but their youngsters will be better for the experience gained
As the Manchester City fans at Old Trafford waited on Monday night to be let out of the away end, the man in the charge of the Tannoy turned up his collection of United songs louder and louder to try to drown out the triumphalism of the away support. It was a strange cacophony in an almost empty stadium, but it gave you an idea of the depth of irritation at Manchester United that their evening had been spoiled.
United lead the league by 12 points, though even before Monday's 2-1 defeat Sir Alex Ferguson described their season as "something of the proverbial curate's egg" in his programme notes. Aware that kind of phrase might speak more to his generation, he elaborated for those at Old Trafford who might have assumed it was an allusion to the busy Easter programme. "Part bad but with some great redeeming features," was Ferguson's assessment.
He was talking more of elimination in the Champions League and the FA Cup than what he said was the "phenomenal" performance in the league, but it adds up to the same thing. How is this United team shaping up for the future? Do they find themselves on the brink of a new dynasty or is this, as has been the case for pockets of Ferguson's reign, a prelude to one of their periods out in the cold? Those brief ice ages when the Premier League title won by United 12 out of 20 seasons moves elsewhere.
It is an odd notion to be contemplating before they have even picked up the trophy, but when Ferguson himself can ask whether a side that leads the league by 12 points with seven games to play can consider their season "one of regret or celebration", it is a legitimate question.
There is a tendency after a defeat like the one United suffered on Monday to predict gloom. This is not a United team – not yet anyway – that compares with, for example, the side that won three consecutive titles between 1998-99 and 2000-01 or the rebuilt Cristiano Ronaldo-led team that won three in a row between 2006-07 and 2008-09 after three years in which Arsenal and then Chelsea prevailed.
The five outfield players with the most starts in the league this season are, with the exception of Rafael da Silva, all senior players: Michael Carrick, Robin van Persie, Patrice Evra and Rio Ferdinand, who are closer to the end of their careers. As far as this summer's transfer market is concerned, it seems crowded now compared to the one in which United were capable of doing business 10 years ago.
Put aside the Glazer effect and just consider the number of clubs who can compete for the best players: City and Chelsea, in the Premier League and then Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid and Barcelona further afield. PSG in particular, hungry to progress, and having already beaten United to the signing of Lucas Moura last summer, are a particular new threat.
While the landscape changes around United there is, as ever, a question of how they will react to the challenge. As with the FA Cup defeat to Chelsea, Monday night was a reminder that there are teams in English football who, player-for-player, can look stronger than United. Ferguson suspects that Chelsea will be more of a threat next year and with the likes of Oscar and Eden Hazard in their second season, and more investment this summer, that is surely the case.
Yet, that should be the case for United, too. There is clearly scepticism about the latest generation but there is a new team evolving that will invariably be better next season. Yes, there are caveats. Tom Cleverley does not always strike one as an obvious United midfielder. Danny Welbeck has scored just once in 24 league appearances, half of them starts. Rafael, who has made the right-back position his own this season, still has his moments.
But these are young players that are being trusted to play a significant number of games, indeed, in the case of Cleverley and Rafael they have made more than double the number of starts in the league than they did last season. Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Jonny Evans (at 25 the oldest of that group) have made fewer, chiefly because of injury. Welbeck has started fewer league games this season, but will play around the same overall.
Only Javier Hernandez has seen a more dramatic falling away of his opportunities in the league, a direct result of Van Persie's arrival. Yet he has scored as many goals overall (16) as Wayne Rooney this season.
If this is a season in which United's young players have been given experience – experience without which they cannot hope to progress – then leading the league by a margin of 12 points with seven games to play is not a poor return. "You can't build a long-term future for a club unless you test these [young] players and build a core," Gary Neville said in The Independent on Monday. No one could argue that United's young players have not been given a chance. And for now, they have taken it.
It is impossible to say whether they will all have the careers that past generations of young United players have enjoyed. There are no guarantees that all will be a long-term success. But in order to find out they had to be played. And if that represents a risk, then surely, in this season at least, the risk has paid off.
The truth of their potential, or otherwise, will take longer than this season to emerge. In the meantime there are concerns about the potential reliance upon Van Persie's goals. Welbeck, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia have scored two goals all season between them. To put that in perspective, Rafael has scored more on his own.
On top of that there is the issue of Rooney who seemed to fade again against City on Monday. He scored 35 goals last season, but has less than half that so far this season. He approaches his 10th season at United next year with two years left on his contract, traditionally the point at which big decisions have to be made by club and player.
Looking back over United's campaign – the significant bit-parts played by Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, the necessity to cope again without Nemanja Vidic – you could make a case that this is a team in the infamous "transition" stage. If it ends, as it surely will in a 20th title, it will have been a very profitable transition.
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