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.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and DiCaprio, at an awards show in 2010
filmsDe Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
News
i100
News
In this photo illustration a school student eats a hamburger as part of his lunch which was brought from a fast food shop near his school, on October 5, 2005 in London, England. The British government has announced plans to remove junk food from school lunches. From September 2006, food that is high in fat, sugar or salt will be banned from meals and removed from vending machines in schools across England. The move comes in response to a campaign by celebrity TV chef Jamie Oliver to improve school meals.
science
Sport
England captain Wayne Rooney during training
FOOTBALLNew captain vows side will deliver against Norway for small crowd
Life and Style
Red or dead: An actor portrays Hungarian countess Elizabeth Báthory, rumoured to have bathed in blood to keep youthful
health
News
peopleJustin Bieber charged with assault and dangerous driving after crashing quad bike into a minivan
News
peopleHis band Survivor was due to resume touring this month
News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
Sport
Radamel Falcao poses with his United shirt
FOOTBALLRadamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant in Colombia to Manchester United's star signing
Life and Style
fashionAngelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Chief inspector of GPs: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

Steve Field: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

The man charged with inspecting doctors explains why he may not be welcome in every surgery
Stolen youth: Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing

Stolen youth

Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing
Bob Willoughby: Hollywood's first behind the scenes photographer

Bob Willoughby: The reel deal

He was the photographer who brought documentary photojournalism to Hollywood, changing the way film stars would be portrayed for ever
Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

Scorsese in the director's chair with De Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
Angelina Jolie's wedding dress: made by Versace, designed by her children

Made by Versace, designed by her children

Angelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
Anyone for pulled chicken?

Pulling chicks

Pulled pork has gone from being a US barbecue secret to a regular on supermarket shelves. Now KFC is trying to tempt us with a chicken version
9 best steam generator irons

9 best steam generator irons

To get through your ironing as swiftly as possible, invest in one of these efficient gadgets
England v Norway: Wayne Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

New captain vows side will deliver for small Wembley crowd
‘We knew he was something special:’ Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing

‘We knew he was something special’

Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing
'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York