After all the debate this season over just how inferior the current United side is to its many predecessors from the last twenty years, results over the past month have gone a long way to making such discussions redundant.
Beating last year’s league and cup winners three times in just over four weeks means that this comparatively unheralded group of players need just one more point to capture the club a historic nineteenth title and – with Schalke ultimately posing far fewer problems than Chelsea in the Champions League – are one match away from conquering Europe for the fourth time in United’s history too. Nothing has been won yet but, barring two catastrophic results in the league and an embarrassment against Barcelona at Wembley, United’s class of 2010/11 have done enough to prove their doubters – this writer amongst them – wrong.
One significant feature of the latter third of United’s season has been the sudden emergence of a clear first-choice eleven during the recent run of crucial games. What’s more, the personnel involved and their starting positions are not necessarily what most fans would have expected.
Dimitar Berbatov is the Premier League’s top scorer but Javier Hernández has conclusively emerged as the preferred strike partner for Wayne Rooney. In midfield, the resurgent Michael Carrick has found himself anchoring the side along with Ryan Giggs.
On the flanks, Park Ji-sung’s industry has repeatedly been complemented – to the expense of Nani – by the touchline-hugging Antonio Valencia. At the back, Rio Ferdinand has predictably replaced Chris Smalling after his young understudy’s highly encouraging stint at centre back, but Fábio da Silva has, perhaps surprisingly, managed to keep his twin brother out of the side at right back after Rafael’s return from an injury picked up at Stamford Bridge in April.
Fabio’s emergence at right back is particularly interesting. The 20-year-old Brazilian has been much slower to make an impact on the first team than his sibling. Indeed, Fábio had to wait until New Year’s Day for his first league appearance of the season and it was not until the Chelsea match last Sunday that he guaranteed himself a winner’s medal (if and when United’s points tally becomes insurmountable). As well as one or two niggling injury issues, the main factor counting against Fábio has been Patrice Evra.
The Frenchman remains immovable at left back, two-footed Fábio’s preferred position, just as he has been since he saw off the challenge of Gabriel Heinze in 2007. The right back slot, however, where Rafael has impressed on many occasions and now Fábio is getting an opportunity, has proved much harder for one player to nail down.
In fact, United have been holding auditions for the right back berth ever since March 2007, when Gary Neville picked up the first of the series of problem injuries that ultimately curtailed his playing career. To emphasise how no one player has managed to make the position his own, it is highly likely that later this month United will field their third different right back – Fábio or Rafael – in as many Champions League finals, even though the players who performed the role in 2008 and 2009 – Wes Brown and John O’Shea – remain at the club. Earlier this week, Saad Noor wrote about that very topic on this site. The identity of four fifths of United’s backline has been constant for almost five years, with Edwin van der Sar, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidić, and Patrice Evra all preparing for their third Champions League final in four seasons. Right back is the exception.
What links Wes Brown, John O’Shea, and Fábio (assuming he starts at Wembley) is that each of them played their way into contention; they were not necessarily seen as long-term candidates in the position, yet emerged as the right player to fill it at the right time.
As Sir Alex Ferguson has demonstrated perhaps better than ever this season, building a successful side is not just a question of having recognised first-choice stars playing every week, but also about being able to bring other players to form at the right stage of the season.
Had Michael Carrick begun the season in the assured manner that he is ending it, only to be playing as listlessly now as he was six months ago, the misfortune of the timing would be self-evident. He would not be picked for the final. As it is, with Carrick playing as well as he has done for at least two years, he is almost certain to start.
While outfield players can amalgamate slowly into a team, however, as Fábio has done over three years, a new goalkeeper is not afforded such a luxury. This is why clubs so rarely promote a player from within when their number one leaves, but buy a ready-made replacement instead. Whoever takes over from the retiring Edwin van der Sar in the summer will be under enormous pressure, from his very first match, to emulate the Dutchman’s success in goal. By contrast, Gary Neville’s various heirs at right back – all four of them – have enjoyed comparatively little scrutiny.