Drama, excitement and sadness. Three words among a multitude of terms that could be used to describe the final day Hollywood script that was the closing of the Premier League season. Manchester United fans were to go through a roller coaster of emotions as Manchester City stormed back at the death to take a last minute 3-2 victory over 10 man Queens Park Rangers and find themselves crowned Champions of the 2011-2012 season.
To the neutral, it was a rather fitting ending to a season in which there had been many twists and turns, only for the last day to throw up one last change of plan. Ultimately, the two best sides of the year had been separated by goal difference. It was certainly yet more evidence that no other league offers up quite the same entertainment value as the others, with different battles happening throughout the league, not just at the top, a notable example being Wigan, a side looking down and out by the New Year, only to rally and produce a fightback that ensured their survival. The fight for Champions League places also chopped and changed throughout, with Arsenal securing what looked an unlikely third place after a difficult start to the season, and fourth placed Tottenham losing their spot, rather unfairly, after Chelsea claimed European glory in Penalties.
For Manchester United fans, an unfamiliar feeling. A side with new faces and a period of change, and the strange feeling of an unsuccessful campaign, at the last in the League as well as a wholly disappointing campaign in Europe. A season of ups and downs, a title out of reach, suddenly in their hands only to be lost again. What needs to be done? What changes could be made? What can be done in the face of the financial muscle of close rivals?
Here are five things that may be taken from the season.
1) The Premier League is like no other
Of course, I am aware that claiming the Premier League to be the best and most entertaining may be construed as biased and is by no means a true statement of the standard of football at present. Indeed, other leagues may boast a better quality with their sides and the talent they attract, one look at the Europa league tie between Bilbao and United is evidence of that. However, no other league provided the thrills that the English one did this season keeping fans on the edge of their seats far long than anyone could have imagined, with conclusions prematurely drawn and ultimately proven wrong as the curtains came down. The threat of relegation appeared for a number of clubs, with some such as QPR being drawn into the battle later than others, and Wigan performing their almost characteristic Great Escape. The Champions League argument was continuously made, with Chelsea taking their place via winning, with fourth placed Tottenham spending much of the year believing they were now the top North London club, only for Arsenal to have a different idea come the end. Newcastle surprised many with shrewd signings and a lofty position with European ambitions, with their own fight for a Champions League spot. These are just a few examples of a number of occurrences that shaped the season, one that will no doubt be remembered for a long time to come.
2) As many will state…. The midfield needs work
The midfield has been an area which some may describe as troublesome in recent times and perhaps now, more than ever, is the time to bring the changes and intrduce fresh blood. Of course, there were some positives to be said about it. Michael Carrick made himself a far more regular choice with consistent and effective showings, if perhaps somewhat underrated for his efforts. He found particular benefit when Paul Scholes was brought out of retirement and found themselves partnered often, controlling the midfield and providing a much needed boost to an area that has been suspect. As well as this, earlier in the season Tom Cleverley made an early impact, providing an effective early partnership with Anderson in some emphatic victories as the season began.
Despite this, there were problems. Cleverley succumbed to injury and struggled to regain full fitness, suffering recurrences and new injuries, perhaps giving concerns as to his strength, although given his age this is may not be a problem in years to come. Anderson seemed to go missing after such a bright start, also finding himself on the treatment table and never producing a consistent run of performances thereafter. News of Darren Fletcher’s diagnosis of Ulcerative Colitis rocked many, with time taken out to help him find health once again, although one must wonder if a career at the top is a viable option any longer for a player who had become influential in recent years.
Then the never ending enigma that is Paul Pogba. The prodigious talent of United’s reserve side, questions remained about his long term future at the club, with the youngster reportedly keen on a move elsewhere. Although deemed to be almost certain to start afresh at Juventus, one or two rumours, perhaps a by-product of the “silly season” transfer window, have given reason to believe recent scandals in Italian football have put this move in doubt.
Regardless of comings and goings, the fact remains that this area needs to e bolstered. United simply cannot rely on Scholes and Giggs to keep producing week in, week out and although Scholes’ return was welcome with open arms, it highlighted the issues that the midfield has had in recent times.
3) Three New Signings – Impressive in various ways
David De Gea arrived at United with a new reputation and a spotlight directly over him, in part due to the large transfer fee as well as his age, a sign that Sir Alex Ferguson was looking in the long term with this recruit in an area that had not been well occupied between end of the Schmeichel years and the beginning of the Van Der Sar era. In truth the Spaniard did not get off to the best start, with nervy performances costing goals and the media keen to label him a flop at the first opportunity. Indeed, adjustment to life as United’s number one proved difficult, but Ferguson kept faith and chose to persevere with his investment. However, United’s other goalkeeper, Lindegaard began to give reason for his selection as Ferguson began to find himself rotating more until the Dane suddenly found himself occupying the spot more regularly. Critics were keen to state that patience had been lost in De Gea but an injury to Lindegaard meant the Spaniard was to find himself between the posts once more and never looked back. A string of impressive performances with some superb saves meant confidence began to accumulate in his stock and with a more regular defensive partnership in front of him, the United back line began to look self assured.
Are there weaknesses in his game? Yes. He could have greater command of his area and has consistently been noted to be in need of “bulking up”. But given his youth and the relative lifespan of goalkeepers, one has to say the future looks bright for the youngster and could be around for many years.
Phil Jones arrived touted as a highly talented central defender from Blackburn, with good pace and a strong tackle. He took to fans quickly, with encouraging performances that showed a keen attitude for taking the ball forward, taking off on runs upfield that were eye catching, if a little prone to leave the side exposed at the back. With injuries setting in, Jones found himself used more than he may have bargained for in his first season, and in a variety of different positions. It is known that he is preferred centrally, but found himself occupying the right back position as well as a brief and arguably unsuccessful spell in midfield. After his impressive start to the season, it could be said that Jones was called upon too often as the season wore on, but nonetheless there is certainly plenty to be excited about.
Finally, Ashley Young. Signed from Aston Villa, the winger settled into life quickly at Old Trafford, providing goals and assists with consummate ease and developing an impressive wing partnership with Nani. With a good cross and pace, he proved to be a nightmare for defences on the left side early on. His season was not without controversy, with a diving label being placed upon him for the way he won penalties, an aspect that many will agree must be stopped before his reputation precedes him in referee’s eyes. However, his contributions to the side have been positive, if perhaps lacking consistency occasionally. He may not have been United’s best winger, that accolade falls to Antonio Valencia, but his contribution to an area that has been United’s strong point this season is not to be dismissed.
4) Youth in the side
It can be stated, with justification that the side needs to be strengthened if it is to compete to the extent that it did this season, in coming seasons. However, one must look to the side currently in place and find there is cause for encouragement at the potential bright prospects. Rafael Da Silva, has had his most impressive season to date. Like his brother he is still prone to the occasional rash decision, his attacking flair and pace at right back has been pleasing. Chris Smalling continued to progress as he was called upon throughout the season, giving more backing to his long term future at the heart of United’s defence. Tom Cleverley, as stated previously, has shown his potential in midfield. Danny Welbeck broke into the first team in a season that saw him make a telling contribution to United’s front line, finding himself regularly partnered with Wayne Rooney as they built a strong pairing that could see them become a formidable team in years to come. It would be fair to say it is a side in transition, looking to new names and faces to see through the next generation, but with youngsters needs experience and whilst there is in abundance currently, the current crop cannot be relied upon for much longer.
5) European disaster, Domestically sound
Crashing out of the group stages in the Champions League, and a humbling at the hands of Bilbao barely a round into the Europa League adventure, it would not be wrong to say Ferguson simply got it wrong in Europe this year. The group stages of the Champions League should have seen United comfortably through, instead struggling to get a result against the relatively unknown Galati. Of course excuses can be made for the groups, but in the Europa League United were thoroughly outclassed by Bilbao a 5-3 aggregate defeat that highlighted United’s shortcomings in Europe this year, after the highs that were reached the year before.
It can also be stated, though, that United were unquestionably better than some gave them credit for. Although in the eyes of Ferguson, this is irrelevant and the fact that United came up short without any domestic honours is simply not good enough. Regardless, to have finished so far ahead in the rest of the league only to miss out on goal difference to a side many believed to have greater depth and talent to within the side must be an acknowledgement that the side is better than some will admit. Yes, it has been a disappointing season by the lofty standards of the club, but there are also many reasons to feel positive about the years ahead with some aspects of the current side.
Yes, signings are needed, and one wonders what financial implications there will be with the current owners, with estimations of £71 million being paid out in buy backs this year, money that would have been used in on-field investments. It will be interesting to see what signings come to the fore and who will be lining up next season alongside established stars as well as the challenges the side will face.
I, for one, cannot wait to see what it will bring.