Since the Premier League was founded in 1992, Manchester United have, without any doubt, been the dominant force; picking up more league titles than their rivals, scoring the most goals, conceding the fewest, and all in all, being the team everybody raises their game to play.
Year in year out, Liverpool have become less significant on the pitch – with clubs such as Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City overtaking them in terms of quality in their squads, and support around the world. Yet, with the Anfield outfit, you can guarantee one thing – playing United home or away is as important as a cup final.
This doesn’t only go for Liverpool, but the majority of clubs up and down the country will do what it takes to ensure their best performance each season is for the visit of United. This only means one thing – Sir Alex Ferguson has to ensure his starting XI, whoever he selects, remain at the top of their game for as long as possible – and put in solid performances every single match, home or away, domestic or abroad.
With the rigours of a full season taking its toll on many of these athletes, today’s football has very much become a squad game. Every Premier League manager will tell you a minimum of 15 top class players are needed, with a further five or so as squad players.
Proof of this is how the subs bench is now seven players instead of three, as it was 20 years ago.
More emphasis is to be put on the youth players as the reserve league has been scrapped in order to give the youngsters more of a chance (and let’s face it, these so called kids are probably fitter and hungrier than any reserve player doing as minimal as possible, seeing out his contract).
This leads me on to the topic of the ‘star’ player, who is viewed by fans, pundits, journalists and many staff as somewhat ‘un-droppable’. Every team has their star man. That, who they depend on for the magic. A match winner, if you will.
A perfect example is the 1996 side which featured Eric Cantona. From villain to hero in a matter of months with the media and FA, King Eric was the linchpin in the side – the captain, the leader, the goal scorer and most importantly, the role model for the younger generation. To drop Cantona would be unheard of.
The list of un-droppable players at United carried on over the years – Roy Keane, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Cristiano Ronaldo – all superstars, all totally different players and personalities to one another; yet on the pitch, flawless, game after game.
In today’s United side, as has been the case since Cristiano Ronaldo left the club; Wayne Rooney is the star. He is the man who makes the side tick. When he plays well, more often than not, it ends in victory for United.
What happens when Rooney doesn’t play well? Is there a plan B? For a long time there wasn’t. This season, there is.
United rarely invest big bucks for an established world class footballer. In the past, money has been spent (many would say wasted) on players who simply did not fit into the system United were used to playing.
• Juan Sebastian Veron – great player, but where did he fit into a midfield of Giggs, Scholes, Keane, and Beckham? He didn’t, thus Sir Alex started catering for him by changing the philosophy and flow of the side by going with five in midfield.
• Dimitar Berbatov – magnificent at Tottenham; did United need him? Playing an interchangeable three up top of Rooney, Ronaldo and Tevez, how would the Bulgarian slot into this formula? He certainly wouldn’t work down the flanks. In my opinion, although a great footballer, he made United very stale up top and slowed the game down too often.
• Robin Van Persie – un-droppable at Arsenal. Centre forward is without question his best position, yet in his first appearance for United, he was brought from the bench to operate down the right of the pitch. Second appearance, started centrally, scored a peach of a goal.
The news that Wayne Rooney will be out for eight weeks, I believe will prove to be a blessing in disguise for United.
Rooney has been key in everything good at United over the past couple of seasons, but he does suffer from spells of poor form. Usually he wouldn’t lose his place in the side. The odd substitution on the 70th minute, yes, but fundamentally, even when playing badly, he still starts week in, week out – however, I think this situation for Rooney and the club is coming to an end.
Over the next eight weeks, I hope to see, and I am sure we will see, Robin Van Persie as the main striker, asked to lead the line and get on the end of every ball as he did so well for Arsenal last season – and not forced wide or deep to cater for a fit Rooney.
I think we will see Shinji Kagawa as an advanced midfielder linking midfield and attack. New ideas, new enthusiasm, a creative mind.
We may even see Welbeck and Cleverley flourish with the new options around them. These boys are young and will want to prove their worth and link up well with their new teammates.
Had the United number 10 not picked up a knock, although he started on the bench against Fulham, I still feel Sir Alex would have been left with the headache of trying to pick a side consisting of those who deserve a place on merit, those with something to prove and Rooney.
I do not think this injury will prove to be the end for Wayne Rooney at Manchester United; far from it. The former Everton man is a competitor, who will fight for his right to be in the side and relish the competition and quality within the squad. Wayne Rooney is world class and nobody can argue with this statement.
However, going forward, I do believe this injury will see the end of Wayne Rooney as Manchester United’s un-droppable superstar; so when that dip in form comes and things become stale, United will no longer suffer.
A one man team for so long? Not quite – but a side very much made to tick by the England front man and heavily reliant on his form.
This season will show the meaning of the phrase ‘it’s a squad game’.
To reply directly,