The treble always was a hope too far. The double was a tantalising possibility. Now we’re left with the single most important competition of them all: the Premiership. I’ve purposely used those words – left with – for there is perhaps a strange, lingering sense of under-achievement; as if (hopefully) winning the league and nothing else is little more than an after-thought, scant compensation for those who failed in more meaningful contests.
It’s nonsense of course. It’s verging on the ridiculous in fact, as the league is undoubtedly the most important trophy of them all, but at the moment two bad results seem to have taken the shine off our Premiership domination. The barely-disguised glee of the media and rival fans is only to be expected in the aftermath of our FA Cup exit, but it seems to have affected a fair few of our own fan-base too.
Losing to Chelsea hurt. The tame manner in which we left the competition at least confirmed it is far more preferable to see United play well but ultimately suffer due to bad luck or dubious refereeing decisions (as against Madrid) than simply not be good enough on the day. They are both hard to take, both end with the same result, but there is much more to salvage from the former. But what if we had triumphed in those games? And what if we had, somehow, beaten the odds and won the treble? It would have been incredible of course, but would it have been a fitting reflection of this current team? The team of ’99 are rightly immortalised for their achievements – does this team deserve to stand alongside them?
I wrote recently how it’s been a positive season for United, illustrated by the development of several key players, the success of our signings, and some of the football we have produced. But that, in all honesty, should probably be where admiration ends and the critique begins. Even the most avid fan can not claim our current first-choice eleven to be a perfect team, nor are they close to it. There are too many obvious areas of improvement (rather than refinement) that stand out. It’s a team that has performed very impressively but has not scaled the heights that a treble success surely demands. The blunt truth is that this United team doesn’t actually feel deserving of such a unique achievement, and there’s an argument to be made that the double was also a step too far.
There’s a fine balance to this line of thinking. The points tally United have achieved so far is nothing short of remarkable, and they deserve far wider recognition and praise for such a relentless stomp through the league. It’s a great shame they are not being suitably acknowledged for their achievements, yet to claim it’s a team deserving of significantly more is difficult to argue.
There is a classic defence mechanism in football, which effectively boils to down ‘we didn’t want to win it anyway’. That’s not true – we did. I would have loved United to win the Champions League or the FA Cup, but now it’s not going to happen, maybe there is a positive to seek from it.
It’s clear United, to aspire to greater heights, need some changes in the summer. The wingers have failed to deliver all season, and it’s both unfair and unrealistic to pin our hopes on Wilfried Zaha. Hopefully, another wide player will be sought. And with the expected retirement of Paul Scholes, the possible departure of Anderson, and the huge doubts still hanging over Fletcher, surely this will be the summer at least one new central midfielder will be acquired. United are desperately short in that area now; it cannot be allowed to worsen.
Expecting more drastic changes than two or three players is unlikely. It’s always been evolution rather than revolution at Old Trafford. Last summer, though, marked a notable departure from normal policy, with the dramatic signing of Robin Van Persie. Since those loveable Glazers have taken charge, United’s signings have centred around younger players, so they can retain, and ideally increase, the all-important sell-on value. That all changed with Van Persie, a 29 year old signed for in excess of £20 million, money that will never be recouped in monetary terms.
Would that signing have occurred had QPR held on at the Etihad and United won the league the season before? It’s certainly debatable. The manner United lost out on the final day galvanised the club and Sir Alex; City were on the ascent and United needed to react. The resolve, so evident on the field, was, for the first time in a while, matched in the transfer market.
It was a change in policy that has reaped handsome rewards as this season, of course, the story has been markedly different: City have been left gasping in United’s wake. So is it possible that too much success would be damaging to the scale of United’s summer transfers? After all, if everything is working perfectly, why would you need to change it? It’s not hard to imagine the better our progress in the Champions League and the FA Cup, the greater the difficulty Sir Alex would have had in convincing the Glazers significant transfer funds were needed.
It may be that you think there would not be a need to strengthen the team if we did that well, but I feel it’s clear one or two more key players are required if we want to see continued success in the later stages of the Champions League, as well as in domestic competition. That’s not to say we will see considerable investment in the summer but those defeats to Real Madrid and Chelsea are likely to strengthen Sir Alex’s hand. Maybe in the long-term, those painful losses may yet reap dividends which will far exceed the scope of this season.