For a Manchester United supporter, hasn’t it been the most frustrating season at times? Yet, hasn’t it been the most exhilarating one as well? The players themselves have sparkled, individually and in little partneships all across the pitch (Daley Blind, Maroune Fellaini, and Ashely Young down that attacking left flank, for example), and have looked like world beaters at times. Yet each one of them has also had several games in which you couldn’t see how they were an improvement on former players like Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverly, and the older Rio Ferdinand who were recently deemed surplus to requirements. The manager too has been all over the place. He tinkered with formations and personnel for far too long, and yet engineered domination over most top teams and 2 impressive winning runs that shot United up the standings. It all leaves one wondering, just how good is this Manchester United team? Are these players that good? And what of the manager, is he as good as we want him to be?
United’s most recent defeat is in many ways a microcosm of the team’s performance over the season – United controlled the game, bossed possession, had good chances, missed some clear cut opportunities and despite seeming far superior to the opposition, came away with little to show for their efforts. That is pretty much how the season has gone – there was the very slow start and uninspiring first 10 games which featured draws galore and a couple of shocking defeats. Following was a 15 game run in which the results improved immensely, but by and large, the performances did not. The most recent stretch saw beautiful football, and great results, but also included a soul crushing winless and scoreless mini-streak. Shouldn’t each of those stretches have been better? Despite being in transition, in a season where the competition hasn’t always been the best (newly crowned champions Chelsea included), shouldn’t the results have been better?
After years of fielding half decent players who flatter to deceive, your Andersons, Nanis, Danny Gibsons, and Dimitar Berbatovs if you will, United were desperate for players with character, who are consistent, and who make an impact. After a host of new signings arrived, and after the best of the old guard survived last summer’s clear-out, the hope and the understanding was that United had a brilliant squad now. It seemed that the only decision the manager would really have to make would be who he would leave out out of all the excellent options. But, have the players lived up to that billing? How good are the players that the club spent so much money on? Ander Herrera and maybe Daley Blind aside, the rest have either disappointed or have been good, but with some sort of caveat. With the existing players, apart from the ever brilliant Michael Carrick and David De Gea, and the surprisingly improved Young, Fellaini, and Chris Smalling, have any of them really stepped it up to claim their place in the team and make themselves indispensable?
The manager himself is no more of a sure thing than his team has been. He came to Old Trafford with an impressive CV, but what’s often missed is that most of his success came over a decade ago – the Bundesliga title with Bayern Munich aside. Not to say he should be sacked, or even to prematurely conclude that he will not be a success at the club, but it is fair to take a candid look and ask if he has actually done a great job in his first season in charge. There is a fairly realistic scenario on hand in which United miss out on the Champions League again, if recent form carries on into the final 3 games of the season and Liverpool seize their chance. There is no question some fantastic things have happened under his direction. Some of the tactical decisions he has made have looked revolutionary (the use of Fellaini as a midfield target man for example), and some of United’s play and passing has been as good as the team has managed since the days of Cristiano Ronaldo. However, the manager has also presided over consistently poor form against lower sides and over one of the most dreadful away records in the club’s recent history.
Which all begs the question – Have United been good, and can this season really be seen as a success? Have the players done well enough for the manager and the supporters? And perhaps most enigmatically, has the manager delivered as well as he could have done?