On April 22, 2013, Manchester United wrapped up their 13th Premier League title under their legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson.
The previous season, their ‘noisy neighbours’ Manchester City had pipped United to the title on the final day of the campaign, with Sergio Aguero breaking the Red Devils’ hearts with the last kick of the season.
The manner in which United lost the 2011/12 battle for EPL glory – City having won the title on goal difference – forced Ferguson to respond by swooping for the then jewel in Arsenal’s crown, Robin Van Persie, to fix the issue of goals.
Indeed the Dutchman went on to score 26 league goals for his new side the following season, winning Ferguson his last title with four games to spare.
Yet the United side that delivered the club’s 20th league title was not anywhere close to Ferguson’s greatest teams. It paled in comparison to the 2008 United team that won Premier League and Champions League titles, and the renowned treble-winners of 1999.
However, Ferguson had the knack for bringing the best out of his players individually and collectively.
A commanding presence
Looking at the quality of his last team, it is safe to say that Fergie was probably the single most important person behind the club’s latest Premier League title. On the touchline, the Scot was a personality like no other.
He was not only a huge influence on his players, he was for long a dominant and commanding presence at Old Trafford so much that a mere imagination of a post-Fergie era always felt like a leap into the scary unknown.
His retirement was always going to be a blow. It did not matter what kind of players, manager or chief executive the club brought on board after Ferguson.
Little wonder that five years on, United are yet to ‘recover’ from Fergie’s departure. Yet in his greatness lay his beloved United’s most important challenge.
It’s, therefore, surprising that United’s manager for 26 years failed to thoroughly prepare a United future beyond him.
Now, this is a controversial view. Some will dismiss this, saying it is farfetched to link today’s troubles at Old Trafford to a man who retired five years ago. Others will jump to Sir Alex’s defence arguing that he left behind a team that had just won the Premier League.
It makes sense, at least at face value.
However, anyone who refuses to recognise the role of Ferguson in Manchester United’s current struggles – the latest setback being their somewhat embarrassing crushing out of the Champions League at the hands of relatively lowly Seville on Tuesday – is telling you a half-truth.
We’ve seen teams struggling to finish in respectable positions a season after the one in which they were deservedly crowned champions. In United’s case, a couple of factors combined to put them where they are today.
One, Ferguson left behind a team that could not outlive his glorious reign. People will point to the fact that the team had a couple of promising youngsters, but the average age of Ferguson’s strongest first eleven in his final year as manager was 31.
Apart from David De Gea (23), Rafael Da Silva (23), Antonio Valencia (28) and Wayne Rooney (28), the other members of his preferred eleven were all 30 and above, including Rio Ferdinand (35) and Vidic (32), who had formed the league’s best centre-back partnership for at least seven years.
Legendary winger Ryan Giggs was 40, midfield maestro Paul Scholes 39, Patrice Evra 32, while Van Persie was 30.
Ferguson had built a reputation as a promoter of youthful and homegrown talent. But in his last years in charge he was beginning to lean more toward experience.
That he had to recall Scholes from retirement in 2012 shows how he had started to grow impatient with kids like Tom Cleverly and was probably no longer keen on building for the future.
When Barcelona felt that Xavi Hernández’s legs started to get heavy and tired, they brought in Ivan Rakitic as an understudy. They broke the bank again this season by taking Phillipe Coutinho to Camp Nou as a potential replacement for Andres Iniesta.
Real Madrid and other big clubs around Europe do the same. That’s what keeps them at the top level. You did not see this sense of continuity and ambition during Ferguson’s last days in the Old Trafford dugout.
End of an era
Two, United’s core players in all their outfield departments left around the same time as Ferguson. It marked the end of an era.
Chris Smalling and Phil Jones have particularly got a lot of stick for their under-par performances in post-Ferguson era. There was so much promise and belief in the duo when they moved to United toward the end of Sir Alex’s era.
The truth is that, it’s one thing to play alongside Vidic or Ferdinand and another to partner Smalling, Jones, Eric Bailly or Victor Lindelof in the heart of United defence.
Looking at United’s defenders these days, you get the feeling they did not have a chance to learn alongside experienced players. In many games they have looked like helpless orphans in the middle of nowhere.
Three, Ferguson chose a man who had never won anything in the game as manager to replace him.
The arrival of Ferguson’s compatriot David Moyes compounded the team’s problems and prompted several senior players to draw curtains on their career or to move on to other clubs.
That the Community Shield that the ‘Chosen One’ won in his first competitive match as Man United manager was his first silverware just sums it up all.
A lot has been said as to what exactly informed Ferguson’s choice. But you get a feeling that he and Man United board did not do enough to look for a worthy replacement – someone like Pep Guardiola who was at the time on a sabbatical.
Could they have underestimated the impact of Fergie’s departure? Could it be that they genuinely believed in his decision to handpick Moyes as his successor? Did they see some similarities between the two Scottish men? Could it be that indeed both Guardiola and Jose Mourinho were unavailable and United hierarchy concluded that there was no one else with better credentials than Moyes?
The truth is that we may never know all there is to know about what exactly happened.
The Qatari oil
All the while, the ‘noisy neighbours’ were undergoing a major revolution thanks to Qatari oil.
This became all too apparent to everyone when City beat Ferguson’s United 6-1 at Old Trafford in October, 2011, their heaviest home defeat since 1955. And City were only still under Roberto Mancini.
Fast forward to 2018 and City are in the safe hands of Guardiola, the Spanish genius whose former Barcelona side beat United twice in three years in UEFA Champions League final shortly before Fergie’s retirement.
Similarly, most of the big teams across the Europe were also meticulously rebuilding and ‘freshening up’ their squads, including Real Madrid which has since won three UEFA Champions League titles in the last four years.
Granted, United too have tried to strengthen, signing a couple of big names, including Angel Di Maria (has since left), Radamel Falcao (short loan stint), Juan Mata, Ander Herrera, Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic, Romelu Lukaku, Eric Bailly and Alexis Sanchez.
Unfortunately, the gap created by the near-simultaneous departure of Scholes, Giggs, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, and Robin Van Persie, Wayne Rooney, and super sub Javier Hernandez, and the tired legs of Michael Carrick was too big to be covered overnight in a panicky manner.
Now, some pundits have roundly blamed Mourinho for the team’s difficulties today. They want him to deliver the kind of entertaining football that he has never been known to fancy, let alone muster. But this is a topic for another day.
But could things have turned out differently had Sir Alex done a little more to ensure continuity beyond his reign? And could United be a different team today had Mourinho succeeded Ferguson five years ago? Maybe.
The writer is an editor with The New Times.