Most of the reaction to Manchester United’s 20th league title was rightly concerned with praising the decision to sign Robin van Persie, and Sir Alex Ferguson’s ability to get his teams playing an incessant, consistent level against the small and medium sides while grinding out close results against the big players.
So I won’t go there and instead will take a look at possible next steps for both United and Manchester City, who paid the price for failing to add the right players in the summer.
I think if United want to get the best out of a player like Shinji Kagawa, they needed to sign a Mario Goetze, who is joining Bayern Munich instead. Kagawa is a wonderful technical player, but to succeed he needs the dynamic creativity that he was accustomed to at Borussia Dortmund, the ability of team-mates to show flair and panache at high tempo.
Ferguson will be determined to retain the title next season, as he would be loath to let City snatch it back. Ferguson knows how to maximise his chances of doing that, which is not to rest on his laurels but to bring in some big players in the summer.
The squad is balanced and strong, but the first XI needs an extra spark, particularly in wide positions. Ashley Young lacks the appetite required for this level, while Nani is too inconsistent; Antonio Valencia is consistent and determined, so he will stay in my view, but he lacks that extra guile United need in the final third.
If the Premier League had a title play-off system like in rugby or US and Australian sports, United would not be champions. I don’t think they could get through a mini-league against the top four, but as it stands they don’t need to do that as they have the collective mentality, style of play and squad depth to deal with all the average teams and largely avoid defeat (if not beat) the top sides.
United do not have the best players in the league, indeed their first XI would be some way short of City’s or even Chelsea’s in terms of creative ability.
Ferguson will be acutely aware that this is not sufficient to win the Champions League, and that – if City and Chelsea sort out their internal problems and management respectively – it may not even be enough to win the domestic title.
In the past Ferguson has brought in big names immediately after winning titles – his first Premier League win was followed by the purchase of Roy Keane, not just to plan for life after Bryan Robson but to reward the players that won the league by showing a statement of intent, not to mention ensuring they don’t become complacent.
Mancini rightly complained that City’s inability to bring his preferred targets to the club this summer played a part in their relatively poor season. But in my view there is more to it than the sum of their transfer dealings being an admittedly excellent young centre-back and two pointless squad players in Scott Sinclair and Jack Rodwell.
Van Persie chose United over City because – when presented with a choice – the absolute top players, the ones with the correct mentality, will value United’s history and most importantly stability at management level over the extra £30k a week they could get at Eastlands.
Van Persie would also rather work with Ferguson, who is arguably the greatest man-manager in football, over Mancini who, while talented, does not appear able to control the top stars, and has a tendency to let his own ex-player’s ego interfere with team matters. A cohesive dressing room with a clear disciplinary code will always trump a hotchpotch of superstars with a tendency to follow their own leads. We saw this with Pep Guardiola’s intolerance of Ronaldinho, Deco, Samuel Eto’o and Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s me-me-me antics at Barcelona, we have seen Fergie do it time and time again at United, and we will surely see it soon at City when Mancini leaves.
Last season City kept it together enough to win the title; United will always be better internally as long as Mancini remains City manager, simply because of his charismatic management style, which can motivate but equally frustrate players. There is a difference between being a lightning rod, Jose Mourinho style, and actually making it all about you, which is Mancini’s tendency (you would never have seen Jose scrapping with problem players on the training ground).
Ferguson knows how to motivate his players regardless of their personality and profile, and whatever the circumstances, whether off the back of a defeat or in an attempt to maintain a winning run.
Still, when you see United play you know there are still a few things to resolve, and if they don’t bring in those players.
In addition to the wide attacking players mentioned earlier, United’s forward peak was arguably 1999, when they had a proper pairing – Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole – and two excellent reserves in Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. You could also point to the Ronaldo-Rooney tandem that brought United great success before the Portuguese left for Madrid.
At the moment they have Van Persie, Wayne Rooney – who is more comfortable deeper behind the forwards – and Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez. Welbeck has only scored once in the league this season and is probably destined to be a squad player, while Hernandez is easily at his most effective as an impact substitute. United are still possibly a man short up front.
Radamel Falcao has been linked with the club, but he has a preference to play up front on his own, and he may want to stay in Spain for the time being, or be one of those players swayed by the extra pounds on offer at City or Chelsea. It’s hard to tell when most of the reports appear to be agents leaking stories to journalists for their own benefit, but he would be an excellent addition if it is a feasible deal.
But for City the first thing they need to resolve is Mancini – anything less than a win over Wigan in the FA Cup final and he will be gone for sure. But regardless of that result, they need a manager who knows how to manage top players, a better judge of character who is able to discipline big-name players if they step out of line. And Mancini is not that man.