Putting Manchester United on trial
Critics have assailed Manchester United as not being as strong as in years past
Cristiano Ronaldo hasn't been replaced, and Wayne Rooney can't do both jobs
Alex Ferguson has quietly rebuilt with youth, as he did in Beckham-Neville Era
The assessment came from two illustrious sources: Fabio Capello and José Mourinho. The former, the England national-team boss, said Manchester United was not "the dominant war machine it was last year." And the latter, the "Special One," opined that, without the departed Cristiano Ronaldo, United was indisputably weaker.
Are they right? On this New Year's Eve, the day Sir Alex Ferguson turns 68, why not put this United team on trial?
The case for the prosecution
This is a team which lost its best player, is aging badly in certain key positions and is painfully light in certain areas of the pitch. It's time to blow it up and rebuild.
Let's start with the guy who is no longer there: Ronaldo. Yes, you can stick Luis Valencia on the wing and he's OK, but that only covers a fraction of Ronaldo's contribution. Valencia lacks Ronaldo's goals, his aerial threat, his versatility ... basically you really needed four guys to replace him, not just one.
Yes, Wayne Rooney can pick up some of the goal-scoring slack, but then who does Rooney's job? Nobody. Dimitar Berbatov has 15 goals in 48 Premier League appearances since joining the club -- that's not a good enough return for a $50 million player. I know he's supposed to provide more than just goals, but he too often goes missing.
Not to mention that, if you shoehorn the Bulgarian into the lineup, you have to play 4-4-2 and that means you need two wingers. Fine, Valencia is one. But who's the other? Nani, who has proven to be a dud? Park Ji-Sung, who gets hurt all the time? Ryan Giggs, who's 36 years old? Gabriel Obertan, who's just a kid? Zoran Tosic? Please.
Speaking of Giggs, there are only so many times you can go to the well. And the same applies to Paul Scholes, who's now 35. Which brings us to central midfield. Owen Hargreaves hasn't kicked a ball in nearly 16 months -- his career might even be over. Anderson seems to be going backwards. How far can you really get with Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick in the middle of the park?
That's nothing compared to the back four. Injuries may be nobody's fault, but they're a very real problem. Apart from Patrice Evra, everybody seems to break down. Rio Ferdinand has missed 26 of United's last 32 starts. He has a back problem and may never be the same again. Jonny Evans and Wes Brown are useful alternatives when they're fit, but the former has a serious injury and the latter is as durable as a Fabergé egg. Edwin van der Sar is on hiatus dealing with his wife's illness and, even then, he turns 40 next year. His backups, Tomasz Kuszczak and Ben Foster, are reminiscent of the dark days when Mark Bosnich, Roy Carroll and Massimo Taibi alternated between the sticks. Oh, and, of course, Nemanja Vidic is being targeted by Real Madrid.
And who can blame him? This is the most indebted club in the world, with carpetbagger-type owners based in Florida who turned the most profitable team in the world into one which needs to win the league every year just to keep the creditors at bay. United got some $110 million for Ronaldo and most of it hasn't been spent to replace him. Who knows where it went? Sir Alex isn't getting any younger and God help us if something happens to Rooney.
I don't care that United is in second place right now. When (not if) Arsenal wins its game in hand, it will be third, with Tottenham, Aston Villa and a rejuvenated Manchester City biting at its heels (not to mention Liverpool, which may be down, but not out). Don't look to the Champions League for help, either. AC Milan is coming to town, a team United has failed to eliminate in four attempts. And besides, I wasn't impressed with the group stage, either. United went a goal down at home in every game (and should have lost to CSKA Moscow).
Only one thing to do. Get rid of the old guys (Giggs, Scholes, van der Sar, Gary Neville), the dead weight (Berbatov, Nani, Anderson) and the guys who might want to leave (Vidic) and start over with a half-dozen new signings.
The case for the defense
OK, how about some perspective? United has played 20 games and has one fewer point than when it was at the same point last season. This despite the injuries, despite Ronaldo (and Carlos Tévez) leaving, despite this being a supposedly more balanced Premier League. So the guys who actually have been playing haven't been so bad, have they? And, of course, United did win the title last year.
You didn't like the Champions League performances? Well, in last year's group stage, United won two games and finished with 10 points. This year, it won four games and finished with 13. Looks like an improvement to me, no?
Sure, you may feel this team is too dependent on Rooney. But last year it was supposedly too dependent on Ronaldo and now Rooney has stepped up. Nothing wrong with that. Berbatov may have been a bit inconsistent, but he gives you something very different than Rooney and, in that sense, he's a good partner. And you can laugh at Michael Owen but, I can assure you, when he comes on as a sub, opposing defenders certainly don't laugh. Danny Welbeck and Federico Macheda are there, too -- they're young, they'll improve and they'll contribute.
In fact, you seem to ignore the kids in this side. It's not just those two, it's the wonder twins, Rafael and Fábio, it's Darron Gibson, it's Obertan, who looks terrifying when he does play. You need a bit of patience, but remember what happened the last time Sir Alex relied on youth and some sage pundit said, "You win nothing with kids?" As I recall, David Beckham, Scholes, the Neville Brothers and Nicky Butt were thrown into the deep end and United won the title.
OK, so Scholes and Giggs are older now and can't contribute in every game. That's fine -- you don't need them in every game. Against some of the muppet teams in the league, they can take a breather. (Did you watch that 5-0 demolition of Wigan on Wednesday?) As long as you can call on them for the big games, they'll be fine. Anderson and Nani are 21 and 23, respectively. At that age, you're bound to be inconsistent. Besides, this is a World Cup year -- they have plenty of incentives to get their act together.
Sure, Park has been out, but he's fit now. And, yeah, Valencia may be "just" a very good winger and not a superstar like Ronaldo, but that means opponents are less likely to focus on him, no? Tactically, he makes more sense, too. Ferdinand's health, admittedly, is a concern, but Evans won't be out forever and he's outstanding. You can giggle at people like Brown and John O'Shea all you like, but when called upon to contribute, they have never let United down. They may have some injuries, but that doesn't mean they'll be hurt forever, does it?
As for Vidic, the fact that Real wants him shows how good he is. If he does move, it probably won't be until the end of the season anyway. And, if he leaves, so be it. United has weathered the departure of better players -- guys like Ruud van Nistelrooy and Beckham -- without missing a beat. It will be the same this time.
I'll grant you, the Glazers are not ideal owners. But their arrival has coincided with United winning the league and the Champions League, so they must be doing something right. And as for Sir Alex's age, people have been saying he's too old for years and he's still there, still winning. You sure you want to be against him?
United will be just fine. Chelsea is wobbling already and the African players haven't even left yet for the Cup of Nations. Arsenal without Robin van Persie is not a serious threat, especially if, as looks likely, Cesc Fŕbregas also has to sit out. And the others? Tottenham? Not with central defenders who always get hurt and Peter Crouch up front. Aston Villa? Yeah, right -- remember last year's collapse? Manchester City? Whatever. Roberto Mancini has had two games against bad teams; he hasn't proven anything. Liverpool? I'm sorry, the Reds are so far back behind, I can't even talk about them.
What are you looking at me for? It's your call...