Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

Squad depth key to United's success

Manchester United celebrate winning the Barclays Premier League trophy after the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Arsenal at Old Trafford

When the in-depth analysis of Manchester United's latest title success is done, at Old Trafford, Anfield, Stamford Bridge and the Emirates Stadium, the conclusion will be much the same.

United won their 18th championship because their squad was far superior.

It is a fairly obvious statement. Nevertheless, it is one other clubs must take heed of.

In the same way Arsenal and then Chelsea raised the Premier League bar with their flying starts, so United have nudged it slightly further skywards by amassing more quality than any other squad in English football history, and quite possibly Europe too.

How else could United come within one FA Cup semi-final shoot-out defeat to Everton of completing a full season, with not a round missed in every competition they entered?

Cristiano Ronaldo might not agree with the way Ferguson makes his substitutions and Carlos Tevez is not always so keen on the choices his manager makes when the Red Devils teams are picked.

But from a detached viewpoint, Ferguson has assembled two complete teams that are almost impossible to differentiate from each other. No longer does the term 'first-choice side' apply.

True, there are some; Ronaldo, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Edwin van der Sar, who would definitely command a place in the biggest games.

How though do you choose between Rafael, Gary Neville, John O'Shea and the currently injured Wes Brown to complete the defence?

Where do you even begin to start picking between the competing talents of Michael Carrick, Anderson, Paul Scholes, Park Ji-Sung and Darren Fletcher in central midfield, not to mention the more sparingly-used PFA Player of the Year Ryan Giggs? And don't forget Owen Hargreaves, who is hoping to be fit and raring to go by next August.

Then up front, Ferguson can select just two, and on occasion only one, of Carlos Tevez, Dimitar Berbatov and Wayne Rooney.

The antics of Ronaldo and Tevez during the derby win against Manchester City might have been the first signal of cracks in Ferguson's delicate strategy beginning to appear.

After all, though the 1999 treble-winning strike force of Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is often hailed as the perfect example of squad rotation, in the years afterwards, when Cole and Yorke suddenly found themselves on the bench, it very quickly broke up.

However, the template is now in place.

If Ronaldo and Tevez do move on, replacements will come in. Franck Ribery has already been spoken of as a potential big-money recruit from Bayern Munich. Wigan's Antonio Valencia has also been watched. And when Ferguson is assessing Tevez's contribution and whether to keep him, the emergence of Federico Macheda is bound to play some part in his thinking.

Indeed, it promises to be a big summer at Old Trafford.

Quite aside from the issues over the more sulky members of his squad, Ferguson realises the contributions of Van der Sar, Giggs, Scholes and Neville cannot be relied upon much longer.

That is not to say there will be a massive influx of new players, more added responsibility being given to the likes of Ben Foster, Anderson and Rafael, who have been groomed as replacements, plus a demand that Nani shows considerable improvement.

Ferguson himself will still be there. For how much longer though? How many more summers will the most successful manager Britain has ever known spend plotting the downfall of major rivals, or swatting away emerging ones?

These questions provide United's challengers with reason for optimism, reason to doubt an unprecedented fourth successive title - and what, to Liverpool's horror, would be a record-breaking 19th - will end up at Old Trafford.

Yet on Merseyside and in west and north London, the problems are greater.

Liverpool, for all the massive improvement made this season, still appear too heavily reliant on Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard, two brilliant footballers with questionable fitness records.

Ferguson felt Chelsea had gone beyond the age of improvement last term. They have not got any younger and major surgery is required for a new manager. Arsenal have talent but neither the experience, nor the depth.

They are major structural faults, immediate issues for messrs Benitez, Abramovich and Wenger to solve.

In contrast, Ferguson's problems are fairly minor and centred around individuals, so many of whom have been moved on without affecting the success United enjoy.

True, if Tevez, or more importantly Ronaldo, left there would be a big hole.

But it is not that long ago much the same was being said about Ruud van Nistelrooy and Roy Keane. Before that, Paul Ince and Mark Hughes.

Eric Cantona's legacy was immense but most of United's triumphs under Ferguson have been achieved without the talismanic Frenchman.

And that is why Ferguson can allow himself a brief moment of relaxation, toasting another year of glory with a glass of his favourite red.

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