Ferguson proves master team builder again
To think that in October, Wayne Rooney was on his way out of Old Trafford and questions were being asked about how long manager Sir Alex Ferguson would stay.
It seems almost a lifetime ago, and with Premier League title number 12 now firmly secured, Ferguson can plot the future as he ushers in another team to challenge for further honours.
This has been a season where thanks to some stuttering performances and an away record that barely got going, United were labelled as a team in transition.
Add to that a striker new to the Premier League in Javier Hernandez, a serious injury to Antonio Valencia, Rio Ferdinand's continued fitness problems and Rooney's off the field issues, and it has been a season where if United did not achieve their usual standards then they might be forgiven by some fans.
Not in Ferguson's mind, though. Not in a million years.
Tottenham boss Harry Redknapp has said that only the 69-year-old Scot could have driven this team with its varying challenges to the heights they have reached. And former Liverpool captain and Match of the Day pundit Alan Hansen believes that if United can win the title and the Champions League this season, then it would be Ferguson's greatest triumph yet.
When contemplating his achievements this summer, the Manchester United manager might look back on this season as further reason to continue in his job.
"You look at the players that are coming through now," says former Manchester United defender Gary Pallister. "The Da Silva twins, Rooney is still at a young age, Hernandez, Valencia, Nani; they are going to be the heart and soul of the team for many years. He has already got the building blocks in place for another great team."
Manchester United have enough young players to build a new team in the Ferguson mould
That might also whet the appetite for newly-appointed Liverpool boss Kenny Dalglish but before looking too far ahead, it is worth glancing back at how Ferguson blended his latest team into title winners.
"It's been a funny old season, there's no doubt about that," adds Pallister, who won four Premier League titles under Ferguson. "United were a little bit careless in the early part. They threw away a lot of points even though they were undefeated and they were a bit careless by giving away last-minute goals, so it kind of grew from that and stuck with them through the whole season.
"But what the team has in abundance is a great resilience, which is a hallmark of a lot of teams under Sir Alex Ferguson. They certainly never know when they are beaten and I think there's a lot of faith in each other in the dressing room.
"They still have players who on their day can be match winners. Look at the likes of Dimitar Berbatov, Giggs, Rooney, Nani and Valencia. So even though there have been a lot of games where they haven't been at their imperious best, they have always been a very difficult team to beat."
The strangest aspect of the season has been the contrast between United's home and away form.
If they take one point from their last Premier League game against Blackpool on 22 May, it will be their largest points haul at Old Trafford of all the 12 Premier League titles Ferguson has won.
Of those 12 titles it is already their worst away points total. They have only won five matches on the road all season and it was a detail which punctuated the start of the season when Chelsea began in imperious form.
United conceded late equalisers at both Fulham and Everton, and it wasn't until 24 October where they recorded their first league away win. That victory came thanks to an impressive brace by Hernandez, but it also gave new hope to United fans after a turbulent week where Rooney performed a huge transfer U-turn.
Ferguson has since admitted that the time it has taken the Mexican to bed in has come as something of a surprise, but his movement and anticipation have been equally as impressive as his 20 goals.
Moreover, his ability to lead the line and pull defenders out of position has had a marked affect on United's tactics where Rooney has dropped into a deeper role, just one season after scoring 34 goals as United's most advanced forward.
"It's a bonus that someone like Hernandez has fitted into the team so quickly," Pallister adds. "You bring a player in like that because of the quality that you believe he has and you have to credit the scouting system for that. He's been no surprise in terms of the fact that he was so good at the World Cup.
"Wayne wasn't playing at his best at the start of the season, it didn't matter where you played him, there were obviously problems off the pitch. But that's all been settled and he's playing like the Wayne Rooney of old.
"It's been great that Ferguson has been able to trust Hernandez because he's got Berbatov as well who is still United's leading scorer with 22 goals, and picking two from four strikers gives the manager good problems to have."
Berbatov's hat-trick in the victory over Liverpool and five goals against Blackburn put him at the front of the queue as autumn turned to winter, but just as Chelsea's form began to stutter United could not take full advantage despite remaining unbeaten.
Their second league away win of the season did not come until New Year's Day when Hernandez was again on target against West Brom, but more significant was the victory at Blackpool at the end of January where finding themselves 2-0 down, Giggs came on as a second-half substitute to inspire a 3-2 victory and begin a run of talismanic performances.
The Welshman's displays in the centre of midfield have provided creativity to an area which has sometimes been lacking this season, but his move into that position has been more common since the return of the influential Valencia.
The Ecuadorian suffered a bad ankle injury back in September and his return to the side during the FA Cup win over Arsenal provided a welcome lift after United suffered back-to-back defeats by Chelsea and Liverpool.
"Paul Scholes was outstanding in the early part of the season but Giggs has been fantastic," states Pallister. "Ryan has adapted his game to play in the middle of the park and his maturity, awareness and the knowledge that he has gained over the years have made him such a stand-out player in that position.
"He showed that in the pivotal win against Chelsea last Sunday. As much as Park Ji-sung was fantastic with his work-rate, I thought it was Giggs who dictated the tempo of the game. He probably wants to play more games than he actually does but, rightly so, the manager brings him in for the important matches now.
"Valencia, on the other hand, was a big loss, you can see the impact he has had since he's come back into the side. United have missed his pace and power. Maybe the midfield is an area that Ferguson might look at in the summer. After all, Scholes might retire and Giggs is 37."
The goalkeeper is another position Ferguson will have to address. Edwin van der Sar, 40, does not appear to be losing any of his powers but the Dutchman will retire at the end of the season, leaving a gaping hole in United's rearguard.
Whatever criticism is thrown at United this season, one area which has remained consistent is their defence. While Van der Sar and Nemanja Vidic have been near ever-presents, the return of the injured Ferdinand completed the important trio.
"Ferdinand and Vidic have been fantastic and they are fortunate like Steve Bruce and I were to play in front of a great goalkeeper," Pallister says. "Peter Schmeichel was the best in the world for a number of years and Van der Sar certainly falls into that category. It's never just about the two centre-backs, though, it's about the protection you get in front of them and the full-backs and goalkeeper as well. The whole unit has been terrific this season. They have given United a real solid platform to work from."
Although United have conceded more goals than during their last three title winning seasons, as Giggs said earlier this week it has been the collective effort and the blend of the team that has helped them achieve their 12th Premier League title.
And for that, praise must go to Ferguson, who has once again shown that when it comes to building successful teams again and again he is undoubtedly the master.
"Ferguson never surprises me," says Pallister. "He knows how to do deal with modern day players and the modern day game. He's very demanding of his players. If they fall below the standards that he wants then you don't stay there very long.
"He has to be ruthless in his search for success so if that means letting big names go then that's what happens, but it all goes hand in hand with a great manager who has some great tools in the players that he works with."