Circa May 2011, Paul Scholes, Edwin van der Saar and Gary Neville announce their retirements. Cue the shouts from the Old Trafford faithful ‘Fergie Sign Him Up’. Fans who frequent the official website of the club will be familiar with The Gossip, a meticulously maintained roll call of the who’s who of football linked to the club over the course of the summer transfer window. This particular edition logged in close to a hundred players with a combined transfer fee in excess of £1 billion. The silly season indeed, as Sir Alex would describe it.
United did sign three new recruits. Atletico Madrid‘s young Spanish shot stopper, David De Gea; Aston Villa‘s wing wizard Ashley Young and Blackburn’s highly rated defender, Phil Jones; with a combined outlay of £51 million. Captivate they did, but they did not satiate the fans’ demand of a marquee signing, names such as Wesley Sneijder and Luka Modric high on their list of demands.
Sir Alex, like he always has, had other plans. Enter Tom Cleverley, a product of the United academy. The youthful midfielder was identified as the successor to Paul Scholes. And with that, the club had confirmed that they had completed their summer purchases and the manager declared his satisfaction in the crop of players that he now possessed.
The apprehension surrounding the new batch of players was soon dispelled of. Indeed a blitzkrieg of a start led by the young, talented batch of wonderkids, Cleverley, Jones, Chris Smalling and the returning Danny Welbeck saw United rise to the top of the table in scintillating fashion, with glimpses of Barca-esque football, and earning the quartet their first England call-ups. The fans were gushing and the adulation was pouring in from all and sundry.
The swashbuckling start soon petered out following Cleverley’s injury and one derby mauling later, gave way to a more cautious and often cagey approach. This coincided with United’s worst continental performance in many seasons. The critics saw their chance and panned the squad, labeling it the worst ever batch of players to have pulled on the Red shirt. This is in sharp contrast to the plaudits that were bestowed upon the youngsters right at the start of the season.
“Tom is without question so good that he is the best young player at United since Scholes, Giggs and Beckham came onto the scene. He is so special because he is supremely fit, 100 per cent committed and he is supremely talented. At the start when Tom played, our passing tempo was so quick it was unbelievable. It was just like it has been in the past. I can’t wait to see Tom back because of those quick, short passes and little one-twos, plus his positional play is great.” – Eric Harrison, United’s former youth coach who helped bring in the ‘Class of ’92’ on Cleverley
Tom Cleverley was the best thing that had happened at Old Trafford since Wayne Rooney. With his pass and move style, reminiscent of the tiki-taka playing Barcelona, intelligent positioning and positive mind-set, Cleverley had the fans gushing about his talent. That he made Anderson look like a world-class midfielder during their pairing in the engine room is testament to his ability. An untimely ankle injury at Bolton, and the subsequent recurrence of said injury kept him on the sidelines for long enough for Michael Carrick, and the returning Paul Scholes to cement their places and their imperious form reducing Tom to a handful of appearances from the bench. A season of ‘what might have been’ for the young midfielder. With time and the fans on his side, Cleverley certainly has the potential to dictate United’s tempo from the center of midfield in the near future.
“His strength and the abilities to cope with the pressure of the Premier League at such a young age stood out.He wasn’t fazed, didn’t look too nervous and was quite calm. That is very important going into the biggest league in the world at such a young age.I think he made his debut against Chelsea and was man of the match. His mental strength was always going to be good enough and that is one of the biggest factors if you are going to be a top, top player. I think eventually, with a little more experience, which is going to gain more quickly at Manchester United, he will ultimately become an England defender.” – Sam Allardyce describing Jones’ temperament
The signing that got the fans really excited, not least because Jones rebuffed the interest of United’s arch-rivals Liverpool and decided to head to Manchester. Despite commanding a sizable transfer fee, the versatile center-back would not have expected to be as heavily involved as he was in the first half of the season. Jones, hailed by Sir Alex as United’s future captain, started off brilliantly at full-back, a position unfamiliar to him but so impressive were his performances that it earned him a senior call up against Montenegro. Jones’ early performances were of the highest quality and it seemed there was an aura of invincibility about him. Burgeoning runs from the back, be it down the middle or along the touchline, had fans and pundits spouting praises of his abilities. His performances since them have failed to live up to that high standard and Jones has been found wanting, worryingly, when he played in his primary role at center-back. Facial and ankle injuries forced him out of the side and the return of Rafael and the emergence of the Ferdinand-Evans partnership has largely restricted his playing time. That Jones is one of the most talented young English footballers is of no doubt. It is whether he will fulfill that potential is what remains to be seen. Sir Alex has indeed unearthed another gem.
“I think Danny’s brilliant, and it’s fantastic for his confidence that he’s starting so many big games. Danny has come in and grabbed his chance with both hands and he’s playing very well. He’s playing with confidence and getting goals too. You might say I was a bit of an old-fashioned center forward when I played, in that I always wanted to try and run in behind defenders and get chances that way. To see Danny doing that is great. He can play in front of defenders as well, but when he runs in behind them he causes a lot of problems.” – Former United striker, Andy Cole on Danny Welbeck
Danny Welbeck announced himself to Manchester United as a 17 year old, with a wonder strike against Stoke on his debut. Last season the Manchester-born striker was sent out on loan to Sunderland to improve his physique and work on his overall play. Welbeck’s display prompted the Black Cats manager Steve Bruce to declare his desire to make Welbeck’s loan move permanent. Sir Alex, on the other hand had a bigger role for him in the first team. Keeping cult hero Javier Hernandez and Dimitar Berbatov resigned to the bench is no mean feat but Welbeck has been up to the task. What sets him apart is that he can hold up the ball, is able to drift out to the wing and cross the ball and tracks back to cover attacking fullbacks and recovers the ball. Of the current batch of youngsters that have broken into the first team, Danny Welbeck is the only one whose performances have been on an upward curve. Welbeck has enjoyed a solid first season with 13 goals, 11 in the League and his performances have been acknowledged with a place on the PFA’s Young Player Of The Year list.
Manchester United have had a poor season by their high standards. Knocked out of four cup competitions, twice in Europe, they have been missing the spark, the fear factor they once possessed. While they might have nothing to show for their efforts this season, it will not take away the efforts of the youngsters that have been blooded in with the experienced crop of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Rio Ferdinand. With David De Gea establishing himself as the Number 1 in goal with his impressive performances and Academy products Paul Pogba, Ezekiel Fryers, Will and Michael Keane, Davide Petrucci, Ben Amos and Ryan Tunnicliffe knocking on the door of the first-team, it is safe to say that the future of Manchester United looks bright for the moment.