Comparing Manchester United's current squad with their last title winning one
Alex Ferguson's last season at Old Trafford saw them win a historic 20th league title.
For United fans, it doesn't seem that long ago when the Red Devils drew against West Brom at the Hawthorns. Sir Alex's last game in charge of the club was a typically outrageous 5-5 draw in which current no. 9 Romelu Lukaku scored a hat-trick for the Baggies. The legendary Scottish manager must have been annoyed at his team for throwing away a 3-0 lead, but in a way, it was a fitting match for him to depart, creating another record on the way for the highest scoring Premier League draw in history. United won the league title by a comfortable margin of 11 points.
Five years on, and his importance to the club has been highlighted by their league finishes. The Red Devils have finished 7th, 4th, 5th and 6th, never really challenging for the title in spite of spending obscene amounts of money, and changing managers thrice. David Moyes and Louis van Gaal arrived with lofty ambitions and left having failed to fill the biggest managerial shoes in world football.
But things are definitely on the up recently. Jose Mourinho led the club to both European and domestic success in the form of the Europa League and the League Cup. United might have been punching below their weight in these competitions, but it provides a solid platform for Mourinho to strive higher this season. They started off the new season with a bang, with successive 4-0 wins over West Ham and Swansea, and a 2-0 win over Leicester.
The 2-2 draw away to Stoke was a hiccup, but for the first time in five years, United look like the free flowing attacking side they once were. They are on top of the table after Gameweek 4, having scored the most number of goals and conceded the least. They look as likely as any team to win the title this season, and as we go into the first Champions League matchday, we take a look back at Sir Alex Ferguson's last title winning side, and how this current team matches up to that one.
2012/13: David De Gea
2017/18: David De Gea
If there has been one constant in United's ups and downs of the recent past, it is David De Gea between the posts. Unlike other players whose careers went on a downward spiral, the Spaniard has grown in leaps and bounds, displacing Real legend Iker Casillas as the Spanish no. 1. He endeared himself to the Old Trafford faithful by pledging his loyalty to the club in spite of being linked countless times with Real Madrid. Still only 26 years old, he is relatively young for a keeper and has already been spoken of in the same breath as legends like Neuer, Buffon and Casillas. Edwin van der Saar's boots were big ones to fill, but De Gea has proven himself to be worthy of United's legendary no. 1 shirt.
2012/13: Rafael Da Silva
2017/18: Antonio Valencia
The diminutive Brazilian Rafael and his twin Fabio were crowd favourites at Old Trafford. He enjoyed a very impressive 2012/13 season, improving his defending, as well as overlapping continuously on the right (ironically with United's current RB Valencia, who was a winger back then). Every Red Devil will remember his breathtaking screamers against QPR and Liverpool.
But Antonia Valencia is ahead of Rafael here because of how much he has improved over the last two seasons. Having converted to right back under van Gaal, his defending improved drastically under Mourinho's tutelage last season. Arguably their best defender, he was one of the first names on the starting XI, helping United keep 17 clean sheets with one of the best defensive records in the division. He was also a marauding presence down the right, always a threat with his pace and crossing.
2012/13: Rio Ferdinand
2017/18: Eric Bailly
Bailly is a seriously impressive defender, strong in tackling and good in the air. No one expected the Ivorian to overshadow fellow summer signings Pogba, Ibrahimovic and Mkhitaryan, but he has been that good so far in spite of a brief time on the sidelines due to injury.
But Rio was on a totally different level. In that particular season, he was 35 and nearing the end of his career, but was still United's best centre back. Bailly is yet to reach the current BT Sport pundit's consistency, as shown by the disappointing draw at Stoke, a result which was down to sloppy defending rather than poor finishing. But at 23 years old, he is already one of the best defenders at both United and the Premier League and has every chance of becoming an Old Trafford legend.
2012/13: Jonny Evans
2017/18: Phil Jones
Jones might have outlasted Evans at United, but the fact is, van Gaal made a premature decision in selling him. He has since gone on to become West Brom's best defender. Jones has had a very impressive start to the season, and before last Saturday, might have come out ahead of the Northern Irishman, but the game against Stoke highlighted his defensive vulnerabilities.
At his best, Jones shows us why Sir Alex once called him United's potentially best ever player, but unfortunately, suffers the same consistency problems as Bailly. Evans, on the other hand, formed a solid partnership at the back with Ferdinand that season. Jones and Bailly will similarly have to figure out how to cover each other's weaknesses playing together if United are to win the league this season. They simply cannot afford to drop points against lower half teams, with the league being more competitive than it ever has been.
2012/13: Patrice Evra
2017/18: Daley Blind
Daley Blind has proven to be an extremely intelligent signing by van Gaal. A utility player, he can play in holding midfield, as well as anywhere across a back four. He has been primarily utilised as a left back or centre back, but he isn't a full back in the traditional sense. The Dutch international is defensively solid and excellent on the ball but provides very little going forward. His off the ball defending also has a lot of room for improvement.
Evra, on the other hand, was one of the best full backs in the division. He was 31 years old in the 2012/13 season but was undisputed first choice ahead of new signing Alex Buttner. He even scored 4 goals in the league and improved his consistency from the previous season. He was also a leader on the pitch, and United sorely missed his voice when he left a couple of seasons later for Juventus. To this day, there remains a big hole on the left side of their defence that couldn't be filled by Shaw, Blind or Rojo, proving how invaluable he was to them.
2012/13: Michael Carrick
2017/18: Nemanja Matic
Carrick at his peak was the best deep lying playmaker in the Premier League, effectively shielding the defence and picking out passes to start attacks. What he lacked in physicality and pace he more than made up for with his incredible passing range. He made the second most number of league appearances in 2012/13 for the Red Devils and was shortlisted for PFA Player of the Year. He was, arguably, one of their best players that season.
But Matic comes out ahead simply because of his sheer physical presence in midfield. Standing at 6'4", there are few midfielders more imposing than the Serbian in England. He's also capable of scoring goals occasionally, apart from breaking down attacks and playing the ball out from defence. But most importantly, he brings out the best in Paul Pogba, giving him more attacking freedom and letting him orchestrate the play from his favourite positions.
2012/13: Tom Cleverley
2017/18: Paul Pogba
Absolute no brainer. Sir Alex had the unique ability to bring out the best in average players, and no one is a better example for that than Tom Cleverley. His talent was obvious, but he was never really considered one of the best midfielders in England. His work rate was his best asset, and he used it to the fullest, charging up and down the pitch, giving United an extra dimension in midfield. As soon as SAF retired, he was phased out of the team, and went on to play for Everton and subsequently, Watford.
Paul Pogba, on the other hand, was severely criticised in his first season, with his heavy price tag always hanging around his shoulders. But take that away, and he was actually one of the best midfielders in the Premier League. And the signing of Matic to anchor the midfield and protect the defence has unleashed his full potential. Having already scored twice and assisted thrice from a box to box role this season, he is well on his way to becoming the club's central figure for the next decade or so.
2012/13: Antonio Valencia
2017/18: Juan Mata
Perhaps it is a bit harsh on Valencia, but the no. 7 shirt turned out to be too heavy for him in 2012/13. A traditional winger in every sense of the word, the Ecuadorian possessed loads of pace and was an excellent crosser of the ball. He rarely cut in to try and score, but still managed to terrorise opponents. He was decent enough but compared to the previous season when he scored four goals and assisted 14, it could only be considered a disappointment. But full credit to him, as he emerged stronger once again, reverting to his previous no. 25 the following season.
Mata has turned out to be the best decision that David Moyes ever made at United. It might have been a panic buy at that point in the winter transfer window of 2014, but the Spaniard has since scored and assisted more goals than any other player for United. Though traditionally a no. 10 playing behind the striker, he has proven that he is equally effective cutting in from the right, interchanging positions with Mkhitaryan, and dictating the pace from wherever he is on the pitch. He defied all odds as he became a central figure in midfield even after his former manager at Chelsea took over the Old Trafford hot seat. A crowd favourite with almost a cult following, he is yet again set for another huge season ahead.
2012/13: Ashley Young/Shinji Kagawa
2017/18: Anthony Martial
Ashley Young and Shinji Kagawa were both blighted by injury, but excited fans when they did play. Young was disappointing in terms of the final output, just assisting five times throughout the season. Kagawa scored five times but unfortunately didn't stay at United long enough to make an impact, returning to Dortmund in 2014.
Martial had the perfect start to his Old Trafford career, scoring on his debut against arch-rivals Liverpool at Stretford End. He went on to score 17 times in his debut season, including the winner against Everton in the FA Cup semifinal. He fell out of favour under Mourinho following the emergence of Rashford but has persisted and repaid Mourinho's faith in him this season after the Portuguese boss refused a swap deal with Inter involving Ivan Perisic. Having scored twice and assisted once already as a substitute, and still only 21 years old, Martial's potential is exciting and he surely has a future with the Red Devils.
2012/13: Wayne Rooney
2017/18: Henrikh Mkhitaryan
This one is bound to raise some eyebrows, given the Armenian's blistering start to the season, having assisted five times in the opening 4 games. But Rooney was an integral part of the title winning squad, having been relegated to a midfield playmaking role following Robin van Persie's move from Arsenal. He had a few injury and illness issues, and scored 12 and assisted 9 times that season, which was poor by his standards, but let's not forget that he was playing in an unfamiliar midfield role. He combined extremely well with van Persie, complementing him well, and picking out his runs behind opposition defences. His passing improved drastically, and images of him whipping out cross field balls to Rafael and Evra became a common sight at Old Trafford.
Mkhitaryan might be 28 years old, but his performances so far suggest that he could eclipse Rooney's performances that season. A unique combination of pace, dribbling and pinpoint passing, he is the perfect no. 10, and Mourinho has restored him to his best position this season. Fans can expect a lot more from him going ahead.
2012/13: Robin van Persie
2017/18: Romelu Lukaku
Winner: van Persie
Well, these are fine margins. Lukaku is without a doubt a world class striker and an excellent signing for United and has shown as much so far this season. With plenty of Premier League experience under his belt, he was always going to be a success and has already started paying back his hefty fee with 4 goals in 4 matches.
But the Robin van Persie of 2012/13 was absolutely phenomenal. 24 million for a 29-year-old at that point of time seemed a bit steep, but the 'Flying Dutchman' proved to be worth each and every penny of his transfer fee with 26 goals and 8 assists. His off the ball movement was so incredible that United's midfield playmakers initially found it difficult to foresee and pick out his runs in behind defences. Every United fan will remember him wheeling away to celebrate his hat-trick against Aston Villa when he buried Rooney's long ball with a ferocious volley, a goal which effectively decided the title race with four matches to spare. If Lukaku manages to emulate van Persie's performances, the Red Devils will be the front runners in the title race.
So there you have it - Manchester United's current squad is more or less as talented as their previous title winning one, not to mention their enormous squad depth - Rashford, Lingard, Smalling, Romero, Rojo, Herrera are all alternatives that Mourinho can select from. But the fact is, the English top flight has changed drastically in the years following Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement.
As many as 6 teams are challenging for the title now - 7 if you include Everton. This season is set to be the most competitive one yet, and Mourinho's men must be prepared for many more challenges, with United back in the Champions League this season. Early performances are encouraging, but it is important to strike a balance between squad rotation, tactics and sticking to a winning combination, but if any manager can reproduce the success of Sir Alex, it is Jose Mourinho.