Date: 1st June 2011 at 1:30am
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As is now common knowledge in the footballing world, Manchester United was defeated by a massively superior Barcelona side at Wembley last weekend.

The 3-1 result was not altogether shocking. I certainly believed that United had an opportunity to win the match going into it, but objectively saw little to suggest that Barcelona were going to do anything but lift their second European Cup in three years. All credit to them and their manager for an incredible season.

The Champions League Final was an important measuring stick match for United. How did our players stack up against some of the best footballers in the world? Are there improvements to be made? What can be done to ensure that a repeat of this does not transpire next season? These are all very important questions, for which the answers will be contentious. Supporters all have their favourites as well as their goats and I suppose I am no exception to that rule.

Comparisons will be made between the United squad of 2009 and its contemporary, and such an analysis is a legitimate one to attempt. I think that the two teams are pretty different. The 2009 edition of United was very Ronaldo focused, especially in Europe when the Portuguese was deployed as the lone striker (see the quarterfinal, semifinal and final). And then there was the Berbatov-Tevez drama which ultimately led to the Argentine’s departure. The Michael Carrick of that season, in my opinion anyway, was much better than the one currently in the side. When United were defeated in 2009 Carrick lost his confidence and has never been the same player since. Darren Fletcher was suspended for the match so we will never know how much of an impact he would have made on the final, but I am willing to bet that it would not have tipped the scales in United’s favour. Many supporters lamented the injury woes of one Owen Hargreaves, wondering what he may have been able to do to break up the unbelievable passing of Barcelona.

I remember feeling very put out after that final concluded. I, like many reds, believed that United were the superior team and ought to have won the match. Barcelona had a few injuries and suspensions at the back and I thought that United would be able to exploit the chinks in Barcelona’s armor. The loss felt like an end of an era. At this point it was almost a near certainty that Tevez would be on his way out and many privately considered how much longer Sir Alex Ferguson would continue to steer United’s tiller to the safest of waters. It seemed obvious that a squad overhaul was necessary. But it did not come.

United did not spend much in the transfer window, signing Luis Antonio Valencia, Gabriel Obertan and Michael Owen. But it was a summer that in hindsight does not look as bad as it may have felt two years ago. Valencia has sparkled in his two seasons at United, making many supporters forget about Ronaldo with his blinding runs down the right wing and his excellent crosses which played a major role in Wayne Rooney’s career year. Owen has not been a key figure in the United set up but popped up with one of the most famous goals in United’s history when he scored a 96′ minute winner versus Manchester City in 2009. Gabriel Obertan has at best inspired ambivalence amongst the faithful. Some see his performances with the reserves as encouraging while others find the fact that he cannot shine in the first team as suggesting he is not ‘United quality.’ Time will tell with Obertan, but at three million pounds I will still argue that he is/was worth the risk.

United’s defeat in the 2011 final did not feel so much as an end of an era but rather as the beginning of a bright new one. While a certain forgotten striker seems almost a dead certainty to depart for more playing time, the denouement of Dimitar Berbatov’s United career has been a far cry from the storminess characteristic of Tevez’s final days in the better part of Manchester. Regardless of where Berbatov watched the final, he did not say in the buildup that he would fancy playing for any of United’s rivals. Not enough can be said for the classiness the Bulgarian has shown throughout the last few months of the season. And while certain veterans will be leaving the club for a well deserved break from football (Edwin van der Sar and likely Paul Scholes), the replacements for them appear to be waiting in the wings in transfer signing David De Gea and Anderson. Additionally, the 2011 squad are much more of a team, an eleven of interchangeable parts that Sir Alex can adjust to whoever United face in a given week. There is no Ronaldo, no one player for whom the formation is tailored. That sort of change cannot be underestimated as United continue to seek an identity in the post-Ronaldo era.

Thus United enter a two and half month period in which they will have nothing but time to reflect upon a gutting defeat in the biggest game in club football. Much mystery and intrigue awaits England’s most successful club and with more pieces to the United jigsaw puzzle returning from loan, Sir Alex will have more solutions to his current problems. Most specifically, Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley ought to figure prominently in the gaffer’s decision making in the offseason. Both players impressed during their loan spells and are certain to be wearing United kits next season. Unfortunately both will be absent from United’s preseason tour of the United States due to their international duties with the England U-21’s. And when one factors in the impressive run of United’s academy team who won the Football Association Youth Cup, Sir Alex may yet have further options for his first team come August.

But certain problems remain that appear beyond being solved by the current United squad. A multitude of players will be discussed by supporters during the next few months, with most as unlikely as the next to end up at United. Many have called for United signing a “creative” midfielder with names like Wesley Sneijder and Luka Modric trending among the faithful. I would argue that instead of a “creative” type, United are more in need of a defensive/box-to-box midfielder. The two defeats to Barcelona prove that creativity can only do so much without actually possessing the ball. This makes a few things crystal clear to me. To say that United are in need of a strong tackling defensive-minded midfield presence would be as obvious as saying John Terry has no respect for the institution of marriage.

I’ve written more than a few articles discussing United’s midfield conundrum and have offered a few suggestions on how it might be solved, or at least improved. I personally like both Sneijder and Modric but do not see either of them joining. Their prices seem to preclude their purchases and in all honesty I am no longer sure that Sneijder would fit within the current United set up. I am a big fan of Modric and the Croatian has demonstrated that he can play well in a 4-4-2 but I do not see Spurs selling him at a price that Sir Alex will find palatable. I instead envision Anderson stepping into the attacking midfielder role, provided that he spends much more time practicing his shooting and loses the puppy weight. His performances towards the end of the season have suggested that he is ready for bigger and better things, and at the tender age of 23 still has a bit of growing left to do. Purchasing Sneijder or Modric would definitely stunt Anderson’s development and I do not see Sir Alex as being ready to give up on the Brazilian, especially when one considers the five year extension that Anderson signed during the season.

I instead fancy United signing Daniele De Rossi to fill the tenacious defensive midfield role. I have already written about this in a previous article, but I think that the Italian combines defensive prowess with expert passing, a useful combination which United currently lack. Signing De Rossi does not hinder the development of United’s younger central midfield options, with the exception of Ryan Tunnicliffe, but by the time De Rossi’s hypothetical United career would end Tunnicliffe would still be a relatively young player, ready to come into the first team. Signing De Rossi would certainly curtail the minutes available to players like Fletcher and Carrick, but I think that Fletcher’s versatility will continue to be of significant value to Sir Alex. Meanwhile I do not see much from Carrick to suggest that he is worth sacrificing the signing of De Rossi. Call me uncultured (as I am sure some of you will after reading this) but Carrick simply is not good enough to compete with the world’s best. He is a fine Premier League player but if United cherish ambitions of winning a European Cup in the next few years, it will not be with Carrick as United’s deepest lying central midfielder.

Ashley Young has also been heavily linked with a summer move to Old Trafford for a nice tidy price of 15 million pounds. His is not a name that inspires a lot of buzz but his versatility and overall skill as a footballer would be of massive value to United. Young has incredible pace and would provide a better option on set pieces. He can play on the wing or centrally behind the striker. He will be an adequate replacement for the minutes that Ryan Giggs has played this season, as it would only be natural to expect the Welshman’s minutes to decrease next season.

Summer time is usually idle time for many, not just those who are paid to play football. Without matches to engage our attention, we instead devour tabloid rumours, sifting like California gold prospectors trying to distinguish the gold from the pyrite (see Dr. Brown, I did learn something that was practical from your Historical Geology course!). There are many decisions to be made in the coming months, ones which will ultimately determine whether or not United can achieve more than simply winning the league, which seems to be a much more difficult task than ever before.

Luckily for United, it still has the greatest manager of all-time in Sir Alex Ferguson to guide them through such foggy waters.