The close season is, more than anything else, a time of change. Players and mangers come and go, club goals are reassessed and expectations molded. Similar to this summer, the corresponding months of 2006 also featured a World Cup, followed by its annual transfer merry-go-round.
That summer also featured change and uncertainty at one of the world’s biggest clubs, Manchester United. Despite winning the League Cup the season before, United had gone three consecutive seasons without winning a league title, the first drought of its kind since Sir Alex Ferguson captured his first championship in 1993. The talismanic Roy Keane had left the club during the season, and Ruud van Nistelrooy followed him in the summer. Add to all this a considerable doubt over the quality of recent signings, plus the backlash against the Glazers’ controversial takeover, and you had a environment where even the legendary manager was being questioned.
But the nadir was short-lived. Manchester United were revitalized by a new group of core performers, and the club was worthy winner of its 16th title. Four Premier League crowns in the next six seasons followed, as did two League Cups and one European title.
However, all good things must come to an end, and over the past few months three of those key pieces have finally moved on. The latest came on Monday when left-back Patrice Evra signed with Italian champions Juventus, joining Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand on his way out of Old Trafford. As Manchester United fans reflect back on the trio’s glittering in Manchester, one thing is abundantly clear: an era has come to an end.
The above photo – courtesy of Nooruddean Choudry – does a fantastic job of illustrating this changing of the guard. Those eleven men were about to beat do what only two Manchester United teams had done before: win a European Cup Final. Despite coming close to a quadruple during the next campaign the Moscow final was arguably the peak of Sir Alex Ferguson’s last great team. They’d seen off the challenges of Arsenal and Chelsea in the league, and managed to take the final step that was missing in 2009 and 2011. The good times didn’t end when Ferdinand and Ryan Giggs lifted old big ears late in the Russian evening, but they certainly wouldn’t reach the same heights.
Of course, it’s natural for a team to break apart. Players can’t stay young – or healthy – forever. So maybe the fact that, over six years later, only Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick remain from that team isn’t that big of shock. It has been clear in recent years that a new generation must take up the mantle at United, and now it’s finally happening for real.
It’s perhaps expected how Ferdinand, Vidic and Evra are all leaving during the same summer. While United have had an abundance of talent in all areas of the pitch, the performances of those three at the back – with Edwin van der Sar behind them – came to typify their success.
While the right back position rotated between the likes of Gary Neville, Wes Brown and John O’Shea, the rest of the defense remained constant. The telepathic relationship between Ferdinand and Vidic meant opposing forwards had their work cut out for them. Neither could strikers rely on getting much out of Evra on the left, an agile defender in his own right and a terrific attacking fullback when the opportunity was presented to him. No wonder they helped to set a clean sheet record in the 2008/09 season – there simply wasn’t a weakness.
As things remained the same in the back line pieces were being moved around the rest of the pitch. Of the team from 2008, both Tevez and Ronaldo left a year later to pursue different challenges; van der Sar and Scholes retired a few years down the line to end their glittering careers; Owen Hargreaves’ impressive debut season was sullied by injury in August of 2008, and he’d never be the same player again, and Wes Brown was moved on in 2011.
Those that remained – Rooney, Carrick, Ferdinand, Vidic and Evra – were the aging spine of the former European champions. And now, in one summer of change, three of them are gone. Now it’s up to a new team lead by Rooney (who is still, somehow, only 28) to spark another revitalization.
It won’t be easy. Last season’s disastrous campaign under David Moyes means no European soccer, but United don’t seem to be suffering. Just last week they were crowned the most valuable sports team in the world, and their new manager Louis van Gaal not only impressed with the Netherlands at the World Cup, but has also signed the talented young duo of Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera.
But even with some deserved excitement there’s still much work to be done. Shaw, Herrera and whoever else is signed in the month need to click straight away. Losing Carrick for the next 10 weeks hasn’t helped anything either.
However, eight years ago United fans were also skeptical about what change would bring. It worked out in the end that time, and it might just do the same again.