It’s been a strange kind of season. Any reasonable United fan would have bitten your hand off at the start of the season for a fifteen point lead at the top and a shot at the FA Cup by late March. And yet, one miserable week at the start of the month saw dreams of the treble drift into the ether and the double become a far more challenging prospect. In truth, we were a magnificent David de Gea save (Juan Mata must be sick of the sight of him) away from exiting two competitions in a week. The mood outside the ground after the 2-2 draw with Chelsea was positively funereal on that miserable Sunday afternoon, a far cry from the raucous atmosphere earlier in the week, described by Rio Ferdinand as the best he’d ever experienced.
It’s easy to draw parallels between this season and 1999/2000. Setting aside the FA Cup (as United did that on that occasion), United won the league by a record 18-point margin but exited the Champions League at the hands of a fine Real Madrid side. With the team in a commanding league position but facing an uphill task in the cup, we may have to content ourselves with a twentieth title. It sounds greedy but that’s Ferguson’s fault. As a great Mancunian group once sang, ‘If I hadn’t seen such riches, I could live with being poor.’ Thirteen years on, though, the context is very different.
United entered the 1999/2000 season off the back of the greatest domestic season in English football history. Countless words have been written about the treble but what’s crucial to note here is the intensity of the competition. Arsenal were at their peak under Wenger and the title was decided on the final day (along with a cup game in extra time after a half decent goal from Ryan Giggs) whilst the likes of Bayern Munich, Inter Milan and Juventus were all bested en route to our first European Cup since the era of Charlton and Best. Gary Neville has described that Juve team as the best he ever played against and even a cursory glance at their starting XI at the time suggests it’s a typically no-nonsense statement from the pundit extraordinaire. Those ten days in May ’99 perfectly encapsulated the breathless intensity of a campaign that can’t possibly ever be topped. The competition was fierce.
The following season felt anticlimactic because that’s exactly what it was. It is no coincidence that Roy Keane uttered his famous ‘prawn sandwich’ statement that November after a Champions League game. There was an air of expectancy around Old Trafford and the atmosphere suffered. Some United fans felt as though Europe would be dominated for years to come. A quarter-final exit with the league effectively won left the remainder of the season feeling like something of a damp squib. A title is never to be sniffed at but after the giddy heights of the previous campaign, it was perhaps understandable if things felt a little flat.
Things are different this time around. We must not lose sight of the nature of last season’s disappointment. In a sense, United were on the receiving end of the kind of agony they inflicted on Bayern Munich all those years ago. Ferguson looked around at the gloating Sunderland fans on the final day and told his team not to forget how it felt. He told them to make sure it didn’t happen again. He started plotting his revenge moments after the last campaign came to an end. To quote David Brent quoting Dolly Parton, ‘If you want the rainbow, you’ve gotta put up with the rain.’
If United proved anything over the two legs against Real Madrid, it’s that their league position is not simply a result of other sides’ troubles. It might not be the most entertaining football we’ve ever experienced but the team is on course for one of its highest ever points totals. United were majestic over those 180 minutes and more than a match for one of the best teams in Europe. It was a tactically astute display from a young side that will only get better in the years to come. Ferguson’s devastation on the night implied to this observer that he felt it might be his last shot at ol’ big ears but with encouraging signs all over the pitch I can’t think why he’d walk away any time soon.
David de Gea is a fine goalkeeper finding his feet. The young Spaniard is a little like God in that I’m incredibly bored of angry people both for and against him. There are those that look to blame him for everything and others that won’t hear a word said against him, adopting an almost Liverpudlian persecution complex. He’s clearly very good; hopefully he’ll become great. It really is as simple as that. Last season his mistakes were more frequently punished, this term he has very rarely cost us points and made a number of crucial saves at key times. That said, there is still room for improvement when dealing with crosses but that will come with time. The notion that the newspapers are in any way xenophobic when discussing the keeper is absurd. Peter Schmeichel was a foreigner and they were never shy of praising the great Dane. Criticism comes with the territory at Old Trafford, particularly in such a key position. There is truly nowhere to hide. Some fans even suggested that De Gea was blameless for the goal conceded at home to Southampton but this strikes me as a tad too forgiving. Yes, Carrick was mostly to blame but the keeper’s effort was certainly not all it could have been. The automatic assumption seemed to be that only one player could possibly be at fault for a goal, a strange notion. Two people can combine to make a mistake, Bébé parents have surely taught us that. At times last season I felt as though swapping United and City’s goalkeepers might have seen a different title outcome, which just goes to show how times can change.
Although the defence always seems more solid with one of Ferdinand or Vidic in the centre, it is impossible to argue that Evans hasn’t come a long way over the last couple of seasons. The same applies to Rafael, a strong contender for our player of the season. Smalling and Jones are both young and full of promise, we have seen glimpses of what they are capable of and can only hope they fulfil their tremendous potential.
Ferguson continues to obstinately refuse to buy the central midfielder we all desire but Carrick has answered some critics with his best season since his first at United. Kagawa has struggled to adapt to the vagaries of English football (and a manager playing him out of position) but is clearly a wonderfully gifted player. It is easy to mock Cleverley for his persistent promotion of ‘the brand’ but if he begins to control games on a regular basis then all will be forgiven. The signs are there.
Up front, for the first time since that late ‘90s golden age, United have four fine options. It is telling that United have been quite so devastating offensively this season without a single one of the three wingers in any kind of form. Anyone who doubts Danny Welbeck’s ability can only have read the scoring stats and not actually watched him play. His performance over two legs against Real Madrid, in particular, was a thing of genuine wonder. Hernandez continues to deliver when called upon, particularly in the first half of the season. Rooney has struggled for form at times but it’s a pleasure not to be over reliant on his goals. In fact, I suspect there’s a chance he’ll reinvent himself as a midfielder proper in the next couple of years. And what of Robin van Persie? A dip in form in recent weeks perhaps but I think it’s fair to say his first season as a United player has been a pretty good one.
It’s been a strange kind of season and potentially a glorious one. More crucially though, Fergie has gone some way towards creating yet another great team. The coming months might be good but the coming years could be even better. That’s reason enough to be cheerful.
Darren Richman also writes for The Independent. Follow him on Twitter.