Nobody turns failure into fuel like Sir Alex Ferguson. His response to a trophyless season is usually pretty uncomplicated: he just goes round collecting trophies like a giddy old broad in a supermarket sweep. Since his breakthrough in 1990, Ferguson has only failed to win something in five out of 22 seasons. His immediate response to those includes a Double in 1995-96, a Treble in 1998-99 and a famous title win in 2002-03, when United harassed Arsenal’s aesthetes into a meltdown. After from the lost years between 2003 and 2006, when Ferguson took his medicine and held his nerve while waiting for Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney to mature, he has never failed to win the Premier League in two consecutive seasons. He has got that look in his eye. And when Fergie turns on his Manson lamps, the world better watch out.
There’s a downside to this pathological need for victory, in that it has prompted an unashamed betrayal of the attacking traditions established by Sir Matt Busby and maintained by Ferguson so long. The cowardly tactics at Manchester City in May were disgraceful. Manchester United used to be a club where the means justified the ends rather than the other way round. But those who care only about results would want nobody else except maybe Jose Mourinho in charge of their team.
There are still a million questions about the team itself, despite the excellent signing of Shinji Kagawa. The return of Nemanja Vidic – those who play Fergiebingo will note that “it’s just like a new signing” – should lend some stability to the defence, though not even he can do it all himself. Jonny Evans, though largely excellent last season, is not completely trustworthy. Rio Ferdinand is a Twitter personality who occasionally plays some football. There has been no regular right-back since Wes Brown in 2007-08. And Patrice Evra is either knackered – surely no outfield player has played more minutes in the Premier League in the last five years – or past it and fit for the knacker’s yard.
The centre of midfield remains the biggest concern; Ferguson’s reluctance to address this, inexplicable at first, now verges on the wilfully perverse. The proposed signing of Lucas Moura would have been akin to spunking every last penny on a plasma screen when you have no bread or milk.
There is no real need for another attacker. Kagawa can either play behind Rooney or from the left, ahead of thespian shithouse Ashley Young, with Rooney then behind Danny Welbeck. United scored 89 goals in 38 games last season, their second highest in the league since the 1960s, although for the most part they seemed to prioritise efficiency over excitement. In that, Rooney certainly represents the team: in the last three years he has lost plenty of his flair but become more productive than ever. The effervescence of Kagawa, who is equally capable of directness and subtlety, should put some of the fun back in Rooney and United’s game. He should certainly add speed to an attack that, at times last season, was alarmingly ponderous.
There are two ways of looking at United’s performance last season: that they almost won the title despite barely getting out of second gear, so imagine how good they’ll be when they start playing, or that a limited, fading side missed their big chance to delay Manchester City’s inexorable march towards English and perhaps world domination.
United will eventually fade away unless the Glazers bugger off, but it will be an extremely slow process while Ferguson is still there. They are probably the only team who can challenge City for the title this season. Much may depend on the extent to which City are sidetracked by Europe. Ferguson is much more adept at managing a campaign on two or three fronts than Roberto Mancini. Eleven men take the field, but, more so than ever, Ferguson is United’s most important player this season.