Do you remember how painful football was for us United brats not so long ago? After years of having our pick of the trophies, suddenly another club came in to the frame, and they appeared impossible to compete with. They were like a machine, playing in a way we’d never seen United perform. No, they weren’t kind on the eye, but they were scarily efficient, securing the points week in week out, and looked as though they’d dominate English football for the next ten years at least.
Yet by some miracle, the Roman Empire has begun to crumble, piece by piece, with United winning the Premiership for the past two years on the trot, as well as claiming victory over Chelsea in last season’s Champions League final.
However, with a former World Cup winning manager at the helm, as well as rumours linking them with the likes of Kaka and Robinho, there could be room for concern from United fans. Our only transfer target seems to be Dimitar Berbatov, but with the fuss Spurs are causing, even that might not go through.
So what does Sir Alex Ferguson make of Chelsea’s title hopes? Nothing, it seems, claiming yesterday that they plateaued under Jose Mourinho!
“I’m not concerned about Chelsea,” Ferguson said yesterday. “Mourinho won the title two years in a row and beat us in the FA Cup Final, so there’s no one who can improve on his record really. It would have to go beyond Mourinho’s performance to really worry us. It will be a challenge with the players they’ve got and the players they’ve added – they’ve got a lot of experience and that was the one thing I was a bit concerned about – but I don’t know how far that team has got to go.”
Fergie wasn’t finished there though. After embroiling himself in a war of words with the managers of all his title rivals over the past 16 years, he wanted to test the waters with new Chelsea boss Scolari, claiming their new manager is lucky to inherit the team he has, but questions if they’re capable of achieving anything.
“Scolari is fortunate,” Ferguson said. “He is joining a big club and a team of internationals, so in that respect it’s not an issue at all, but it’s hard to see where there’s going to be a big improvement with a team that’s really very experienced. Maybe [they've] plateaued in a way. How can they accelerate beyond what they’ve done up to now when you see the ages they’ve got?”
The Times article on Fergie’s comments broke down the ages of the comparative teams, to work out how much weight there was to our great manager’s argument.
Although the average age of the Chelsea team sent out by Avram Grant, Scolari’s predecessor, in the Champions League final in Moscow in May was only marginally higher than that of the United side fielded by Ferguson – 28.45 compared to 27.45 – United have a noticeably more youthful set-up. The average age of United’s recognised first-team squad is 25.43 compared with Chelsea’s 27.32. In addition, Chelsea possess nine players aged 30 or over, including Deco, who joined from Barcelona last month, while United have only five players in that category.
After addressing how many older players Chelsea have, it is important to then look at how many young players Chelsea have coming through to replace the ageing ones over the next few seasons.
Other than John Obi Mikel, 21, and Salomon Kalou, 22, Chelsea have no established first-team players under 25, while United boast Anderson, Nani, Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tévez and Darren Fletcher.
It is also important to look at the importance of the clubs ageing players, as well as their youth. If we look at United, our oldest player is Ryan Giggs, aged 34-years-old. However, for the crucial games towards the end of last season, most noteably the European Cup final, the crucial last game of the Premiership season, both semi-final games against Barcelona, as well as the league game against Arsenal, Giggs was not a starting player for any of them.
We can look at another player over 30, captain Gary Neville, who had just one appearance for the first team last night, coming off the bench in the meaningless match against Roma.
Whilst still important parts of our squad, with a lot to offer the first team, our older players aren’t typically crucial to our success. Paul Scholes is arguably the exception to this, who had a fantastic season, as well as scoring the goal that gave us our place in the Champions League final.
If we look at our young players, they proved to be the most effective players in our squad. Our highest goalscorer in the league last season was 23-years-old (Cristiano Ronaldo, with 31). Our second highest goalscorer was the same age (Carlos Tevez, with 14). Our third highest scorer was 22-years-old (Wayne Rooney, with 12). Our player with the most assits was 22-years-old (Rooney, with 13). Our second highest were 23-years-old (Ronaldo and Tevez, both with 7). After them, a 21-year-old (Nani, with 6).
Average age of top goalscorers: 22.6 years old
Average age of top assists: 22.3 years old
In contrast, Chelsea’s most effective players are at the other end of the age scale. Their highest scorer in the league is 30-years-old (Lampard, with 10). Their second highest scorer is 30-years-old (Drogba, with 8). Their third highest scorer is 31-years- old (Ballack, with 7). Some youth is introduced with their assists, with their top assists coming from a 22-year-old (Kalou, with 9). However, after him it’s a 30-year-old (Lampard, with 8), then a 30-year-old (Drogba, with 6) tied with a 26-year-old (Joe Cole, 6).
Average age of top goalscorers: 30.3 years old
Average age of top asssts: 27 years old
United’s younger team proved they were better than Chelsea’s older team last season, in the league and in Europe. Our players are now a year more experienced, with the likes of Nani, Anderson, Rooney, Ronaldo and Tevez growing in confidence as much as anything else with a fantastic season under their belts. Whilst our lads are a year closer to reaching their peak, in contrast, Chelsea’s older players are a year further away from theirs.
There’s still some time before the close of the transfer window, but Scolari’s knowledge of young talent is questionable. He’s spent the past five years in charge of Portugal, with no reason to research potential transfers. He is certaily going to need help if he is going to bring in new players capable of revitalising Chelsea. So far, he’s just added 30-year-old Deco to the payroll.
However, with Scolari flitting from job to job, I wonder whether Scolari has any intention of rebuilding Chelsea, rather coasting it with what they’ve got so far. The Portugal job, lasting 5 years is his longest managerial post in his 26 year long career. After that, his longest stints are at Palmeiras and Gremio for 3 years. After that, he has shared his time between 15 other clubs, all getting a season or two of his time.
Whilst I start every season confident of United’s success, I again agree with what Ferguson has to say here. I think Chelsea will be our closest challengers, but I don’t feel the fear I used to just a few seasons ago.
Despite Michael Essien’s claims to the contary, after whipping out the Essien Calculator (TM), a betting man would put his money on United this season.