The win on Wednesday, I believe, hints at what is really missing from Manchester United – the obvious answer is and was always going to be Sir Alex Ferguson but I think from a performance like that there may be another clue as to what the Premier League champions have been missing and it’s not necessarily the old boss.
Ryan Giggs played for 95 minutes on Wednesday – the 40-year-old played in central midfield and provided exactly the kind of creativity, experience and tactical awareness United have lacked all season long. The Welsh veteran has started just six games in the Premier League this term and has played a full 90 minutes just once against Everton.
I’m not suggesting United are missing Ryan Giggs but rather they miss the experience and quality as well as the leadership of the old guard that was the staple of the Ferguson era – I think Paul Scholes’ retirement at the end of last term could be every bit as detrimental as Ferguson’s departure.
United won the title in such a comfortable fashion and between them, Giggs and Scholes featured on 38 occasions in the league, incidentally the total number of games of the Premier League season. Either one of them played in every game and United were crowned champions.
United brought in Juan Mata in January to add creativity they desperately lacked in the middle of the park but the Spaniard was not on the pitch on Wednesday as he was cup-tied. Summer signing Marouane Fellaini came on in the 91st minute and played no real part in the game – if you look at the average age of the team that started against the Greeks, it was 28.7 years. In midfield, the average age was 33.3 years.
The average age of Sir Alex Ferguson’s treble winning team, the starting XI for the Champions League final against Bayern Munich was 27.8 years – whilst Alan Hansen’s infamous line ‘you can’t win anything with kids’ was proven wrong in the 1995/96 season that the ‘kids’ went on to to win Premier League and FA Cup double, that team actually didn’t consist of ‘kids’.
Peter Schmeichel, Denis Irwin, Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister, Eric Cantona, Brian McClair, David May, and Roy Keane were all immensely experienced players and the ‘kids’ like David Bekcham, Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt, Gary and Phil Neville, and Paul Scholes were the direct beneficiaries of the wisdom, experience and knowledge their seniors imparted.
In the Champions League especially, the experience of players not only of that age but of that level of quality and consistency of winning titles is crucial. Looking at the current Premier League leaders even, Chelsea’s midfield axis of Ramires, Frank Lampard and Oscar on Tuesday against Galatasaray had an average age of 27.6 years. Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard on Sunday calls to mind the same effect – experience will win you games and this season, especially with the inexperience in terms of titles of the manager David Moyes, having a player like Ryan Giggs marshalling the midfield can make a huge impact.