Manchester United's gianthood in the Football League is renowned whether you're fascinated by the sport or unlettered in the offside rule. 1990/91 was the last time a Sir Alex Ferguson team finished outside of the top three. Two decades of dominance include two Champions League titles, eleven League titles, seven Cup and four League Cup wins.
In an era where tactics can be described and analysed by using graphs and statistics, but where managers are still steretoyped as Wengerian romantics or Allardycian wrestlers, Sir Alex Ferguson's flexibility is undertalked. His success can be loosely divided into three tactical epochs: first came the support-striker, Eric Cantona, as the centre of the universe, then the two bags of four (the glory midfield) where British width shone, and later and now, the ball-winner and the five-a-side team in front, topped by a talisman. In each system, there existed a flat back four. Even Dennis Irwin and Patrice Evra, for all their productivity up the pitch, were faithful to shape and line. Now this defence is neither a long term nor a work-in-progress unit. It consists of raw (the Da Silva brothers) and retiring (Neville) full backs, unfit or out-of-sort centrebacks (Ferdinand / Vidic / Evans / Brown) and, sometimes, central midfielders filling in there. Selling, voluntarily or not, the now most valuable centre back in world football - the 23-year old Gerard Pique - is worth crying over. Further up the pitch, the midfield is a non-veteran, world class talent short of being taken seriously alongside Barca, Inter, Bayern, Real and, at least on paper, four Premiership rivals. For this reason, the new season will be yet another test of Ferguson's resolve who, perhaps worryingly, is turning sixty-nine in December. It would be charitable to describe the near future of boardroom, players and customers as precarious.
If Ferguson inspires reverence and confidence in his squad, the same can be said of one of the modern game’s great goalkeepers, Edwin Van der Sar. The Dutch stopper turns forty next month. He's one trivial injury or serious mistake from his last game. In the small margins of a thirty-eight game campaign, in-goal is where Manchester United have been evidently stronger than their title rivals in recent seasons. Certainly since Chelsea’s Petr Cech suffered that horrific head injury, and the grossly underrated sweeper Jens Lehmann was released by Arsenal. In midfield, Scholes and Giggs, still match winners, must wane. Carrick's confidence comes and goes but having not found a replacement for Paul Scholes’s playmakership, the veteran is still the only trusted registra in the big games: meticulous on the ball, his work of leathering the long pass and watercolouring the short lends to Pirlo, the new Spaniards, or for want of a home-grown analogy, well, perhaps only a blushing Tom Huddlestone is beginning to show signs. Here is where the imagination of competitors like Fabregas, Denilson, Modric, Van der Vaart and Huddlestone could punish United over the distance of the fixture list. It's not just the killer ball, but the one into space to begin an attack, which matters. This is where Chelsea have excelled, which is no surprise considering Carlo Ancelotti was himself the pivot of Arrigo Sacchi's AC Milan: Gli Immortali.
There is a pattern emerging here. Like a racing car preparing to pit stop, those most intrigued - or most involved emotionally - are wondering when, even if it feels like never. United are dependant on several playing and non-playing staff who can no longer be considered as anything other than short term assets. Less of a serious concern, but no less of an encumbering bereavement, is captain Gary Neville, the outstanding right-sided defender in England since the dissolution of the half back and, later, the wing back. But in 2010 he finds his career in full circle; just a brave boy amongst men, slow and small and ordinary, Neville would be considered a stultification were it not for his infectious courage. Might then Rafael learn to concentrate in a flat back four and avoid season-suicidal mistakes such as his red-card foul in April against Bayern? Will Wes Brown be healthy? Can John O’Shea perform for a whole season in one position? Having to ask a total of three questions - this before Ferdinand’s fitness, Evra’s recovery from disgrace, Vidic’s form and Jonny Evans’s naivety - is petrifying for the United fan. Manchester United are, as with any serious team, most vulnerable when unfamiliarity disharmonizes the defence. Losing Bruce & Pallister and later Stam & Johnsen took time and pushed trophies away. So too did the varying absences of Van der Sar, Ferdinand and Vidic last season.
Then there’s Michael Owen, a player who, if not on legs, is at least running on a pair of reputations - the crocked has-been or the worldly goalscorer. Neither of these are really truths: Owen has never reached twenty league goals in a season and, thirty years old, his patriotic off-the-last-shoulder act is a modern defender’s dream. In each twenty-five man squad, shoulders are stronger, feet are faster, and players who are weak as well as unimaginative stand little chance. In his masterpiece of football scholarship, Inverting The Pyramid, Jonathan Wilson argues - to my judgement, correctly - that the game played at the highest level has left behind this one-dimensional species of striker. The book has been available for two years and three Premierships seasons, in which time, and for much longer, Michael Owen has neither proved a no.10 nor a no.7 worthy of a world famous football club.
It is because of the arrogance of the new Chelsea idolaters, and also the hegemony of articles and TV shows where hucksters pat one another on the back for announcing cliches as dumb as The Makelele Role: It was Makelele who invented that role, sitting in front of the back four, winning the ball, that the professional defensive midfielder has been misunderstood in recent years, or maybe forever on these shores. Darren Fletcher possesses the stamina, medals and whiny guile that deserve comparison with Makelele but are in truth closer to a more disciplined but less gifted Souness or McKay. Working in their favour in the final third (better put for Manchester United as the counter-attacking length of the pitch) Ferguson is blessed by the improvisational genius of Nani, a player capable of winning any match on the planet on his day. Moving on, it would be unfair to curtail praise for Park and Valencia to work rate: Valencia rivals Walcott and Lennon for any of talent, directness or end-product, and as we saw in Group B at the World Cup, when space and the ball and the South Korean skipper are at one, spectators should get up off their seats.
Wayne Rooney also plays for Manchester United. It may be said that the club's season - future even - depends on his fitness and goal return.
For those whose only religious experiences are located in football, then the true story of Ferguson and his disciples (or apostles or sheep) is certainly one of the more sickeningly addictive. Here are logical, determined footballers who will stand, move and do exactly where and what a logical and determined manager demands of them. Leading this pack are old or damaged legs for whom the bell is readying to toll. How long can this keep on? It’s suspicion and not superstition that Old Trafford Saturdays are becoming threatened by. The chapter is approaching its final paragraph - a time when nervous officials and dugout barbarism will matter no more. It will take considerable fortune - in both senses of the word - to win that dreamy twentieth league title.
Predicted finish: 4th - a habit of twenty years broken, but who is to say Rooney won't score United back to major trophies?
Best signing: Javier Hernandez - 22, £6-8 million wisely paid for before a World Cup where he showed tremendous promise and now boasts an international record of ten goals in eighteen games
Youtubed / Football Manager wonderkid: Federico Macheda is still only nineteen years of age. Hernandez has to adapt, Berbatov has to be unreliable and Owen is obsolete. The Italian shouldn't be forgotten
Flop: Neil Young once wrote "It's better to burn out than to fade away". I see Van der Sar fading away
Player of the Season: The BBC and Sky will make annual love to Ryan Giggs in the Spring, but Darren Fletcher in an increasingly dull United team is a more just proposition