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Offside, 7 December

Is the epoch of Manchester United's dominance of football about to end?

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

Is the epoch of Manchester United’s dominance of football about to end?

The abject manner of United’s 3-0 surrender to Chelsea on Saturday 1 December, the latest in a series of uncharacteristically lacklustre performances, has shattered the aura of invincibility that has surrounded Old Trafford for the best part of the past decade.

‘60,000 muppets’ taunted the visiting supporters, as if auditioning for a Guy Ritchie film. Sir Alex Ferguson has conceded that the title race is already lost (as if auditioning for the role of Arsene Wenger), saying ‘I don’t think I’ve been in this kind of situation before, not as bad this’.

Yes, of course you write off United at your peril – but there is evidence to suggest that something is more fundamentally rotten in the Borough of Trafford than a temporary loss of form.

First, since the mysterious departure of Jaap Stam the defence has leaked goals. Laurent Blanc, once a world-class centre back, appears to have reached his sell-by date, while Wes Brown is far from the finished product (and has now suffered what could be a long-term knee injury). The decision to drop both Gary Neville and Mikael Silvestre and play Roy Keane at right back for the Chelsea game speaks volumes about Fergie’s lack of faith in his specialised full-backs.

Moreover, a series of inexplicable howlers by goalkeeper Fabien Barthez, which prompted Arsenal fans to chant ‘Barthez is a Gooner’, can hardly have helped instil confidence in the defence. Where once, former goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel commanded his penalty box and bawled out his defenders, now there seems to be no leadership at the back – just a man earmarked by Tesco’s to advertise its butter.

A second problem is that the players have failed to adapt to the new 4-4-1-1 formation, which was designed to accommodate both Juan Sebastian Veron and Paul Scholes. Scholes is clearly unhappy playing as a withdrawn striker while Veron has performed fitfully at best. Of course, the dilemma of how to integrate a world-class player like Veron is one that most football clubs would die for, but, for the moment, his introduction has disrupted a midfield quartet that has functioned like a machine for years.

However, while these on-field problems can be rectified, the persistent rumours of dressing-room discontent are of greater cause for concern. Left-back Mikael Silvestre has criticised Ferguson for selecting Dennis Irwin ahead of him. Paul Scholes, a man with no known personality let alone a rebellious streak, recently incurred Ferguson’s wrath by refusing to play in a Worthington Cup game.

Andy Cole has expressed his dissatisfaction at being allocated a bit-part role this season. Dwight Yorke, the man known to fans as the ‘King of Pornography’, only seems to do his scoring off the pitch these days. Veron is rumoured to be unsettled and Barcelona-bound at the end of the season thanks to a secret get-out clause in his contract. It is even whispered in some quarters that Ferguson, having announced his retirement, no longer commands the respect of players who are emboldened in the knowledge that the manager is leaving.

When Bayern Munich beat United in last season’s Champions League quarter-final, Roy Keane suggested that it was the end of the road for the current squad. The summer signings of Van Nistelrooy and Veron appeared to signal United’s intent to upgrade the squad. But their poor start to the season suggests that a more root-and-branch overhaul may yet be required.

After United were comfortably beaten by Liverpool at Anfield, Ferguson questioned his players’ desire. He is still waiting for an answer. It may sound like heresy, but if Ferguson can no longer control or motivate his men, would it not be better for him to go now rather than at the end of the season?

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