25 years ago when Sir Alex Ferguson took over Manchester United they were a club with great history, but that was all in the past. He brought the club back to successful ways and made history with them over and over again, transforming the club and the team on more than one occasion. But Sir Alex Ferguson didn’t just bring United back to where they belonged but he enhanced their reputation in this country and across the world. He has had money to spend, but more than the players he has brought in, he has installed a gritty winning mentality that can be seen through the many different versions of his United team. I wouldn’t be surprised if United win the big trophies in the next year or two as he is in the process of yet another restructure of the team, and he is more than capable as he has done this a few times before. You will know when the project is complete when they get their new number 7. Some clubs have a number that is synonymous with them, and United’s is the number 7, from Cantona, Best and David Beckham.
To choose a Best XI during Sir Alex Ferguson’s time at United is too difficult as you would have to exclude some great players, so I am going to look at the three different eras for United during their hugely successful Premiership years, and with the different players that have worn the iconic number 7 shirt.
Eric Cantona 1992-1997
It maybe the shortest Reign of the three, but it was highly successful. In five years United won the league 4 times with Blackburn being that blip. Along with that they won 2 FA Cups and three charity shields. Both FA Cups came the same years as the Premiership titles to give United two domestic doubles. Cantona was the heartbeat of the team, but had the likes of Keane, Ince and Hughes along with the exciting young Ryan Giggs. United could also rely on the defence with Peter Schmeichel in goal and Bruce, Pallister and Irwin a constant presence, Paul Parker lost his place to the up-and-coming Gary Neville. Mark Hughes was always a goal threat, and was more prolific than Brian McClair.
United worked extremely hard as a team, and with the two wingers and gritty midfielders along with a strong defence and great goalkeeper, the forward line was the one that needed to be enhanced. Cantona came in and worked brilliantly with the team and with his strike partner Hughes. But Cantona gave the team something different. With his arrogance on the pitch, he gave the team charisma, gave them something special. He was not going to shy away from any tackles, but he was the player capable of making something special happen, he gave United unpredictability, as neither the players, manager of fans new what he was going to do next, and that gave them an advantage over other teams. United were always a tough team under Ferguson, but what Cantona had was that toughness, but beauty to go with it, and that gave United the edge over the other Premiership teams at the time. At that time, a foreign player of his calibre, with that skill, would have played in the Italian or Spanish league, he was the beginning of a new era, not just for United, but for the whole Premiership.
The transfer of Cantona to United still is raw in the memory to many Leeds fans that can remember it, but is probably going to go down at the best bit of business Sir Alex Ferguson ever did at United with the transfer fee being £1.2 million, Cantona showed hi worth be many times that. When you compare the value of that transfer to that of Stuart Ripley to Blackburn Rovers from Middlesbrough for £1.3million, Alan Shearer to Blackburn Rovers for an English record fee of £3.5million and Robert Fleck signing for Chelsea for a club record £2.1million for Norwich City in the same season, it was a real steal!
During Cantona’s Era the youth of Manchester United was coming through with the likes of Giggs and Sharpe to begin with and then Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, and David Beckham who would spearhead the new era of Manchester United.
Premier League (4): 1992–93, 1993–94, 1995–96, 1996–97
FA Cup (2): 1993–94, 1995–96
Charity Shield (3): 1993, 1994, 1996
David Beckham 1997 – 2003
This was the most successful period of time for Manchester United, with one domestic double and the treble including that famous win over Bayern Munich in the Champions League. Some of the players that were birthed during the Cantona era really grew into their own during this time, with Paul Scholes and David Beckham being the two real stand outs players. Gary Neville and David Beckham had a great partnership down the right hand side, and Keane and Scholes worked brilliantly in the centre of the park.
Scholes was a much more technical player but was not a push over by any means, and with Keane next to him, United’s midfield was a very strong one and with Giggs on the left you had a tricky dribbler who could pass and on the right you had a player in Beckham that could deliver a pin-point cross or pass to anywhere on the pitch.
Andy Cole and Ole Gunnar Solskjær were at the club from the previous season, with Teddy Sheringham joining at the beginning of the 2003-2004 season and Dwight Yorke joined the season after that. There was a great mix of players that had come through the ranks and players that were brought in, but there were some poor signings, Blomqvist and Jordi Cruyff for instance, but they acted as good squad players nonetheless.
United as a team were just that, united. And that was from the back all the way to the front. Schmeichel was still in goal and still on top form. The central partnership was Ronny Johnsen and Jaap Stam, and they formed a formidable partnership with Henning Berg and David May fitting it well when needed. Dennis Irwin was also still ever present but as the years went on a replacement was needed and that came in the form of Frenchman Michaël Silvestre. When Stam left, Laurent Blanc came in, but that was always going to be a stop gap until Ferguson could bring in the right player, and he found that in the form of Rio Ferdinand.
The strike partnership was one of the best the premiership has ever seen. It always seemed that if one didn’t score then the other did. But Ferguson had two great back-up plans, because if Yorke and Cole were not on form, he could rely on Sheringham and Solskjær to score. The amount of goals that Solskjær managed to score from the bench is remarkable, and if it were not for those two players United would never have won that Champions League Trophy. If Solskjær had played for another club as their main striker, and stayed free of injury there is not telling how many goals he could have scored.
The last few years at United saw the beginning of a new era, one with the Dutch goal scoring machine Ruud Van Nistelrooy and the hit-and-miss Juan Sebastián Verón. It also saw the search for a new goalkeeper start when Schmeichel moved on. This was a troubling time for United, and one Sir Alex Ferguson regrets don’t dealing with by signing Van der Sar sooner, as Barthez, Taibi and Bosnich never worked out.
Premier League (6): 1995–96, 1996–97, 1998–99, 1999–2000, 2000–01, 2002–03
FA Cup (2): 1995–96, 1998–99
UEFA Champions League (1): 1998–99
Intercontinental Cup (1): 1999
FA Community Shield (4): 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997
Cristiano Ronaldo 2003-2009
During this time, United still won trophies just not as many league titles as they would have liked, but did get another Champions League and their first Club World Cup. Like David Beckham’s era, with it spanning six years, it took time to create a new team. Ferdinand had signed the previous season and van Nistelrooy the season before that and as the years went on new faces were added, some good and some bad, Djemba-Djemba, Bellion and Kleberson. But the ones that stand out, Vidic, Evra, Ji-Sung Park, Van der Sar and undoubtedly Wayne Rooney. One of the most troubling transfers for Ferguson was the one of John Obi Mikel. That is a transfer that he had hoped would fill a gap that was in the centre of midfield, and one honestly I still don’t think has been filled properly. Hargreaves was brought in as the defensive midfielder Mikel was going to be, and more attacking players were brought in. Nani and Anderson from Sporting and Porto while Carlos Tevez joined the club from West Ham.
Those 6 years can be split into two different 3 year gaps. One with van Nistelrooy and one without. Ronaldo didn’t see his best spell until the Dutch goal scorer had moved on, but for the best XI for this time would have van Nistelrooy in the team and not Tevez who had two seasons with the club. Alan Smith joined the club and was known as a striker, but Ferguson saw qualities of a midfielder in the vein of Roy Keane, but that never really worked out.
The midfield was a real trouble here as Cristiano Ronaldo featured on both wings, and so Giggs started to play in a more central role in games. Scholes was still featuring, and there was Hargreaves, when not injured, and Anderson and Nani. As time went on Cristiano Ronaldo started to play a more advanced role and when he started scoring he was playing as a striker more than a winger or midfielder. This saw Nani on the wing with Giggs, or Ji-Sung Park.
If Sir Alex Ferguson had the squad of players to choose from while Cristiano Ronaldo was wearing the number 7 shirt, I don’t think he would have gone with a 4-4-2 but more of a 4-3-3 with Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo behind van Nistelrooy with Hargreaves, Scholes and Giggs in midfield. Rooney and Ronaldo would act an attacking midfielder and winger, with Rooney dropping a lot deeper to gather the ball or win it back, with Ronaldo and van Nistelrooy the main outlets. Both of their roles would be a free one, switching between the flanks with Giggs still operating down the left with Rooney or Ronaldo on the right with the other in an advanced position and Hargreaves and Scholes in midfield.
Premier League (3): 2006–07, 2007–08, 2008–09
FA Cup (1): 2003–04
League Cup (2): 2005–06, 2008–09
FA Community Shield (1): 2007
UEFA Champions League (1): 2007–08
FIFA Club World Cup (1): 2008
And The Winner Is…
Out of those three eras if I had to choose one that could challenge today, for the one that I think is the strongest and if it faced one of the others, then the Beckham era for me is the most dangerous. From the midfield, the attack and the defence, they would be the hardest to break down. The attack trio of the Ronaldo era would be the most tricky, but the midfield would be vulnerable. The Cantona era, the midfield is strong, but by the Beckham era, Giggs was at his peak and Scholes had grown and Keane was still as strong and combative as ever.
Cantona’s era had a strong defence with Pallister and Bruce having a great partnership and honestly the partnership was probably a better one than Stam and Johnsen, but Stam was so dominant, so for me that would be just as strong as Bruce and Pallister. Overall though, the strength of the Beckham era along with the defence and midfield, is that strike force. to have Yorke and Cole and then Sheringham and Solskjær as back up, it is just far too strong. The Cristiano Ronaldo era may have Forlan, Saha and Tevez as a back up, but if I had to choose out of those it is no contest, Sheringham and Solskjær hands down.
The New Era
Right now I wouldn’t say that they have an iconic No.7. They may have an iconic player wearing the number, but for what the number means to the team, maybe it should be Rooney that is wearing it, as the No.7 is to be worn by the player that is going to lead the team, not as a captain, but as a conductor of play. By that description that would be Rooney. In some ways he is similar to Cantona, but were Cantona had aggression, he also had calmness, and that is something that Rooney lacks.
Ferguson at the moment is working on his new era, and that shows that he is not looking to retire anytime soon, Ferguson has bought young players with the likes of Jones and Smalling and is looking to bring through some youth players such as Cleverly and Welbeck,
Some players that have been at the club now haven’t worked out, Anderson being one point, but Nani is really growing into his own now and with Young on the other wing and Rooney and Hernandez up front, Ferguson needs to focus on the midfield. It is clear that this is United;s biggest problem. Jones and Smalling in the long run are going to replace Vidic and Ferdinand, and Ferguson is hoping that Cleverly will step up for a midfield role, but compared to Chelsea and City their midfield is a long way off. January will be an interesting time and the next summer transfer window too, but no doubt there will be some activity and i wouldn’t be surprised if next year there will be a new No.7 at the club