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Aug 13, 2009

United turn to youth in defence of title

Perhaps the most famous, and certainly the most inaccurate, critique of Manchester United in Sir Alex Ferguson's reign came from Alan Hansen. "You can't win anything with kids," he said in 1995. Within nine months, those self-same kids had done the double. Ferguson's faith in youth has rarely been questioned since. It may become more significant, however: as he gets older, his squad, and the core of his side, gets younger. "We have some terrific young players who are breaking into our side," he said last week. Without even mentioning the Serbian duo of Zoran Tosic and Adem Ljajic, he cited 11 of them: the summer signings Antonio Valencia and Gabriel Obertan, and Mame Biram Diouf, who will link up with United in January, plus Federico Macheda, Danny Welbeck, Darron Gibson, Jonny Evans, Nani, Anderson, Fabio and Rafael da Silva. Nor were Craig Cathcart, Richie de Laet and Tom Cleverley, all of whom acquitted themselves commendably in pre-season, included in that lengthy list.

"To balance that," Ferguson continued. "We have Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand and Edwin van der Sar, who give us experience and stability." The sector of the squad that went unmentioned, however, is arguably the most important: the group at the optimum age for a footballer.

And here there could be cause for concern. Not in the numbers - if we use an age somewhere between 25 and 32 as a definition of a player's peak - because United have 13 footballers who belong in that category, but in a closer examination of them.

Two are goalkeepers, who traditionally peak later. Ben Foster is 26, but with barely 100 career games, he can be described as inexperienced. Tomasz Kuszczak has spent much of his career on various benches. For differing reasons, Michael Owen may no longer qualify. Though 29, his finest form came between 1998 and 2002; while Ferguson feels his newest striker has not entered a decline, others have to be convinced.

Then there is the lesser-spotted Owen: Hargreaves, for whom Ferguson will not even suggest a comeback date. He is a prisoner of injuries and so, it seems, is the eternally unfortunate Wes Brown, a man as likely to make seven starts in a season, as he did last year, as 48, which he managed the previous campaign. In addition, there are signs that Ferdinand is increasingly injury prone, with groin and back problems recurring, and that, as they in the second half of last season, his appearances may have to be rationed.

The remaining seven are Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic, John O'Shea, Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick, Ji-sung Park and Dimitar Berbatov. They present few long-term fitness concerns, include two of United's three world-class defenders and the probable first-choice central midfield partnership.

The Bulgarian's ability is undoubted, but his suitability for United is an issue after a troubled first season. On the flanks, and perhaps in the margins, Park and O'Shea provide a guarantee of industry, though not inspiration. Worthy servants as they are, some would be more satisfied if both were found among the replacements more often than they are seen in the team.

A seven- or eight-year window at the centre of their careers should produce seasoned players with an understanding of their game, using their experience and ability to maximum effect before their physical powers wane. Yet there are reasons to believe they will only make up a minority of the Manchester United team, outnumbered by the emerging and the elderly.

Admittedly, though still only 23, Wayne Rooney can be added to that list; after more than 350 appearances for clubs and country, he should be approaching the height of powers. So, however, should the two who got away: Carlos Tevez is 25 while Cristiano Ronaldo reaches that milestone in February.

And the title race could provide a contrast. There is every chance that Arsenal, given Arsene Wenger's focus on the future, will be younger than United. It suggests both clubs have an auspicious future. In the short term, however, does it bode badly for United? It is probable that as many as 10 of the first-choice Chelsea and Liverpool sides are in the 25-32 bracket, meaning they should be operating at their peak while Ferguson's men are trying to improve. In addition, Mark Hughes has put an accent on experience at Manchester City, opting to sign proven players.

In one of last season's most perceptive predictions, Ferguson argued Chelsea to challenge. Identifying them as the major threat to United this season may represent a volte face, especially as many of Carlo Ancelotti's players are at the upper end of the ideal age spectrum.

But there may be more creaking bodies among the senior players at Old Trafford. With Van der Sar, Neville, Giggs and Scholes entering the evening of the playing days and the creaking bodies some his senior players possess forcing him to look more and more to youth, Sir Alex Ferguson may need to prove once again that you can win everything with kids.

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