Sir Alex Ferguson has called on the Football Association and the Premier League to do more to assist England in preparing for major championships. Speaking exclusively to ESPN, the Manchester United manager also challenged Wayne Rooney to improve on his spectacular form of last season, as well as stating his belief that the forthcoming Premier League title race is wide open.
Fergie discusses MLS.
With inquests continuing into England's lacklustre showing at the World Cup, Ferguson lamented the continued absence of a mid-season break from the English football calendar (which would need the approval of the Premier League) as a major contributing factor to the struggles of Fabio Capello's side.
"(The FA) has to give the country the best possible chance of doing well in the World Cup and because of the nature of our game and because of the demands from television to have a programme every week, the idea of a winter break, which I was first talking about 30 years ago in Scotland and have done since I came down to England, nothing has happened about it," Ferguson said. "They must realise that, going into the World Cup, they have handicapped their team."
One of the major reasons for England's struggles in South Africa was the failure of Rooney to replicate the form he showed last season for his club. United's No. 10 found the net 34 times in all competitions but, for the second consecutive time, went goalless at a World Cup.
Despite his disappointing summer, though, Ferguson believes that Rooney's football intelligence will continue to develop, a quality which will see the 24-year-old surpass his 2009-10 achievements in the upcoming campaign as he moves towards totally fulfilling his potential.
Ferguson said: "He had an improvement in terms of his timing and movement in the penalty box and his positioning was improved from the previous season. He got us over 30 goals and if he does that again and adds a little bit to his game then that is what we expect.
"The boy has got an incredible armoury of talent and what we have to do is to wait for that maturity. We also do nurture it and try to advise and coach in a fashion which will improve his game. But the most important thing I think he needs now is maturity and, when he gets that, I think you will see the complete footballer."
United's run-in last season stuttered following an injury to Rooney in a Champions League tie versus Bayern Munich in March. The knock was the latest in a string of setbacks that befell United and Ferguson is hoping the club's treatment room is much quieter during the weeks and months ahead:
"Every year we say the same thing - all the managers say the same thing - 'We should be okay as long as we don't have too many injuries'. It is part and parcel of the game unfortunately that you have to legislate for injuries. Last season, we started off with cover right along the back four in all positions but we ended up with Neville, O'Shea, Vidic, Ferdinand, the two Da Silvas, Brown all injured and most of them at the same time. It put a tremendous strain on us."
To date, the only new arrivals at Old Trafford during the close season have been Chris Smalling and Javier Hernandez and there have been suggestions that Ferguson's squad requires further strengthening. However, the United boss is confident that his squad, as it is currently constituted, is capable of challenging for honours.
"I think we have an outstanding chance because what people are not recognising in Manchester United at the moment is the developing nature of the team, i.e. the younger players that are coming through, who have been at the club for maybe two or three years, are now starting to emerge and will become very good players."
Though he is looking ahead with confidence, missing out on an English record 19th title last season clearly still rankles with Ferguson, who pinpoints incidents in both encounters with the eventual champions as being the key factors in United coming up short.
Ferguson said: "I think the Chelsea games, if you take those in their own right, I think there were two or three decisions against us, refereeing decisions, that killed us in both games. We only needed one point, if we had drawn one of the games we would have won the league. But some years you get that and maybe next year it will be our turn to get breaks and you do need that bit of luck."
Minus their World Cup participants, United are currently in Philadelphia having won their opening pre-season fixture 3-1 against Celtic in Toronto last Friday. Ferguson is pleased with the way his squad is preparing for the new campaign, using techniques that have changed markedly since his early days as a manager.
"It was basically a different type of running, for instance. We used to do 1200m and 800m runs way back when I first came to the club. Now, the most we will run is, maybe, 200m. That is a massive change but the results are quite emphatic in the sense of it is the right direction we are going in. Sports science has changed a lot of things and I think a lot of it has been for the good."
Following matches against Philadelphia Union and Kansas City Wizards on Wednesday and Saturday respectively, United will take on the MLS All-Stars in Houston on July 28. A friendly in Mexico against Chivas Guadalajara follows two days later before Ferguson's men return home to complete their preparations for the Premier League opener, against Newcastle on August 16.
United have twice kicked off seasons, in which they would ultimately win the Premier League, with home games against the Magpies. To repeat that trick, Ferguson's side will have to overcome a list of rivals for the trophy which is arguably longer than it has been for some time.
Indeed, Tottenham's qualification for the Champions League has led some to suggest that the era of the 'Big Four' - United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool - may be over. As he prepares to try and increase his tally of titles as United manager to a dozen, Ferguson is well aware of the growing threat to the established order.
"I can see the progress that Spurs have taken. I can see the progress of Everton and Aston Villa and Manchester City, particularly, who have enormous amounts of money to spend. You can see a far more competitive table at the top. So, all in all, I think you can expect a battle to be in the top four which then increases the competition to win the league."