Ferguson says Manchester United can only get better
Manchester United's manager Sir Alex Ferguson celebrates after his team's 2-0 win over Stoke in their English Premier League soccer match at the Britannia Stadium, Stoke, England, Sunday April 14, 2013. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
Published Tuesday, April 23, 2013 10:00AM EDT
MANCHESTER, England -- A giant banner draped over the railings of the pub just around the corner from Old Trafford summed up the philosophy of England's new champions this season.
"Not arrogant, just better."
The debate will rage as to just how good this Manchester United side really is, having eked out many of its 27 league wins using grit and determination rather than the style and panache associated with a number of manager Alex Ferguson's former United teams.
The table doesn't lie, though. Sixteen points clear, the title wrapped up with four games to spare and still on course for a record points haul in the Premier League.
And, worryingly for United's rivals, plenty of room for improvement.
"I think we have a nucleus of players that are young enough," Ferguson said, basking in his 13th league championship in 26 seasons as United manager. "We expect them to improve, there is an expectation of that here."
Much has been made of the contribution of Robin van Persie, whose hat trick in the 3-0 win over Aston Villa clinched the title for United at Old Trafford on Monday and put him at the top of the league scoring chart with 24 goals.
Yet, Ferguson has always been eager to talk up his young players, just like he was in the days of David Beckham and Ryan Giggs in the early-to-mid 1990s.
Phil Jones? "I think he might be one of the best players we have ever had, no matter where we play him."
Rafael da Silva? "He's playing with great maturity now ... I think that Rafa will eventually bare comparisons with Gary Neville."
Wayne Rooney can surely only improve next season after a dip in his performance level this year. And even Van Persie is still only 29 and in the prime of his career.
"Jones has won the league title now. (David) De Gea has. Now has Robin van Persie. I think it's important for them to win the title and know how it feels," Ferguson said. "And to know what the challenge is about.
"It's not easy to win the league in our country."
Yet Ferguson is making it look very easy.
The 71-year-old Scottish coach has the same glint in his eye that he had when he took over at United in 1986. The same determination to see off the club's challengers, whether they are neighbours (Manchester City and Liverpool) or from London (Arsenal and Chelsea).
Ferguson's managerial statistics are staggering -- he now has 49 trophies in his coaching career -- but most impressive of all is how he retains the hunger for success, in himself and in his players.
Only Chelsea, with its back-to-back titles in 2005 and '06 under Jose Mourinho, has come close to creating anything approaching a dynasty in England since Ferguson began his title haul in 1993. And that was quickly snuffed out.
"The manager has great desire and a winning mentality," Rooney said. "We all buy into that and want to do well for the club."
Fans were out in force on the concourse around Old Trafford on Tuesday, carrying flags and wearing T-shirts boasting of United's record-extending 20th title.
If it wins its last four matches, Chelsea's record points total of 95 will be eclipsed by Ferguson's class of 2012-13.
There are still some conundrums to solve at United, however.
Despite Ferguson's protestations that Rooney will stay put, the newspapers are sure to be full of speculation regarding a possible transfer to Paris Saint-Germain. Again Rooney was substituted early against Villa -- albeit having set up Van Persie's fantastic second goal with a perfect pass -- and he is no longer the darling of Old Trafford. That tag is now reserved for Van Persie.
Will Rooney, if he stays, be played more regularly in central midfield as he has at times this season? Is there still life in his strike partnership with Van Persie?
Ferguson will also be concerned that his three wingers -- Antonio Valencia, Nani and Ashley Young -- have struggled for form and fitness this season. Shinji Kagawa has impressed in spurts and is highly regarded by Ferguson, but it's not certain where his best position is -- behind the striker or out wide.
And then there is Jones, who many believe is a natural future captain of United and England. Such is his versatility that he has played right back, centre back and central midfield this season. Ferguson readily admits he doesn't know Jones' best position, although he appears to be a ready-made centre back in the mould of John Terry.
"He has got such a fantastic influence in where he plays," Ferguson said. "His reading of situations ... he has an instinct for the game. He has that drive about him and I think, at 21 years of age, he is going to be a phenomenal player."
Then there is the matter of keeping at bay big-spending City, which is likely to be more motivated next season to win its title back and showed in the recent derby win at Old Trafford how good it can be. Ferguson had time to have a pop at City manager Roberto Mancini in the aftermath of the Villa win, saying: "We have been far better than Man City at beating other teams. That's not recognized by him."
For now, though, United has four more wins to chalk up and more records to break, starting at Arsenal on Sunday where Van Persie makes his first return to the club that sold him last off-season.