Opinion: Changing of the guard

Wayne Rooney, Michael Carrick and Chris Smalling

After 29 Years, Ryan Giggs has left Manchester United heralding the end of the Class of ’92 era. Giggs’ departure represents a new beginning for him but only the latest chapter in the ongoing regeneration of Manchester United. The process which began with the seismic retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson has gone on to create the almost unrecognisable Manchester United of 2016. How much longer can the old guard continue as the club searches for a new identity?  More importantly, which of the young pretenders will step up to fill the void and lead the team into a new era?

Old Guard: Michael Carrick

By far the most experienced Premier League player left at Old Trafford, Michael Carrick has enjoyed a 10-year career in the red of United, spanning 291 appearances. With five Premier League winner’s medals and one UEFA Champions League success, his contribution has far exceeded what many who derided his signing expected.  Yet the upcoming season seems likely to be his last at the Theatre of dreams as age begins to take its toll. His experience has been and will continue to be invaluable to the youth coming through the ranks at the club but he is unlikely to be able to keep pace with the intensity of modern midfield players for much longer.

Old Guard: Wayne Rooney

Wayne Rooney may have extended his career at the top of the game by making the choice to drop into midfield. He remains an asset to United both on and off the pitch with his commercial pull as an English star. Yet he has looked off the pace more often than not in the past two seasons. Another disappointing summer tournament, albeit one where he performed better than usual, may lead to his retirement from international football.  This could yet extend his club career even further but it is hard to see Rooney remaining the “main man” at a club the size of United much longer. Like Carrick, his experience of the legendary winning mentality will prove useful to the younger members of the squad. But his best years are behind him and Mourinho will be looking for his own captain to take the team forward.

Old Guard: Chris Smalling

Smalling is one of the only remnants of the Ferguson era whose reputation has actually enhanced since the Scot departed. He has established himself as a mainstay of the back four and his experience of both the success of the Ferguson era and the difficulties that followed put him in a unique position. The best days of his career could yet be in front of him and it would be a surprise if Mourinho moved him on. He will be hugely influential on new signing Eric Bailly who has no Premier League experience. With many years of at the top of the game ahead of him, Smalling should remain as a connection to the glory years and one of the most experienced members of the new-look United. As Rooney and Carrick retire or move on, Smalling looks the safest bet for both Club and Country as the next team captain.

Young Pretender: Luke Shaw

Luke Shaw looked set to have a breakthrough season until it was cruelly cut short by a horrific injury. In those early days of last season, his effectiveness both in defence and attack brought a unique drive and width to United as well as a burgeoning partnership with Memphis Depay. His recovery from injury will be like a new signing to Mourinho. United and England will both hope he can regain the form that made his long layoff so disappointing. Should he recover as expected, he should continue to make the left back position his own for years to come following in the illustrious footsteps of Patrice Evra.

Young Pretender: Jesse Lingard

Jesse Lingard worked hard to break through into the first team last season and enhanced his reputation with solid, if not exceptional performances. He showed his class and that he could be a player for the big occasion by scoring the winning goal in the FA Cup final. He may find chances in the team harder to come by next season, with the signing of Henrikh Mkhitaryan from Borussia Dortmund.  He will have to work hard to continue his development for both club and country. However, he looks like a player who is up to the challenge as shown by the way he often kept the more experienced Juan Mata out of the lineup last season. He may have to show a little more quality to cement his place as a regular but he also maintains a tradition of players who have graduated from the academy and understand the unique demands of the club.

Young Pretender: Marcus Rashford

Marcus Rashford just might be the most exciting young player in the Premier League today. After a fairy tale second half of the season, his future for club and country looks bright. His tale is not that dissimilar to that of Giggs himself, also making his name as an academy graduate. His second season will go a long way to indicating the trajectory of his career as he encounters defences more prepared to deal with his talents. Yet if he continues his rise we may be seeing the beginning of a long and fruitful career at the pinnacle of the United attack. His position will face competition, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic close at hand, but his pace and skill offer something few in the current squad can match. His development will likely benefit rather than stall thanks to the vast experience of Zlatan beside him.

The Future

As all these young prospects are English players and represent commercial potential as well as a footballing. English players are key to the financial success of a Premier League club as an international concern. Aside from commercial benefits, Ferguson always built his most successful squads around the best young British talent he could find. With these three as the spine of the future United squad, Mourinho and England may have a lot to look forward to. It is sad to see the passing of the old guard and it will not sit well with many United fans to see Giggs move on especially. Yet it is likely that the shadow of the Ferguson era and its monumental success is proving more of a burden than an inspiration to the current crop of players. Giggs and those like him will be missed, but a new era of success will arise from the new players who can step up in their stead. Perhaps then, Ferguson can sit happily in the stands to watch his team. With the cameras trained on the stars of tomorrow rather than the giants of history.

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