With Edwin van der Sar now retired, Paul Scholes possibly following suit and Ryan Giggs not far behind, Ferguson has lost or is about to lose three of his old heads, the players that set the tone for the rest of the squad. David de Gea may join and fill van der Sar’s gloves on the field but replacing the Dutchman’s experience is another matter. Scholes and Giggs, meanwhile, a more than footballers to Manchester United – much like Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta to the new champions of Europe, Scholes and Giggs are symbols of the club’s football values. Coming through the youth system to conquer the league and the continent as Scholes and Giggs did, with their now-retired cohorts, they represent an era in Manchester United’s history that is drawing to an end, and will finally be over when the last of the early ‘90s graduates hangs up their boots.
Having already built three or four United teams, Ferguson is on the verge of building another, practically forced into doing so by the departure of van der Sar and the age of Scholes and Giggs. Michael Owen could also leave this summer, while Owen Hargreaves definitely will, but their losses should not impact too greatly. The absence of DimitarBerbatov from the Champions League final squad – and the Bulgarian reportedly leaving the ground rather than watch the match with his teammates – would suggest the striker will be available in the summer, despite scoring 22 goals last season. Rio Ferdinand, now 32, is also in the winter of his years, although his performance at Wembley suggests the former England captain has plenty to give yet, and his long-term replacement is already at the club in the shape of Chris Smalling. Berbatov and Ferdinand have been as important to United as Scholes, Giggs and van der Sar, and the loss of all five over the next year or two would represent a major shift in United’s squad.
Van der Sar’s replacement appears imminent, and Ferdinand’s is already present, but Giggs, Scholes and Berbatov do not seem to have direct understudies. Danny Welbeck is a striker with a bright future and could prove useful in coming years but will need time to show if he can step into Berbatov’s shoes. Giggs and Scholes, however, will be much harder to replace. With Chelsea almost certain to spend this summer, with a new manager always likely to bring in new players and imprint his own stamp on the squad, and Manchester City forever capable of breaking the bank to get the player they want, United will face a more competitive future without some of the stars that got to Wembley. Despite being second best to the fabulous Barcelona, United were head and shoulders above the Premier League last season, but staying there will require the emergence of some new faces.