It's the end of an era. Sir Alex Ferguson has left the beautiful game. Football as we know it will no longer be the same without arguably the greatest manager to ever grace the game. Whilst fans the world over reminisce about Eric Cantona, the 1999 treble and the great many trophies Ferguson's teams strolled to over the years, there are more pressing matters at hand. Who is going to replace him in charge of the biggest club in English football, and more importantly, how are they going to follow such an act up?
Ferguson has been in charge at Old Trafford for as long as some of us can remember, and whether it is David Moyes, Jose Mourinho or even Ryan Giggs that succeeds him, they will have a tough job on their hands to go anywhere near emulating him. Interestingly, though, Ferguson might just have decided that this title-winning side is in sufficiently fit state for someone else to take the reins. Back in the 2001/02 season, when the Scot flirted with the idea of retirement, he eventually decided to stay on for a minimum of three more years. At the time, United were top of the league, but only just. They went on to be usurped by both Arsenal and Liverpool, eventually finishing third in the table. Of course Ferguson would not have foreseen such a collapse in form, but he might not have deemed his squad good enough to be left in the hands of another manager.
He stayed on, steadied the ship and won the title the very next season. United went on to grapple at the top of the Premier League over the next decade with the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and now Manchester City, and while this season's title win might not be the most hard-earned of his reign, the difference is that he has built a squad ready to grow together and go on to bigger and better things. Just like his treble winners of '99, this squad has an English core to it, and the trio of Phil Jones, Michael Carrick and Wayne Rooney could make up the spine of the team for years to come.
Add to the mix the likes of Tom Cleverley, Chris Smalling and Danny Welbeck and you have six players that could make up the core of the future of English football. What's more, Fergie has blended fresh legs and experience brilliantly, with Rio Ferdinand, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes set to hand over their spots soon enough, and players like Nemanja Vidic, Robin van Persie and Patrice Evra bridging the gap nicely. 24 year-old Shinji Kagawa and 22 year-old David De Gea have come in to add yet more quality to the squad, but arguably more importantly, youth as well.
The consequence of Ferguson's work is that this is a younger squad than in recent years. As you can see from the graph (depicting average age of United's starting lineups in Premier League games over the past 4 seasons) there has been a small decline in average age. That is, even as time has gone on and the players have got older, there is a general trend of decreasing age amongst Fergie's teams. The youngest team he fielded - marked by the lowest trough on the chart - in that time were in the respective 3-0 and 8-2 wins over Tottenham and Arsenal at the beginning of last season. The same team started both games. De Gea was in goal, Jones and Smalling in defence, Cleverley in midfield and Welbeck partnered Rooney up front. Each game might have been against weakened opposition, but the sheer dominance enjoyed by such a young team signalled the start of something special. In those two games alone, United had an incredible 53 attempts at goal.
Another of Ferguson's young teams won the league back in 1996, in the process disproving Alan Hansen's assertion that "you can't win anything with kids". Last season, however, United eventually surrendered their lead to rivals City, inexperience getting the better of the youthful team. With a handful of signings - in the meantime still decreasing the average age of his starting XIs - he turned his runners-up into champions.
What is so apparent about this United team is their versatility. Phil Jones, recently touted having the potential to be one of Old Trafford's greatest ever players, has played as a central midfielder, defensive midfielder, centre-back and right-back this season. In every position he seems perfectly comfortable, including a disciplined performance that was beyond his years in shackling Cristiano Ronaldo at the Bernabeu. Wayne Rooney has played in attacking positions on the right, left, and centrally this term, whilst also playing twice in a defensive midfield role. Usually a hot-headed player, Rooney performed in a controlled and experienced manner that few would have expected him able to do. There is little doubting that Ferguson's tutelage has been key to Rooney's development, and his early transition to a midfielder may well be something that sticks long after Ferguson's departure.
Those players' willingness to play all over the pitch has meant Ferguson can chop and change between formations on a regular basis. In fact, only relegation battlers Aston Villa (10) and QPR (7) have used more formations this season than United, the former two of which have obviously fared rather worse than United. For example, with his wingers out of form, Ferguson reverted to a midfield diamond rarely seen in English football these days. They pulled it off effectively though, with Javier Hernandez another young squad player to enjoy a bountiful run in the team.
Manchester United will undoubtedly be worse off without Sir Alex Ferguson. However, he has timed his departure just about as well as he could have, with the squad he is leaving behind in good stead for a new manager to take charge. Youth and experience are combining well, there are prospects for the future and there is a winning mentality amongst those players. Whoever comes in is well set to extend the reign of dominance that Alex Ferguson enjoyed at Manchester Untied.