It is now almost eight years since Sir Alex Ferguson retired at the end of 2012/13 season, but the great Scot continues to cast a shadow over his former club. That’s partly down to the fact that United have not lifted the Premier League title since he left, but also because Ferguson had such an overwhelming influence over the club. It leads fans to constantly assess contemporary sides in the context of Ferguson’s teams. People talk about the United way of playing, for example, but they really mean the Ferguson way.
Nevertheless, current boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has arguably seen the greatest period of change at Old Trafford. Of every manager since Ferguson, Solskjaer is most likely to look at his team and see it in his own image; the only current players to have played under Ferguson are David De Gea and the little-used Phil Jones.
But who have been the best players during United’s topsy-turvy time since Ferguson left? It’s a difficult question to answer given the state of flux the club has been in. But we are going to attempt to answer below. You should note that we have added some criteria for our selections. Players should not have played under Ferguson, so no De Gea, and must have played over 50 games for the club, so no Zlatan Ibrahimovic. We think this quintet has been best during United’s rebuilding years:
1. Bruno Fernandes
The Portuguese maestro has been with United just over a year, and he is already being cited as the best signing since Eric Cantona. That’s high praise indeed. But Fernandes has changed United from also-rans to title contenders: they are currently second-favourites to win the Premier League this season. There is still some work to be done (Man City will likely win the title) before he can be compared to Cantona, but his impact has been phenomenal. He has played the fewest games (57) of any player on this list, but his influence has been greater in that short period of time. He is now regarded as one of the best midfielders in the world, and that claim is not farfetched.
2. Marcus Rashford
Probably the most-liked footballer in England given his recent charity work. On the field, Rashford has been equally phenomenal and frustrating. He has made over 250 appearances for the club since bursting onto the scene as a precociously-talented 18-year-old in 2016, but you still get the sense that he has not yet realised his potential. Part of that is due to being used out of position, notably on the right of attack. When in form and playing as a left-sided attacker, he can be devastating. He has come up with some huge goals when the pressure is on. A clutch player, Americans would call him.
3. Romelu Lukaku
This is perhaps a controversial selection, especially given that United fans did now warm to Lukaku. But the Belgian scored 27 goals in his first season at United. And while he wasn’t as prolific the next season, he still did fine. The problem with Lukaku wasn’t the player, but the system. While he would score, his style of play never gelled with the rest of the team. His move to Inter Milan has further enhanced his reputation as one of the world’s best strikers. In the case of his two years at United, it was a case of the right player, wrong team.
4. Juan Mata
Mr Dependable. Another player who for whom even fans of United’s bitter rivals will have a soft spot. The diminutive Spaniard, like Lukaku, has arguably suffered from not being suited to United’s high-octane counterattacks, particularly as he has got older. But he has been a fine servant since joining the club half-way through the 2013-14 season. Mata has been used sparingly by Solskjaer but was a key player under Louis Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho.
5. Scott McTominay
We pondered giving this spot to United’s captain, Harry Maguire. But Scott McTominay gets the nod because we have seen him blossom during his time at Manchester United. The Scott is proving to be a lynchpin of a team that is growing in confidence and stature. Always tenacious, he has added goals to his game from central midfield. McTominay is starting to resemble another Scotsman, Darren Fletcher, who was perhaps the most underrated player of Ferguson’s later years at the club. He has a chance to make the centre-midfield position his own, and that’s the position that has been dogging United ever since Ferguson retired.