As a Manchester United follower of some 15 years, I have learnt to regard the views of Sir Alex Ferguson as sacrosanct. After all, what reason has there been to doubt the Scot? His great teams of 1996, 1999, 2003 and 2007 have provided the peaks of my adolescence; all United fans of my generation have been spoilt with endless silverware. However, the manager’s comments in the Friday press conference previewing the 1-1 draw with Birmingham City left me well and truly baffled, frustrated even.
Ferguson insisted he would not be using the considerable transfer war chest generated by the summer sale of Cristiano Ronaldo to reinvest in the squad during the January window, because he saw “no value” in the market. I was astonished that such a football genius could be so short-sighted.
There is no doubt there is little value in the transfer market, hence the trickle of bargain moves in its first fortnight. United’s sale of Ronaldo to Real Madrid for £80 million started the whole chain of inflated fees off and the second Galácticos project of Florentino Pérez and the billions of Sheikh Mansour et al. at Manchester City will ensure the situation will remain this way for the foreseeable future. In truth, football isn’t going to return to how it was for several years, possibly decades.
And this leaves Manchester United in a dreadful position. The fact they are saddled with upwards of £700 million of unserviceable debt from the Glazer family takeover leaves Ferguson’s hands tied, whatever he may say to the contrary. Hence, while United have been linked in the last 12 months with Karim Benzema, the £35 million Real Madrid striker, Franck Ribéry, the Bayern Munich playmaker, and Sergio Agüero, the Atlético Madrid forward courted by Chelsea, among others, they have succeeded only in recruiting the likes of Michael Owen, Antonio Valencia, Mame Biram Diouf and Gabriel Obertan.
Now, as things stand, this isn’t exactly a disaster. Despite looking vulnerable in defence during the recent injury crisis and occasionally lacking their usual cutting edge up front, United sit just a point behind Chelsea at the Premier League summit, are in a League Cup semi-final and remain among the favourites for the Champions League crown. However, these statistics miss the point.
In the next 12-18 months, United are set to lose a number of players through retirement as the chapter closes on the remaining members of the great FA Youth Cup winning squad of 1992. If the club fail to replace these players properly in the next few transfer windows, whatever the market climate, the team will be fatally undermined in several positions. Their position as the predominant club in England is at stake.
The mercurial Ryan Giggs, still in the Indian Summer of his career at 36, has already agreed to a one-year contract extension, but what then? His record of 824 matches for United speaks for itself but his absence on the left will leave a massive vacuum. The infuriating Nani, billed as the second coming of Giggs, has been largely non-existent on the occasions he makes the starting eleven, is certainly not the solution and should probably be swiftly sold to a mid-ranging Premiership side and quickly forgotten. Since his arrival in 2007, only one of the Portuguese’s performances springs to mind as being half-decent: his mauling of Arsenal in the 4-0 FA Cup fifth round victory in February 2008.
While the more promising cameos of Obertan this season mark him as one for the future, few would fancy him to step in as a like-for-like replacement for Giggs when he announced his retirement. You would expect United to be working behind the scenes to take advantage of Bayern Munich’s financial worries to poach Ribéry, manipulate the similarly prudent atmosphere at Valencia for the versatile David Silva or monitoring the likes of Jérémy Toulalan at Lyons, who can be deployed right across midfield, but don’t bank on it.
Paul Scholes, still influential at 35 despite his first-team opportunities becoming less frequent, should be slightly easier to replace, whether he decides to call it a day this May or next. However, none of Michael Carrick, Anderson, Darren Fletcher or Darron Gibson is exactly world-class. For the estimated £18 million United shelled out for him, Anderson has persistently underwhelmed and he certainly lacks the physical presence and silent midfield dominance of Scholes. As does Carrick, whose form has steadily declined during this season – his passing has suddenly ceased to be adventurous or creative as some kind of nervousness has creeped into his game. Again, reinforcement will be needed.
At right-back, Gary Neville, ostensibly the club captain and its most fervent advocate, has barely kicked a ball these past years and, although his intense commitment will thrust pen to a new contract if offered one, e has little left in the tank. Sadly, Rafael Da Silva, the young, swashbuckling Brazilian, won’t offer instant compensation for Neville’s departure or, more likely, move upstairs into a cushy coaching role. Between the posts as well, with 39-year old Edwin Van Der Sar preoccupied with his wife’s recovery from a brain haemorrhage, more than a stop-gap replacement will be needed. Until this season, Ben Foster had played more minutes for England at Wembley than he had for United at Old Trafford and, following an altercation with Ferguson in the wake of the lucky 2-2 home draw with Sunderland in October, newspaper reports yesterday suggested the stopper had been valued at £4 million and pushed towards the exit door.
With the aforementioned dearth of attacking options, now exacerbated by news that Dimitar Berbatov requires exploratory surgery on a niggling knee injury, there are at least four or five positions in which United must look to strengthen, either immediately or in the summer. There must be no room for sentimentality for the 1990s generation drawing near to retirement; Ferguson must trim the deadwood in the squad and harvest every penny brought in, including the Ronaldo money supposedly at his disposal, to build a fifth great side, regardless of the absurdly inflated market.