Sir Alex Ferguson will use the next two transfer windows to rebuild Manchester United, in part with the departure of established talents, in part in the transfer market. The real question is whether the Scot can mould a new, potentially great, United side in the youthful model that the 69-year-old has come to forcibly advocate this season.
Moreover, does United posses the right tools to refresh the squad without a period of – euphemistic – transition? After all, Arsenal has been in ‘transition’ for five trophyless years; Manchester City 34 years, and Newcastle more like 50.
But in placing faith in youth, Ferguson must also discard much of the older generation, which the Scot has recently admitted he is reluctant to do. However, it is unlikely Edwin van der Sar, Gary Neville, Michael Owen and Owen Hargreaves will be offered, or take up, new deals at the club come the summer.
Meanwhile, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs will earn new 12 month deals but the pair are increasing peripheral to United’s plans. Wes Brown – who fell out with Ferguson during the summer – and Tomasz Kuszczak will also find pastures new.
“When [players] grow old, their performance level drops, but we have to maintain a level of success at the top end of the game, at all the time,” said Ferguson.
“We can’t afford bad years or breaking-in years. We have had periods like that, but we don’t want it and we need to be successful all the time.
“Sometimes, when a player grows old, you have to recognise it and they have to move on.”
Indeed, in the past Ferguson has ruthlessly jettisoned players he no longer felt necessary to the club; often those who had reached their peak – David Beckham, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Phil Neville and Nicky Butt come to mind.
More often than not, the Scot already possessed a plan for United’s future. Beckham was effectively upgraded for Cristiano Ronaldo; van Nistelrooy gave way to a dynamic front three of Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez.
But the key positions in United’s squad may not necessarily be filled smoothly in the coming six months, although Ferguson has identified Anderson to replace Paul Scholes and Rafael da Silva to take over from Neville. The latter having already done so to great effect this season.
“Long term, I hope [Anderson] can prove to be Paul’s successor,” Ferguson added.
“It’s a big ask to reach that level and the challenge will test his confidence, but someone will have to step up to the plate one day.
“Injury opens doors and the succession of setbacks suffered by Gary Neville has provided Rafael with more opportunities than he perhaps expected at this stage of his career.”
Yet, there is still a question mark over Anderson’s suitability to replace Scholes, with no replacements for Giggs, van der Sar, nor Hargreaves secured either.
In particular while Anderson’s form has improved neither his average passing statistics (in the mid 70 per cent range) nor goals (just two in 113 appearances for United) come anywhere close to Scholes’ long-term brilliance.
In truth Anderson cannot directly replace Scholes, just as Michael Carrick was no like-for-like successor to Roy Keane, nor Ronaldo for Beckham, or Tevez for van Nistelrooy.
In truth Ferguson’s success or failure with United’s midfield transformation will live or die with whom he surrounds the Brazilian. It’s a big decision, with United’s midfield is of the lowest quality since the mid 1990s.
Ferguson’s faith in Tom Cleverley and the possible acquisition of Sunderland’s hugely talented Jordan Henderson may well be a central part of the Scot’s youthful revolution.
Elsewhere Ferguson still requires a left-sided forward, whatever Nani’s continued progression. After all, Nani’s run of form has coincided with a permanent switch to the right. Antonio Valenica and Cleverley will provide an outstanding range of options on United’s right next season, with the Wigan Athletic loanee also comfortable inside.
Investment in a combative midfielder to complement Darren Fletcher and Carrick is also a vital component of a balanced squad.
In goal United has watched a range of options from Hugo Lloris, to Igor Akinfeev but the smart money says a bid for Manuel Neuer or David de Gea is likely come the summer. The club has already secured Anders Lindegaard, the Danish international stopper, on a four-year £4 million deal.
These decisions – based in part on the budget actually given to Ferguson – will direct United’s success or failure over the next three to five years. The alternative is a further regression of an already average United side, no matter what the league table currently says.