Time, they say, waits for no man. There is a proverb no truer in football, which has the fortunate habit of punishing those who rest on laurels. While Manchester United’s achievement in topping the Premier League during a transitional phase is remarkable, Sir Alex Ferguson will know there are areas for improvement. Indeed, with retirements set and question marks hanging over several squad members, Ferguson could well be in for a very busy summer.
The great Scot’s transfer market activity depends on the Glazer family’s attitude to the market of course. The club’s recent financials showed strong growth in commercial revenue tempered by flat ticket sales quarter-on-quarter. Most importantly perhaps more than £100 million was sat in United’s account as of late March, with a strong start to the new financial year expected due to the club’s Champions League run. As ever, United is a financial powerhouse, with an awful balance sheet.
But whatever the budget available Ferguson is keen to continue a rebuilding process that has successfully integrated Javier Hernández, Chris Smalling and Fabio da Silva into the side this season. The trio, together with returning loanees Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley, add an increasingly youthful look to United’s squad.
It’s required. After all, Gary Neville has already retired, Edwin van der Sar is due for the same fate and the smart money says Paul Scholes will follow suit. Meanwhile, Michael Owen and Owen Hargreaves are each out of contract in the summer.
“There’s a responsibility as the manager of Manchester United,” Ferguson told MUTV after United sealed the Premier League at Blackburn Rovers on Saturday.
“It doesn’t go away. I’m not changing anything. I’m not going to take it easy because we won the title. Hopefully we’ll be better next season. Hopefully we’ll be adding two or three players in the summer. We’ve got some young players coming back like Welbeck, Cleverley and Diouf and we want to be better. I think the ambition of the club doesn’t alter.
“One league title opened the door for us because we won the Double the next year with a great team and since then we’ve carried along in the sense that we’ve always been challenging for the title. It’s an amazing feat. For 19 years we’ve been competing for the league.
It’s an incredible achievement and every young player that comes to the club gets engrained into the fabric of that. Chris Smalling’s got his first medal, so have Darron Gibson and Chicharito. It’s a wonderful experience for them because they are the future.”
But Ferguson’s soliloquy on youth cannot mask the challenge ahead. Not only from the resurgent Liverpool and big-spending Manchester City, but Chelsea and Arsenal. While Roman Abramovich will surely sanction another transfer-market splurge for whomever he brings in as Carlo Ancelotti’s successor, Arsène Wenger has spoken recently about bringing much-needed experience into his side.
Should Ferguson be successful in bringing in “two or three players” most pundits point to a new goalkeeper, creative midfielder and left-winger as priorities in reshaping an already burgeoning squad. Should, as expected, Hargreaves leave the club, then Ferguson may also seek a tough-tackling midfielder.
Yet, with so many youngsters now pushing for a place in Ferguson’s side, or the wider squad, the Scot hardly needs any more fringe players. Indeed, most supporters will look forward to United attracting the “world’s top players,” as Wayne Rooney put it last October.
United’s fixation with David de Gea should see the 21-year-old join the club in June, unless the 21-year-old Spaniard decides his immediate future is with Atlético Madrid. Ajax’ Marten Steklenberg is an experience back-up should plan A fail.
Meanwhile, silly season press reports have frequently linked United to a huge offer for Inter Milan’s Wesley Sneijder, with the 26-year-old Dutchman finally ready for a Premier League move. The player’s huge fee and even bigger wages will almost certainly put the kibosh on any deal with United.
Similarly, another oft-lauded creative player, Tottenham Hotspur’s Luka Modric, will not be moving to Old Trafford this summer. With Spurs unwilling sellers, and the player in no mood to rock the boat, Modric will again be wearing white in 2012. Lille’s Eden Hazard might be a more realistic option, although the Belgian is also coveted by Wenger and a host of other European clubs.
The Reds have lofty ambitions for the vacant left-side attacking role, where Park Ji-Sung has performed well in recent weeks but faces little competition. Here Udinese’s outrageously gifted Alexis Sanchez is a long-admired player within the Old Trafford hierarchy. City’s come-hither eyes and bloated wallet could yet scupper the deal, which those of a more cynical bent might add is convenient for the normally parsimonious Glazers.
Finally, Ferguson is set on bringing a defensive or utility midfielder into the squad this summer. This is true despite reports United has offered Hargreaves a pay-as-you-play deal. With no naturally destructive player in the Scot’s squad it would, arguably, be negligent for United to not look at the position.
Here Everton’s Jack Rodwell has long been coveted, although the players average form this season has brought criticism from the Goodison Park faithful. Moreover, the young and English normally command a price premium, which might bring Stade Rennais’ Yann M’Vila into sharper focus. With Rennes now unlikely to qualify for the Champions League, the French international is almost certainly available.
Whatever the names coming in the summer, Ferguson has little doubt where the challenge is coming from next season.
“It was Liverpool’s time in the ’80s, it’s our time now and we always expect them to challenge us and we also expect Manchester City to challenge us. The great thing about us is that we accept challenges. It doesn’t matter where it comes from.”
It’s a contest that promises to be even more keenly fought in 2012.