Manchester United’s thumping defeat to Barcelona on Saturday night threatened to spoil the Reds’ victory parade through the city today. Even so around 150,000 lined Manchester’s streets for the party, which celebrated a 19th domestic title, if not the European Cup. Yet, as United’s supporters delight in another Premier League triumph – the 12th of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Old Trafford reign – questions have inevitably been drawn of the club’s ability to compete at the very highest level. A level to which Barcelona set a new standard on Saturday night.
Indeed, the manner of Barça’s victory at Wembley was so overwhelmingly superior that United’s response cuts to the very heart of the club’s place in Europe’s hierarchy. Runner-up in Europe’s elite competition is no shame, of course, but the gap between United and the best is evidently far wider than hoped. The question of whether United can close that gap is one to which supporters will look for answers over the summer.
The Catalan giant’s success is based on a straightforward two-sided strategy; build the most productive youth academy on the planet, while investing heavily in the transfer market. Indeed, while six of the starting team at Wembley were trained at La Masia, Barcelona’s much-lauded academy, the club has also invested hugely in the transfer market over the past decade, while also baring the largest wage bill of any football club.
In response United has only two options: plan for immediate needs and work towards a better tomorrow. In this United’s historic strategy is not wholly different to Barça’s, with the Reds seeking to augment lavish spending with talented youngsters trained at Carrington. More recent austerity has seemingly curbed the club’s net transfer spend at a time when the academy is producing a relatively limited crop of first-team-ready youngsters.
In this both United’s chief executive David Gill and his club manager offered hope and a prescient warning today. Gill, a staunch supporter of the Glazer regime which has drained around £400 million out of the club in the past five years, hinted at heavy investment this summer. Meanwhile, Ferguson warned that Barcelona will continue to enjoy a structural advantage if the Football Association continues to control youth development policy.
“It will be a busier than usual summer this year,” Gill told MUTV, with United set to confirm deals for David de Gea, Ashley Young and Rafael Varane in the coming week.
“I will be going away at some point in June and be back for the start of our tour but I will be on with player stuff for the next few weeks I am sure.”
The question on most fans’ lips is whether Gill and his paymasters will sanction heavier spending on proven talent, in addition to youth’s promise. After all, while Barça has produced a rash of outrageously talented players from La Masia, the club also spent around €90 million on Danni Alves, Javier Mascherano, Eric Abidal and David Villa in recent seasons. That figure does not include the €65 million largely wasted on Zlatan Imbrahimovic in summer 2009.
Whether United’s response is more ambitious than the aforementioned De Gea, Young and Varane is as yet undecided. After all, while uncontested newspaper reports speculate at heavy summer investment in addition to that trio, recent history suggests otherwise. Gill’s assertion that his summer will be “busier than usual” could yet be another of the executive’s empty platitudes.
Meanwhile, United continues to invest in youth development, although there has been scant reward in the past decade. Of the current first team squad only Jonny Evans and Darron Gibson have emerged from the academy in the past decade; an embarrassing return relative to Saturday’s opponents.
Of course this season’s FA Youth Cup winning side may yet produce rarefied talent to compete at both domestic and European level, although precedent suggests that it is unlikely. United’s two teams to reach the Youth Cup final since the ‘class of ’92’ – 2004 and 2007 – has produced not a single first team regular at Old Trafford, let alone a talent to match Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham.
It is a failure Ferguson blames on the FA’s regulatory framework for youth development in England, especially the so-called 90 minute rule. The regulation stipulates that Premier League academies cannot take on boys that live more than 90 minutes drive away from the club’s base at Old Trafford.
“People have to understand the mechanics of the industry we are working in,” Ferguson said today.
“We are only allowed to coach youngsters for an hour and a half, they [Barcelona] can coach every hour of the day if they want to. That’s the great advantage they have got. It is a fantastic philosophy.
“We hope that in years to come our coaches will be able to spend more time with young kids, to teach them the basics, the technical abilities and the confidence to keep the ball all the time. We are good at it, but not as good as Barcelona at this moment in time. It is a wonderful challenge and we should always accept a challenge.”
Yet, any revision to the rule will bring no immediate reward as United continues to look abroad for the best in world youth talent. Of the Youth Cup winning side seven hailed from the Greater Manchester area, while the other four were brought in from overseas. The trend may yet swing towards ever greater global imports as the club seeks to circumvent FA regulations.
More to the point, despite the talented youth team, none will immediately augment United’s side. If the gap between United and Barça is to be bridged than Gill’s wallet will be in repeated use over the next two months. It was, no doubt, a conversation pondered as United’s victory parade idled past the crowds today.