Sir Alex Ferguson deployed one of the oldest Manchester United sides in memory as Everton snatched a very late draw at Goodison Park on Saturday. With an average age of 30.7, Ferguson’s side belied the manager’s declaration that this is the season for a ‘faith in youth’ rather than expensive imports and marquee names.
Ferguson’s rallying cry comes after a summer in which many supporters were left disappointed by the club’s investment in the transfer market, with three relatively unknown younger players joining the squad.
The root of that disappointment, of course, lies in United’s relatively poor trophy haul last season, with Chelsea taking the Premier League title and the Reds crashing out of Europe at the quarter-final stage.
While few United fans are naïve enough to believe the club has any kind of right to ongoing success, strategic investment in the market supplemented by a strong youth policy has steered United to undeniable success over the past two decades.
Yet, Ferguson has professed contentment with his squad explaining first that there is “no value in the market,” then that by tradition United invests in younger players and finally – preposterously – that the fans don’t actually want big-name signings at the club.
Whether fans believe the explanation or not many have taken to heart the acclamation for youth. After all, from the Busby Babes, to Fergie’s Fledglings, through to the Class of ’92, youth has served United well. The collective excitement associated with a new young player making his début is genuine and palpable.
Strange then that Ferguson’s faith in youth has not yet come to the fore this season, as Rant discussed last month. It’s perhaps even more puzzling given the ageing nature of Ferguson’s apparent first choice selection, based at least on the fixtures to date.
With Rio Ferdinand set to come back into the side at Jonny Evan’s expense the average age could yet creep up. Moreover, United now has 13 players either in their 30s or will reach 30 by the season’s end, including Edwin van der Sar who will be 40 before next summer. The effect is to hand Ferguson one of the most experienced teams in his time as manager at Old Trafford.
But, fans may ask, is the recently tendency to lose an advantage late in the match any correlation to the age of the United team? After all, experience also brings ageing legs and the inevitable drop-off in physical abilities. More to the point, extra games now for United’s older stars, means less towards the end of the season.
The problem extends further than tired limbs. Four of those players – van der Sar, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, and Ryan Giggs – could conceivably retire in May 2011, while Owen Hargreaves and Michael Owen each will reach the end of their contracts next summer.
Should United lose the sextet, their departures will leave a sizeable hole in Ferguson’s squad; a problem solved in part through players already in the first team picture aged between 20 and 28. This younger group will presumably serve the club for years to come.
But Ferguson’s conundrum isn’t resolved so easily. After all, if a raft of players does leave in 10 months time, then that core of experienced players must be replaced in the squad through acquisition or youth. If United is to not regress then the quality must remain at least equal.
Therein lies the concern with the current selection strategy. After all if the group of players between 18-23 does not play, how can they progress to the level of their predecessors? On a personal level, lack of matches is a genuine worry for Rafael da Silva, his brother Fabio, Darron Gibson, Gabriel Obertan and Ritchie de Laet who have between them started just one game this season.
Meanwhile, Federico Macheda has time on his side, although it is obvious that a third straight season of reserve team football will do the Italian striker no good at all.
Of course, as the Champions League begins Ferguson is likely to dip into his squad pool and the younger group will gain extra minutes.
It really isn’t the point. The next two years will inevitably be a period of transition. In the absence of heavy investment in the market United’s younger players need experience or they will suffer for the lack of it. After all, Ferguson himself said at the season’s start that unless faith in youth is respected the players will stagnate and then leave.
The question is – when the spring kicks in and the games become ever more important – will Ferguson turn to experience or youth?
United’s 30 +
Edwin van der Sar – 39
Gary Neville – 35
Wes Brown – 30
Rio Ferdinand – 32
Patrice Evra – 29
Paul Scholes – 35
Owen Hargreaves – 29
John O’Shea – 30
Park Ji-Sung – 29
Ryan Giggs – 36
Michael Carrick – 29
Michael Owen – 30
Dimitar Berbatov – 29