Sir Alex Ferguson says that he in unlikely to buy in the January transfer window, which opens in just four days time. Although the Scot continues to state that there is no value in the market, most observers believe that Manchester United’s manager is financially hamstrung. But it’s a risky game, with United now overly reliant on the talents of Wayne Rooney.
In truth it has been a season of mediocrity at the head of the Premier League table, with the so-called ‘big four’ already losing 19 games between them. Despite five defeats in the Premier League, United is just a win away from the summit.
Further down the table Aston Villa, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur each has a compelling case for making the top four this campaign but only United’s crosstown rivals spent heavily in the summer. It points to a degradation in quality across the Premier League’s leading sides this season.
Indeed, such was the distorting effect of City’s policy, along with Real Madrid, that the top four made just four major purchases between them: Antonio Valencia at United, Yuri Zhirkov at Chelsea, together with Glen Johnson and Alberto Acquillani at Liverpool. Each cost in excess of £14 million but in a summer of extraordinary spending none were marquee signings.
With injuries clearing up at Old Trafford Sir Alex may feel the temptation to stick with what he has this winter, even if he has money to spend. After all, if there was little value in the summer window, it is rare that leading players become available in January. Moreover, Chelsea is likely to lose key players to the African Cup of Nations while Arsenal’s squad still looks too thin to sustain a title challenge into the Spring.
In this scenario, mediocrity is United’s best friend. The question is – with the title still within reach – and obvious vulnerabilities in the squad, can United afford not to strengthen this winter? Perhaps the only good argument for not dipping into the transfer market is financial.
In central areas the return of Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher to the heart of United’s midfield is a huge boon to the manager. Moreover, Anderson has demonstrated a significant improvement on his early season form. The trio, together with Darron Gibson and Paul Scholes in support, offer plenty of solidity but little creativity in the middle of the park.
United has also suffered badly from consistency on the left side of midfield this season. While Ryan Giggs has been superb, the Welshman’s leggy performance in United’s victory over Hull yesterday is a sign of things to come. At 36 Giggs cannot, to paraphrase, bomb up and down the wing for 90 minutes until May.
Meanwhile, Nani has only succeeded in guaranteeing himself a transfer out of the club, Ji-Sung Park has spent most of the campaign injured and Gabriel Obertan shows – so far – only promise.
Yet, United has also scored freely in both Europe and domestic competitions this season, to many pundits’ surprise. It’s a task to which Wayne Rooney has stepped up after the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo in the summer. 14 goals in all competitions this season points to the Scouser’s best return come May.
Indeed, United has been generally undone by inconsistency in defence and not attack this campaign. The recent injury crisis accounted for the defeat at Fulham although Ferguson has rarely had the luxury of his first choice back-four this season. Sir Alex will hope that the second half of the season brings better luck and fewer goals conceded. Ferguson is canny enough to know that hope is no kind of strategy however.
But if Ferguson is to spend in just one area this winter fans will hope that it is on creative talent, whether out wide or through the middle of the pitch. United is still desperately short of an attacking central midfield player in addition to a consistent left-winger. Age is no friend of Scholes and the creative burden has passed to Rooney to offer both goals and flair.
Rooney bares not only the weight of that expectation but also the burden of being the team’s unopposed talisman. To illustrate – if the former Evertonian plays well, United plays well. When he doesn’t then United has struggled to score as blanks against Burnley, Liverpool, Chelsea, Aston Villa and Fulham show.
The biggest risk to United’s success in the second half of the season is a breakdown in Rooney’s fitness or form, which would surely end the team’s hopes of domestic and European success.
Ferguson can mitigate that risk by breaking the habit of a lifetime and spending big on a marquee winter signing. The chances are he won’t and United fans can look forward to another five months of praying that Rooney, in all his brilliance, suffers none of the misfortune that has visited his defensive colleagues.