The domestic season may be four days from conclusion, but column inches are there to be filled, speculation to be drawn and presumptive deals scooped. There is, after all, nearly a month before the 2012 European Championships in Poland and Ukraine, almost 15 weeks before the 2012/13 Premier League season begins in earnest on 18 August, and 114 days before the transfer window slams shut at the end of August. And it always slams. Start the Sky Sports ticker rolling, stir Jim White from his hibernation, for silly season has begun!
Except, at Old Trafford, there are likely to be few dramas this summer, with Sir Alex Ferguson seeking just “two or three” additions to his squad, with the manager adding youth and pace to his squad. More to the point, few believe the great Scot will be afforded any significant sum to invest in the market this summer. It leaves Ferguson wrestling with a squad that is likely to finish trophyless, and in need of a refresh if it is to compete at home and abroad next season.
While Sir Alex can boast youth in depth, the 70-year-old United manager must also consider question marks hanging over more than half-a-dozen first team players, including those perennially injury-prone, sick or under-performing.
That United is stronger than after the club’s last silverware-free season in 2004-5 is not in doubt. After all, Ferguson’s team featured Eric Djemba-Djema, Kleberson, David Bellion and Dong in that campaign. But the competition for trophies will be more intense next season than seven years ago. Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and perhaps even Tottenham Hotspur are likely to be highly active players during the summer window.
Indeed, City will invest from a position of strength and unlimited sovereign wealth at Roberto Mancini’s disposal. In west London Roman Abramovich will once again sign-off on a Chelsea rebuilding programme, while at Arsenal the penny may have finally dropped – Arsène Wenger securing two productive acquisitions in Lukas Podolski and Yann M’Vila.
Ferguson’s limited transfer budget – thought to be less than £30 million unless there are substantial player departures – leaves the Scot in a now familiar position of working the market for bargains and ‘value’.
One wonders what Wayne Rooney must think of it all 18 months on from the player’s now infamous “lack of ambition” press release at the height of the October 2010 contract dispute.
Rooney handled that affair with a gross lack of tact, allowing agent Paul Stretford to conduct a media campaign that brought embarrassment on his client, but was rewarded with a very large cheque nontheless. Yet, whatever assurances the 26-year-old striker received on signing the new five-year contract alongside a beaming David Gill and Sir Alex, United’s strategy has changed little since. It should surprise few if the Rooney camp once again agitates for change this summer.
Typical of recent seasons, United will seek to acquire younger players in the break, although having spent around £38 million net over the past 12 months the smart money is on a far smaller outlay this window. The family’s average net spend of around £7.5 million per season during its seven year Old Trafford tenure should provide ample guidance that the purse strings will remain tightly guarded until United IPOs, perhaps in the autumn.
However, the Reds may have already tied up a deal for Crystal Palace defender Nathaniel Clyne who has been outstanding at right-back for the south London side this season. The 21-year-old Englishman is expected to compete with Rafael da Silva for United’s full-back slot next season. Clyne, who is out-of-contract, will join for a low seven-figure fee.
Meanwhile, speculation that United has already secured a deal with Borussia Dortmund for Japanese midfielder Shinji Kagawa is premature, but the Reds remain in a good position to conclude the transfer. After all, it is an archetypal Glazer purchase, with Kagawa just 23-years-old and out-of-contract in 2013. With the player unwilling to sign a new deal in Germany, Dortmund will accept a transfer at a far lower fee than in normal circumstances. Reports of a €10 million fee may well be wide of the mark, but United could still secure a bargain deal for the two-time Bundesliga winner.
Kagawa will add pace and guile in what many expect to be a more flexible attacking formation next season than the oft-pedestrian performances during the current campaign.
Elsewhere, United’s strategy is less clear, although fans can be certain that the club is not in the frame for Arsenal’s Robin van Persie, despite the column inch filling reports on Wednesday. Nor in fact any of Europe’s leading names, including Eden Hazard, Fernando Llorente, Iker Muniain, Nicolas Gaitan, or half-a-dozen other £20 million plus moves who will head elsewhere in the summer.
However, Ferguson does have gaps in his squad that younger players cannot fill. At left-back the Scot needs cover for Patrice Evra at a minimum, with Fabio da Silva set to spend the season away from the club on loan. Meanwhile, in midfield persistent injuries to Anderson and Darren Fletcher’s long-term illness dictates the need for additional resources whatever the eventual outcome with Kagawa. After all, Paul Scholes is yet to sign a new deal, and is unlikely to play more than 30 games in a campaign anyway. Owen Hargreaves has never been replaced.
Much will be expected of Tom Cleverley once again, but the 23-year-old has suffered lengthy injuries in each of his four seasons of first team football to date, whether at United or elsewhere on loan. It would surely be a strategic mistake to bet on the fitness of Cleverley, Anderson, and Fletcher next season.
Meanwhile, in attack, Dimitar Berbatov is set to leave, although United will demand a fee for the Bulgarian, raising the spectre of the striker warming the Old Trafford bench once again until the club raises the cash it is after. Tomasz Kuszack, Darron Gibson and Mame Biram Diouf will each attest to that strategy.
However, Michael Owen will surely not be offered a new contract after a third unproductive season in a row, although the ex-Liverpool forward’s ‘cost-effectiveness’ remains attractive to Old Trafford bean counters. Federico Macheda will leave the club on loan, if not permanently, while a number of younger reserve players, including Will Keane will be sent to the Championship for a season.
This leaves Ferguson in search of a fourth senior striker if one can be found in the bargains bin.
Yet, for the most part while the campaign has proven to be highly underwhelming, it is likely that silly season will follow a similar pattern. Those fans seeking big name acquisitions will be disappointed. It is a strategy that may leave United playing catch up in a little over 100 days time.