Manchester United could learn a lesson from Liverpool’s epic final ownership saga. While Liverpool stared at meltdown, questions must be asked of United’s position too. Is the club really on the road to similar ruin? David Gill and Ferguson might insist all is well behind the scenes, but the club has challenges on and off the pitch.
Certainly, within the confines of Sir Alex Ferguson’s lair, signs point significant unrest in the dressing room as the squad’s quality has been eroded.
Results have not improved in recent weeks, despite the return of heavyweight defender Rio Ferdinand to the United side. Wayne Rooney might have claimed full fitness this season but his performances are closer to those at Anfield, and not title chasing United.
Yet far from improving the squad, Ferguson must face up to the challenge of a team seemingly in decline. In the recent past Anderson, captain Nemanja Vidic, Michael Carrick, Michael Owen, and Federico Macheda have been linked with moves away from the club. Many for good reason.
Many of the squad have questions to answer about their form and fitness. Ji-Sung Park’s woeful displays this season, Anderson persistent underperformance and the simple presence of Darron Gibson in the United squad is cause for concern.
Ferguson must also contend with the imminent retirements of Paul Scholes, Edwin van der Saar, Gary Neville and possibly even the evergreen Ryan Giggs. It is conceivable that the quartet will each quit the club next summer.
The almost inevitable retirement of Owen Hargreaves down the line must also be factored into the equation. Either way, Hargreaves is out of contract in June, with little chance the club will offer him a new deal.
Meanwhile, Antonio Valencia’s injury is serious concern, leaving the squad with just Nani as the sole in-form and fit winger. It has left United bereft of creativity in midfield leaving Scholes at 35 and 36-year-old Ryan Giggs as necessities, rather than luxuries.
To compound the problems in the squad star striker Rooney now seems certain to leave, if not in January then next summer, with contract talks broken off and the player’s reputation damaged by Ferguson’s statement yesterday.
United fans are no strangers to the transfer mill of course and many of the stories coming out of Old Trafford can be attributed to the media’s demand for gossip. Yet there is little doubt that United’s current 25-man squad is a long way off the quality Ferguson has possessed in the past. Perhaps far from the quality he really wants.
Ferguson maintains that he is happy with his squad’s depth but in previous years more decisive action would surely have been taken before now.
Even United’s evolution in recent years into a side that defended better than anyone, rather than outscored the opposition, has now unravelled. The team has a real problem despite its unbeaten record this season.
Whispers of Rooney’s inner predicament allude, in part at least, to the lack of investment in the first team. The former Evertonian is hardly the first person to notice the decline but the reaction from a high-profile player is a major blow to the Gill-Glazer-Ferguson coalition.
But if the squad’s decline is to be arrested then the question remains how to stop the supposed rot? To parrot a well-known phrase: investment, investment, investment. Certainly the club’s youth policy is yet to truly bear fruit in recent seasons.
Over at Anfield Liverpool is showing that nobody is too good for the drop. This despite new ownership. Failure to invest in the squad, together with key player sales and financial problems, has left the club in the bottom three and the manager on the brink.
United may well be a long road from that scenario but the warning signs are definitely there.