The transfer window has shut after one of the quietest periods in recent memory, with Manchester United’s activity symptomatic of the Premier League. Yet, United’s investment is also increasingly emblematic of the Glazer family’s ownership of the ‘world’s biggest club’. It’s a strategy that has left United short of quality both domestically and in Europe.
Indeed, United will exit the transfer window with just 24 players, including perennially injured Owen Hargreaves, on the Premier and Champions League ‘A’ list, supplemented by a further 10 players on the ‘B’ list. The ‘B’ list can be expanded at any point, with unlimited players under the age of 21 from United’s reserve and youth teams permitted.
This was, according to Sir Alex Ferguson and his immediate boss chief executive David Gill, to be the season of youth, with United’s academy produce supplemented by acquisitions Chris Smalling, Javier Hernández and Bebé at a cost of just under £25 million.
Early season fixtures have clarified the position: this is, in fact, to be the season of enduring experience, with hope that United’s younger acquisitions from abroad will develop at a more rapid pace than, say, Zoran Tošić and Ben Foster, discarded from the squad this summer.
The investment strategy, dictated by the owners’ increasingly strained financial position and the pressing need to pay down debt, essentially leaves the club with the same squad as last season, Hernández being the player closest to regular first team action of the new acquisitions.
United, of course, went close last season, taking Chelsea to within a point of the Premier League title. Yet inconsistency in the team’s performances were exposed in seven domestic league defeats and an early exit from the FA Cup at the hands of arch rivals Leeds United. The Carling Cup was of little consolation.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of United’s campaign – certainly for Ferguson – was the club’s exit at the quarter final stage of the Champions League. The Scot has now, with more than a hint of revisionism, blamed the defeat on bad luck, while ignoring Bayern Munich’s outstanding first leg performance and stirring late Old Trafford comeback.
Ferguson, the realpolitik pragmatist, is hardly likely to say anything else, especially armed with the knowledge that investment will not match United’s spending of previous eras when the Scot broke the British transfer record on five separate occasions.
Thus the Scot dismissed fears of financial hardship, declaring the market to hold no value, while telling fans, with more than a hint of condescension, that they didn’t really want a big name signing anyway.
It’s a claim that both ignores the team’s immediate needs, assuming the goal is to compete on four fronts, and the market dynamics this summer where value is in fact to be found everywhere.
In terms of United’s squad, the most glaring omission is in central midfield where weight of numbers hardly compensates for the fact that Paul Scholes has still not been replaced. The midfielder’s early season form will not mask this reality when the Champions League begins in mid-September and Scholes must rest.
United, as Ferguson has already noted, is short of goals from central midfield and will operate without an attacking midfielder playmaker in either 4-4-2 or 4-3-2-1 formations that the Scot is likely to deploy this season.
Ferguson needs Anderson to discover his fitness and best form quickly. It’s almost two years since the Brazilian could claim to own both. The Scot must also draw Michael Carrick out of the year-long slump that has robbed the former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder of far too many key assets.
Then there is the Hargreaves question. The player will surely never play for the club again, leaving Darren Fletcher as the club’s only genuine tough-tackling defensive midfielder. Suspension, injury and burnout hold a constant fear.
United has acquired defensive cover in a sensible move by Ferguson, whose side suffered in that department at times last season. Smalling though is no experienced campaigner, leaving United’s manager reliant on Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic’s fitness remaining on a more even keel than at any time in the last 18 months.
Up front Ferguson has an embarrassment of riches, assuming Rooney rediscovers his fitness and form permanently. Hernández’ acqusition will, hopefully, reduce the burden on United’s talisman.
Michael Owen will rightfully be restricted to a bit part role, while Dimitar Berbatov’s early season promises much. But few supporters will now count on the Bulgarian to maintain it throughout the season.
In wide areas Nani and Antonio Valencia – eventually in the Portuguese winger’s case – boasted outstanding seasons last time out. Each will offer an attacking threat from wide that is equal to almost anything on the continent. The replacements, Ryan Giggs, Ji-Sung Park and Gabriel Obertan offer adequate cover.
Yet Ferguson enters the season with more questions hanging over his squad than is comfortable. Certainly more than at the height of United’s success.
Hope, they say, is no kind of strategy.
What may save the club’s season, at least domestically, is the failure of United’s rivals to improve key areas. Chelsea essentially replaced like-for-like in swapping Joe Cole for Yossi Benayoun, while Ramires will add much-needed quality at the base of Carlo Ancelotti’s three-man midfield. Perhaps the biggest victory for the Italian is the return of the truly outstanding Michael Essien from injury.
Meanwhile, Arsenal has strengthened in central defence but failed to acquire a goalkeeper, which will surely cost Arsène Wenger points this season.
City, being City, will surely fall short of the Premier League title as £130 million worth of new acquisitions bed in.
In Europe though Barcelona has done outstanding business, replacing the ineffective Zlatan Ibrahimovic with the Spanish goal machine David Villa. Javier Mascherano is surely an upgrade on the hopelessly overrated Yaya Touré.
Meanwhile, Real Madrid has also found real value in recruiting the brilliant playmaker Mesut Özil, along with Sergio Canales and Sami Khedira for little more than €30 million.
The activity during the window points to a tight race domestically, where Chelsea must be considered favourites. A probable knock-out round exit awaits United in Europe.
For the owners that scenario remains economically acceptable. After all, United was the biggest grossing club in the Champions League last season despite the early exit and revenue is the Glazer family’s only concern.
Fans might just think differently come may.
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