As one of the most successful managers in the history of English football, you have to give Sir Alex Ferguson a lot of credit. I don’t necessarily like him, but I have to admit that I admire him, because he sure knows how to manage a football team, and he’s kept Manchester United at the top of English football (or there abouts) for a very long time. And part of that success has been his ability to consistently improve his squad, in order to keep ahead of the rest of the pack.
Thus, in seeing his assertion yesterday that Manchester United’s summer business was completed, I had to wonder whether he has decided that actually, he doesn’t want to win the Premier League anymore. Because he knows the importance of adding to his squad, and he’s never been afraid to spend big money to do so. And yet, having lost Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, and having the best part of £80m to spend on replacing them, he seems willing to settle for Antonio Valencia, Gabriel Obertan and Michael Owen… and well, that isn’t enough.
And in saying that, I make no slight upon the abilities of the three players he has signed. Valencia and Obertan are both young players who certainly have a lot of potential, and will probably go far in the game, but I don’t feel that they’re ready to step up consistently to the level that the Premier League champions will demand. And while Owen used to be one of the most dangerous strikers in the world and retains his killer instinct and finishing ability, he’s lost the devastating pace which was what really set him apart from the rest.
I would argue that these three players can not expect to be more than bit part players for United this season. They’re not going to be the first players on the team sheet, and will probably become quite well acquainted with Old Trafford’s substitutes bench before the season is out. Indeed, Obertan admitted that he would have to work his way up the pecking order at United when he signed, and we all thought “yes, he will” because we were sure Fergie was going to swoop for someone with a more proven pedigree.
And that would be OK. We’ve seen Fergie buy young players before, and gradually they’ve worked their way through into the first team. He did it last summer with Adem Ljajić and Zoran Tošić and the summer before with Anderson and Nani, and before them it was Cristiano Ronaldo. Even Wayne Rooney was brought in young, knowing that he’d develop further there. And of course, though they weren’t bought, Ferguson brought through United’s golden generation, including Beckham, Giggs, Scholes, Butt and the Nevilles. Buying young is an old strategy for Ferguson, and it has paid off, but I’m not sure it will this time.
Because the players that have left Old Trafford are Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez. While Tevez may have spent more time on the bench than he’d have liked last season, he still played a major part in their season. He came off the bench and scored a few crucial goals, and provided willing running to wear down the opposition. He is a top class player, and though his scoring record isn’t phenomenal, he brings an immense amount to whichever team he plays for.
On the other hand, you’ve got Ronaldo. And while he wasn’t fully committed to United’s cause last season, he remained their deadliest player. A threat from anywhere on the pitch with his direct running, his long range shots, his heading ability and his blistering pace. He, for the last two seasons at United, has been the focus of most of their play, and he is a massive, enormous loss for Alex Ferguson to contend with.
These then, are two players that simply can’t be replaced by Obertan, Valencia and Owen. No matter how high your opinions of those three players are, Ronaldo and Tevez are better. The three cannot replace the two, they simply don’t have the ability to contribute the same amount, on the pitch, to United’s cause, as Tevez and Ronaldo did. And therein lies the problem.
Because United didn’t walk the Premier League last season, oh no. They were pushed very close by Liverpool, and to a lesser extent Chelsea. Had Chelsea had Hiddink all season, they’d have won the league, and if Liverpool hadn’t had their two best players out injured quite frequently, they may have finished above United too. And while this in no way demeans United’s achievement, it shows that the distance in quality between the top three sides was actually quite marginal last season.
And so United cannot afford to go backwards, which they have done. In losing Ronaldo and Tevez and replacing them with Obertan, Valencia and Owen, we can say pretty much conclusively, that on paper, United are weaker now than they were last season. In contrast, Liverpool have added Glen Johnson to their squad, and Chelsea have yet to make any signings of note, but they will. So while Liverpool and Chelsea are, as you’d expect, strengthening their squads, Manchester United seem to have weakened theirs.
And Ferguson knows this. He knows just how good Ronaldo is, and he knows that his side will not be the same without him in it. He also knows that, despite what he may have said in the paper, Owen is a risk that may not come off, and even if it comes off flawlessly, he’s not as good as Ronaldo. He knows too, that Obertan and Valencia are but raw materials. They need shaping and moulding and improving. He knows it, and he’ll do it, but it can’t be done just in pre-season. In short, Ferguson knows that his current squad is weaker than his old one, and he knows that it probably isn’t good enough to win the Premier League.
And if he knows this, you can draw one of two conclusions. Either, he has run out of room on his mantelpiece and grown bored of success, or he is bluffing, and United still have a few aces up their sleeve. I would be willing to bet that the first conclusion is false. I would be willing to bet the entirety of Cristiano Ronaldo’s hot-pants collection on that being false in fact. I am as certain that Alex Ferguson is not bored of winning as I am of anything else in the world. It simply isn’t true.
So, we must conclude that when Ferguson says that United have finished their transfer dealings for the summer, he is telling a dirty great fib. If United want to win the title, they need to add more quality and depth to their squad. Rooney and Berbatov is a top partnership, but Owen isn’t ample cover. Owen Hargreaves may be fit again, but he’ll get injured again, and Giggs and Scholes really only have a handful of games left in them at the top level.
Ferguson knows this, deep down, and I wouldn’t be surprised if his suggestion that they’re done with spending isn’t more an attempt to shift the focus away from them. Everyone knows that they’ve got Ronaldo’s transfer fee to spend, and so whoever they approach will hold them to ransom, especially if it’s reported in the papers before it happens. So I think Fergie is trying to distance United from any more transfer moves so that they can go about some final business in relative anonymity.
Because come the start of the season, Ferguson knows that he needs more quality than he can currently call on if he’s to challenge for the Premier League title again. There is no way he wants to give up his Premier League crown and he’ll be very keen to rectify their Champions League final defeat to Barcelona. Ferguson then, is lying when he says that United have finished their summer spending, and I would bet my boots that they will make at least one or two more signings before the season kicks off. Either that, or he’s losing his touch, but hell, I’m not going to be the one to suggest that to his face.
Edit: Mr. Ferguson has indeed gone back on his word, but in signing a youngster and loaning him straight back, it’s still not a major signing. Still, we wait and see.
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