As the season reaches its quarter point, Manchester United sit proudly on top of the Premier League and Sir Alex Ferguson’s men remain unbeaten in the Champions League. There are long-term questions about the club’s health unanswered. United faces impending retirements in key positions that will need replacements.
In goal Edwin van der Sar has finally solved the Peter Schmeichel problem. After countless failures, Sir Alex found a genuine world class custodian, who was far too cool to let another goalkeeper’s presence overshadow him. How many more trophies would United have won if the club had signed the Dutchman in ’99, and been spared the calamities of Fabian Barthez, Ricardo, Tim Howard, Roy Carroll and Massimo Taibi?
But van der Sar is nearing the end of his career – this is almost certainly his last campaign. In Ben Foster, Ferguson has a ‘keeper with the talent to fill van der Sar’s jersey but whose decision making and lack of experience have cost the club this season. Foster could still make it but Sir Alex risks enduring another search for a successor.
United’s defence also poses a number of questions. Without the aid of rose-tinted glasses many feel that – short of a testimonial – Gary Neville should not kick another ball in anger for the club. The United stalwart can no longer be relied on due to lengthy injury absences and age. Meanwhile, Neville’s erstwhile successor, John O’Shea, is little more than a liability despite his adaptability and more than 200 games for the club.
More worrying still, Rio Ferdinand’s recent loss of form suggests that his body is starting to let his brain down. The defender’s calamities have been greatly exaggerated of course but the player is reaching an age where Ferguson must think about the future.
Unfortunately, Johnny Evans is not it. Perhaps by allowing Gérard Piqué to leave – a player who has eased his way into the Barcelona first team and is a regular for Spain – Sir Alex made his biggest mistake of the last couple of seasons.
United has a wealth of options in midfield but also an uncertain future.
Despite the doubts, Michael Carrick and Anderson are both classy options. Anderson in particular would benefit from a long run in the team. Sir Alex has also proven everybody wrong with Darren Fletcher’s development, who has established himself as the club’s midfield linchpin. And if Owen Hargreaves can successfully return from injury then United will add a world class defensive midfielder to its squad.
Yet Nani, Antonio Valencia, Gabriel Obertan are yet to prove themselves at United. Nani, who always delivers for Portugal, so often frustrates for the reds. Meanwhile the Ecuadorian, clearly a very good player for Wigan Athletic, has shown sporadic touches of class for United and Obertan will only make his début in the next fortnight.
Ferguson must also shortly decide on the future of two priceless midfielders. Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes impending retirement will offer a huge problem for the manager. Two legends that United has no immediate replacements for.
Despite summer predictions of doom, United’s strikeforce has the air of long term success. Wayne Rooney, short of a dramatic loss of form, can count on remaining at Old Trafford for life. Meanwhile, Dimitar Berbatov is slowly starting to win over the fans with his class, if not the work rate.
Michael Owen may yet be a great piece of business, provided the former Liverpool forward can stay injury free. But if the inevitable strikes then Danny Welbeck and Federico Macheda have done little to prove they will slot straight into the side. This must be a concern.
Trying to offer solutions to these questions is the manager, no spring chicken himself. During the wilderness years – 2002-2005 – when United seemed so far behind Chelsea, some called for Sir Alex’ head. Yet, the Scot raised the metaphorical finger and has led United to three league titles, domestic cups, and the Champions League in the past three seasons. Ferguson, it seems, is stronger than ever.
The concern now is that when Ferguson retires the club is left looking for the best option available, not simply the best. But the board could start planning for succession now. The bold move would be to capture Jose Mourinho, the only manager with the confidence, self belief and arrogance to take over from Sir Alex. Mourinho would undoubtedly relish the challenge.
What better time for Sir Alex to call it a day, with a 19th title win in May and Liverpool, who United visit this weekend, knocked permanently ‘off their f*cking perch.’