Sir Alex Ferguson claims that Manchester United is unlikely to spend again this close season but it is the 69-year-old manager’s assertion that this summer’s retirements have financed the club’s spending that will raise eyebrows. While United’s Cristiano Ronaldo-sized cash pile has finally enabled Ferguson to loosen a vice-like grip on the Glazers’ cheque book, it is seemingly the requirement to reign in spending on wages that may limit the Scot’s transfer market ambitions.
Indeed, as has become the parlance in recent times the “Ronaldo money is there,” with the Scot giving the green-light to spend heavily on Wesley Sneijder this summer but unable to afford the Dutchman’s admittedly astronomical wages. Plus ça change critics might add, with United still investing in promise rather than fulfilled talent under the Glazer regime, despite the squad requirements this summer.
“We lost five players in their 30s this summer,” said Ferguson in New York last night, ahead of United’s fixture with MLS All Stars at the Red Bull Arena.
“That helped finance the three younger players – Ashley Young, Phil Jones and David de Gea – I have brought to the club. At this moment, I can’t see another addition. The type of player we might have been looking for is not available. I am happy with the players I have got at this moment in time.”
Ferguson’s comments are a less than oblique reference to Luka Modric, Samir Nasri and Sneijder, each of whom has piqued the Scot’s interest. But with Tottenham Hotspur steadfastly refusing to sell the Croatian and Nasri more-than-likely joining Manchester City on a Bosman next summer, Ferguson’s options in a narrow field are now limited.
Yet the failure to secure Sneijder is disturbing. The Dutchman will remain at Internazionale for the foreseeable future after neatly slotting into a central midfield role in Gian Piero Gasperini’s 3-4-3 system during pre-season. Note to United supporters who doubted it: the Sneijder is, and has always been, tactically flexible enough to flourish in the deeper role identified for him at Old Trafford.
Financially speaking the aborted deal for Sneijder once again brings into question United’s muscle in the Glazer era. By far the world’s most profitable club – at least in EBITDA terms – with the third largest revenue on the planet, United could not close out the deal despite Inter’s willingness – read requirement – to sell and Sneijder’s openness to a move.
After all, Inter is more than £100 million behind United in annual revenues with a highly under-commercialised structure that requires the club to balance the books before UEFA’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) initiative kicks in.
What then of United’s prospects in the coming season, with Michael Carrick, Anderson, Darren Fletcher and Ryan Giggs making up Ferguson’s limited options in central midfield. Each has a serious question mark about his quality and ability to perform.
After all Carrick’s improved performance last season may yet be the exception to prove a rule in an otherwise undistinguished three-season period. Anderson has offered glimpses of talent in an otherwise highly disappointing four-year spell at Old Trafford, while Fletcher cannot shake a serious virus that undermined the Scot’s last campaign. Giggs, the mainstay of United’s central midfield creativity towards the back-end of last season, is 38 in November.
Quibbles over quality aside when it comes to raw numbers Ferguson has fewer options in central midfield for the coming campaign than last.
Despite this United will begin the new season as favourites to retain the Premier League title. Chelsea’s dynamic new coach and Manchester City’s wealth notwithstanding, none of United’s domestic rivals is stronger. New midfielder or not, the nine-point gap at the head of the table told of United’s ability to endure a long domestic and European campaign.
Yet there is a real debate about whether the club is any stronger for the coming season even if Ferguson has laid the seeds for long-term success. David de Gea is an outstanding young goalkeeper under immense pressure during his first campaign at the club. Phil Jones will offer solid defensive back-up but less flexibility than Wes Brown and John O’Shea. Meanwhile, Ashley Young must perform from the start to convince many United supporters that the 26-year-0ld is the solution to closing the gap on Barcelona in European terms.
Indeed, in Europe’s premier competition it is hard to see United bettering last season’s performance, in which a spot in the final exceeded many expectations. The humiliating loss to Barcelona at Wembley, insisted Ferguson, was a challenge United would rise too. The Scot’s assertion that no new midfielder will join his ranks has surely negated the promise before a competitive ball has been kicked.
Not that the answer to all United’s challenges lies in the transfer market of course but just occasionally established talent is required amid the club’s policy of buying for the future. In this most pundits and supporters agree that United’s central midfield options are far more limited that even Ferguson must be comfortable with, despite the Scot’s assertion to the contrary.
Of course it could be a ruse by the wily Scot, who has never been slow to offer the media a smokescreen or two. But with chief executive David Gill joining Ferguson’s party in New York this week it is safe to assume that there is no new signing on the immediate horizon.
Whether any future acquisition is of the quality United supporters hope for is seemingly very much down to economics.