When Sir Alex Ferguson signed Michael Owen on a free transfer in the summer many fans saw the signing as a low-cost gamble on an experienced goalscorer. Nine goals in 31 appearances later and Owen’s injury-prone record came home to roost. But with Wayne Rooney is such stunning form it mattered little. Until now.
Owen’s record with Newcastle United averages 18 games and seven goals per season. In short United squeezed out of the former Liverpool and Real Madrid striker exactly what Owen’s history suggested. Value for money in an expensive market but absolutely no more than that.
Increasingly Ferguson has deployed Rooney as the lone front-man in a 4-3-3 formation designed to pack central midfield and exploit the Scouser’s dynamism and goalscoring form. It worked; the former Evertonian has scored 34 goals in all competitions this season, a personal record that will earn the striker both the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) and Football Writers’ Association (FWA) Player of the Year accolades.
But Rooney’s form is only part of the picture in a demanding season where squad rotation has rarely applied to the 24-year-old forward. Had injury not struck, Rooney’s season would surely have consisted of more games than any other in his career to date.
The result is that United’s other senior strikers Dimitar Berbatov, together with Owen, have started just 33 games between them this season. Although both players can boast a one goal in two games ratio when starting, United’s squad quite obviously lacks a senior goalscorer of international class without Rooney.
Taking David Gill’s word on finances at face value – a stretch of course – Ferguson could have spent large on another striker last summer, even if Karim Benzema preferred Real Madrid to Old Trafford. But should he?
Ferguson’s decision to withdraw from the transfer market has not been helped by the long absence of Federico Macheda, whose off-field ‘attitude problems’ and on field hamstring injuries have restricted the Italian under-21 international to just a couple of substitute appearances this season.
There is also disappointment with the progress of Danny Welbeck, whom Ferguson earmarked as a potential for Fabio Capello’s England squad at the season’s start. The local-boy was given little opportunity to impress before being shipped out to Championship side Preston North End in January.
Moreover, the Scot has now settled on a formation that rarely requires the use of two strikers in the biggest games. No longer, it seems, does Ferguson want four front line strikers as in the past.
But why then does the word-on-the-street say Ferguson has earmarked the largest chunk of his summer budget – United has a £75 million overdraft facility, if no real cash – to bringing in another striker? Perhaps the Scot now realises United is horribly exposed.
Rooney’s injury – on very early prognosis – will keep the striker out for two to four weeks. In the best case scenario he will miss United’s games with Chelsea and Bayern Munich at Old Trafford, and the visit to Blackburn. Any longer and Rooney will miss a potential Champions League semi-final and Premier League matches against Manchester City, Spurs and Sunderland.
That’s the best case in a potentially nightmare scenario. But the transfer market is likely to be no less heated this summer than last. There’s still no value, with Chelsea and Manchester City both in search of a top class forward. Prices will once again reach stratospheric proportions.
Ferguson will have to spend very big to bring top quality to the side or United will next season, like this, will be worryingly reliant on Rooney’s brilliance.