The surprise decision to re-sign Michael Owen means that Manchester United will have up to eight senior strikers on the books next season. With Wayne Rooney largely untouchable, Javier Hernández and Dimitar Berbatov will be joined by returning youngsters Federico Macheda, Danny Welbeck and Mame Biram Diouf fighting for a place in Sir Alex Ferguson’s side. Moreover, attempts to covert £8.3 million misfit Bébé into a striker leaves Ferguson with a plethora of attacking options but a group that needs rationalisation his players are not to be left without football next season.
Indeed, logic suggests only Rooney and Hernández, together with Owen, can guarantee their places in United’s squad next season, leaving Berbatov to ponder his future after being dropped for the Champions League final. Meanwhile, Ferguson’s promise to bring Welbeck back into the Old Trafford fold leaves the futures of Macheda and Diouf in doubt. The smart money is perhaps on neither being at Old Trafford before the start of next season.
In fact the decision to extend Owen’s contract to a third year at the club, despite the former Liverpool player starting just one Premier League match last season, will impact at least one Old Trafford youngster. It is a choice born of practical and financial concerns. Owen is on a heavily incentivised contract, and despite not using the 31-year-old frequently, Ferguson values the experience that the player offers. With Paul Scholes, Gary Neville, Owen Hargreaves and Edwin van der Sar departing the club, experience is something Ferguson has lost in quantity.
“Michael has proved to be a top footballer,” Ferguson said of the decision to re-sign Owen.
“It’s unfortunate Michael didn’t get more opportunities but the form of Chicharito put everyone in the shade and his partnership with Rooney proved invaluable. I am delighted Michael is staying for a further year and we will look to give him more opportunities in the new season.”
Owen’s chances depend heavily on how many forwards Ferguson chooses to keep in his squad next season, in particular Berbatov who appeared in 42 games, scoring 22 goals in the season just ended. And while Ferguson may be loathe to lose a player of the Bulgarian’s class and experience, this summer is the last realistic chance that United will be able to command a sizeable fee for the striker. Ferguson is reportedly willing to consider any offer in excess of £15 million for the former Tottenham Hotspur man.
Meanwhile, Welbeck will return to the United first team squad after a successful, if injury-prone, loan spell at Sunderland last season. The Longsight-born striker scored six goals in 28 appearances for the Wearsiders and earned an England cap against Ghana in March. Yet if Berbatov stays at Old Trafford Welbeck is likely to spend most of next season on the bench. Its an observation that could lead to the 20-year-old to leave on loan once again. Although unlikely, Ferguson could also cash in on the player who is desperately wanted by Steve Bruce.
The situation is even less clear for Macheda, who spent the second half of last season on loan at Sampdoria in Serie A, helping the Genoa club to a humiliating relegation. The 19-year-old scored just once in 16 games for the doomed side in a spell now roundly regarded as a disaster. More to the point, Macheda’s decision not to remain in England – Ferguson’s preference – may well point to an eventual exit for the striker. Few players defy the manager and remain to chance the Scot’s patience a second time.
Yet, the player’s agent Giovanni Bia has repeatedly made noises about the Italian youngster remaining with United next season, denying this week a move is afoot: “There is a 90 per cent chance Federico Macheda will remain with Manchester United,” Bia said. “As far as I am aware, Manchester United intend to keep Macheda. They don’t want to loan him out again.”
However, Diouf’s chances at United appear negligible after a poor loan spell at Blackburn Rovers. Although the £3.5 million striker scored a hat-trick against Norwich in the Carling Cup last autumn, just three goals in 27 Premier League appearances as Rovers successfully fought a relegation battle tell the story of a mediocre season. The Senegalese striker has played just five times for United, scoring once, but it is hard to envision a scenario in which he can force his way into Ferguson’s plans next season.
The same can be said of Bébé, although there is no chance United will recoup anything like the £8.3 million it cost in transfer and agents fees to bring the Portuguese to the club. Bébé’s power and pace are not in doubt but regular observers of United’s second string will have noted the limited progression the 20-year-old has made in understanding the game.
The plethora of options means that some players are likely to be disappointed next season; perhaps more so if they stay at Old Trafford only to watch from the stands. Not so Owen, who this week used Twitter to declare his delight at signing the one-year extension.
“I’d rather play less in a top team that more in poor side,” said the 31-year-old, much to Newcastle United’s apparent chagrin.