When Manchester United started the current season Sir Alex Ferguson could boast seven first team strikers; the Scot may go into the summer with just three. Indeed, while Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernández and Danny Welbeck will certainly start the 2012/13 campaign at Old Trafford, doubts abound whether Ferguson’s remaining forwards will be with the club.
After all, United’s decision to allow Dimitar Berbatov to leave in the summer will almost certainly be confirmed in June when the Bulgarian moves to a continental club. Meanwhile, Michael Owen is out of contract, with the former England striker unlikely to be offered a renewed deal, and then there is Federico Macheda, the 20-year-old Italian on loan at Queens Park Rangers who, at a minimum, will be loaned out for another season.
The likely trio of striking departures will leave Ferguson seeking a fourth senior forward at Old Trafford, with United likely to dip into the transfer market when the window opens on 1 July.
Berbatov’s departure was confirmed earlier this week when first Sir Alex and then the player’s agent admitted that the Bulgarian will be leaving after four years, 147 games and 56 goals for the club. That the player did not make the bench for United’s recent fixtures with Athletic Bilbao and Wolverhampton Wanderers says much for just how far the £30 million former Tottenham Hotspur player has fallen out of favour.
Departure will mark the end of a disappointing period for the striker, who has won so many fans with a mixture of artistic ability and off-the-field cool, but, ultimately, failed to produce enough on the pitch. Ferguson, apparently in search of more pace in attack, will not stand in the striker’s way this summer, although it is not yet clear whether United will – or has – already enacted a ‘one-way’ one-year contract extension clause. Extension will guarantee a transfer fee, albeit minimal for a player now in his thirties.
“We accept that Sir Alex Ferguson is [building] his next Manchester United for the next three to four years and the future of Manchester United is not related to Mitko,” said Emil Danchev, using Berbatov’s Bulgarian nickname.
“Sir Alex wants to change the style of play of United, to put more speed in the game. I wanted Manchester to announce that if any team that wants to go for Mitko, they will sit down and negotiate. Mitko must endure this situation. It is not his style to start making scandals like Tevez. Up against Chicharito, Rooney and Welbeck… the only thing all those players have more of than Mitko is speed. Berbatov is more technical.”
Then there is Owen, the diminutive former-Liverpool striker, turned horse breeder, who has scored 17 goals in 52 games for United over three seasons. The goals-to-games ration, in part at least, masks what has been a highly unproductive period, with all but three of Owen’s goals coming in cup competitions, rather than the Premier League.
Injury has struck too, as Ferguson must have known it always would – the latest a hamstring tear that has sidelined the 32-year old since United’s match against Oţelul Galaţi at Old Trafford last November.
Ferguson has been steadfast in his support of Owen though, promising last summer that the 40-goal England international would be used more often in the first team. It didn’t happen, in part because the striker has spent long periods on the treatment table, but also because the 70-year-old manager has so many attacking options available.
Yet, despite all Ferguson’s kind words for the Glazernomic poster-child it will be a major shock if the club offers Owen another deal now, no matter how cheap he is. Fans will always have that last minute winner against Manchester City to celebrate.
Perhaps a more difficult discussion will surround Macheda, who burst onto the scene three years ago with a dramatic goal against Aston Villa at Old Trafford, but has made little progress since. Indeed, when Kiko scored to bring United back into the title race in April 2009 many fans ranked the Italian youngster ahead of Welbeck, both in the pecking order, and on potential. No more, with the former Lazio striker seemingly having gone backwards in the intervening years.
Macheda’s failure to progress has, in part at least, been down to rank bad luck with injuries. But there has also been two disastrous loan spells, first at relegated Sampdoria last season and now with QPR. Critics can, of course, point to Macheda’s desire to return ‘home’ when the club would have preferred a spell in the Premier League last season. But Macheda cannot have predicted such a rapid turnover in managers in west London, where the Italian moved in January.
Yet, there is also the sense that Macheda feels entitled to a place at the top table; that, somehow, he has forgotten the hard work and focus that earned Welbeck a move from reserve team wannbe to Sir Alex’ key man, via a loan at Sunderland, and a place on the international scene.
All is not lost for the youngster though. Others have failed at Old Trafford only to make it elsewhere, not least Ferguson’s seventh striker – Mame Biram Diouf – who has now scored five goals in nine games for Hannover 96 after a £1.5 million transfer in January.
The question now, of course, is whether Ferguson will dip into the transfer market for a fourth choice striker next season, or turn to one of the reserve team youngsters. Certainly, there are supporters who will favour internal promotion, with Will Keane highly regarded by those who watch the second string frequently. Yet, at just 19, and with one first team appearance to date, Ferguson is more likely to send Keane out on loan to the Championship next season.
The alternate route, should Owen leave as is expected, is to bring an experienced man into the squad a little-to-no cost. Could Ferguson’s eye cast eastwards towards Turin, and the once great Alessandro del Piero, who will leave the Old Lady in the summer? It would rank with Ferguson’s most surprising signings, including Laurent Blanc and Henrik Larsson.
More likely, United will follow a similar path to recent windows, by seeking a young, inexpensive forward, who is preferably English, although Ferguson’s scouting network will have been scouring the globe over the past season. Fans may wish to take media stories linking United with big-money acquisitions – Demba Ba, Jan Klaas-Huntelaar, Fernando Llorente, Leandro Damiao – with a pinch of salt.
But if Glazernomics is depressing, then there is always Bébé – the long-forgotten winger-cum-forward who has spent the entire season with Beşiktaş, injured. Now there would be a surprise return.