So here it is: after an 85 day break the new Premier League season begins this weekend. José Mourinho has added four high-class players to his squad and will now, presumably, concentrate on cutting some bloat before the window closes at the end of August. Indeed, Manchester United’s confidence and hopes are higher than at any time since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. It’s a fine squad, albeit with some holes, that should challenge on multiple fronts this season. But who’s the best and the who’s the worst at Old Trafford. Rant ranks them all, from 30 to 1.
Manchester United’s Premier and Champions League lists, confirmed on Tuesday, include Scottish captain Darren Fletcher, with the 28-year-old seemingly on the verge of a return to first team action this season. However, £7.4 million Portuguese misfit Bébé misses out on European action as Sir Alex Ferguson named his squads for the first half of the season.
Fletcher has not appeared for United since 22 November 2011, and played just 10 times last season after taking an extended break from football. The Scot is recovering from a long-term affliction with ulcerative colitis, although there is no date for the midfielder’s return to the first team. Indeed, Sir Alex Ferguson was able to include Fletcher in both squads – due to his ‘home grown’ status – without impacting on any other player’s place in the squad.
The Scot has appeared twice for United’s Under 21 side this season, with Ferguson reporting Fletcher has gained weight and strength over the summer.
Meanwhile, Bébé – Tiago Manuel Dias Correia – has remained at the club this season after United failed to find a loan spell for the player. The former Vitória de Guimarães player will be available for domestic duty in the unlikely event Ferguson calls on his unique services.
Bébé spent last season on loan with Besiktas in Turkey, although a knee injury curtailed the season to just a handful of appearances. In the meantime Portuguese police continue to investigate the deal – a transfer in which more than 30 per cent of the fee went to agent Jorge Mendes.
United’s European party includes a 25 man ‘A’ squad and eight on the ‘B’ list, although Sir Alex can add to the secondary list at any point proving the player meets UEFA’s criteria. Players are eligible for the B list if born on or after 1 January 1991, and if they have been registered with the club for two years without interruption.
Meanwhile, Premier League rules demand that United registers a 25 man squad – United’s is 24 strong – with no more than 17 players who do not fulfil the ‘Home Grown Player’ criteria. Home Grown players are those who, irrespective of nationality or age, have been registered with an FA affiliated club for three seasons prior to their 21st birthday. Under 21 players are those born on or after 1st January 1991, and United can include any number over and above the 25 man squad limit. Phil Jones, for example, is not included in United’s 24 man Premier League squad, but is eligible as an Under 21.[table id=20 /]
The transfer window has shut after one of the quietest periods in recent memory, with Manchester United’s activity symptomatic of the Premier League. Yet, United’s investment is also increasingly emblematic of the Glazer family’s ownership of the ‘world’s biggest club’. It’s a strategy that has left United short of quality both domestically and in Europe.
Indeed, United will exit the transfer window with just 24 players, including perennially injured Owen Hargreaves, on the Premier and Champions League ‘A’ list, supplemented by a further 10 players on the ‘B’ list. The ‘B’ list can be expanded at any point, with unlimited players under the age of 21 from United’s reserve and youth teams permitted.
This was, according to Sir Alex Ferguson and his immediate boss chief executive David Gill, to be the season of youth, with United’s academy produce supplemented by acquisitions Chris Smalling, Javier Hernández and Bebé at a cost of just under £25 million.
Early season fixtures have clarified the position: this is, in fact, to be the season of enduring experience, with hope that United’s younger acquisitions from abroad will develop at a more rapid pace than, say, Zoran Tošić and Ben Foster, discarded from the squad this summer.
The investment strategy, dictated by the owners’ increasingly strained financial position and the pressing need to pay down debt, essentially leaves the club with the same squad as last season, Hernández being the player closest to regular first team action of the new acquisitions.
United, of course, went close last season, taking Chelsea to within a point of the Premier League title. Yet inconsistency in the team’s performances were exposed in seven domestic league defeats and an early exit from the FA Cup at the hands of arch rivals Leeds United. The Carling Cup was of little consolation.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of United’s campaign – certainly for Ferguson – was the club’s exit at the quarter final stage of the Champions League. The Scot has now, with more than a hint of revisionism, blamed the defeat on bad luck, while ignoring Bayern Munich’s outstanding first leg performance and stirring late Old Trafford comeback.
Ferguson, the realpolitik pragmatist, is hardly likely to say anything else, especially armed with the knowledge that investment will not match United’s spending of previous eras when the Scot broke the British transfer record on five separate occasions.
Thus the Scot dismissed fears of financial hardship, declaring the market to hold no value, while telling fans, with more than a hint of condescension, that they didn’t really want a big name signing anyway.
It’s a claim that both ignores the team’s immediate needs, assuming the goal is to compete on four fronts, and the market dynamics this summer where value is in fact to be found everywhere.
In terms of United’s squad, the most glaring omission is in central midfield where weight of numbers hardly compensates for the fact that Paul Scholes has still not been replaced. The midfielder’s early season form will not mask this reality when the Champions League begins in mid-September and Scholes must rest.
United, as Ferguson has already noted, is short of goals from central midfield and will operate without an attacking midfielder playmaker in either 4-4-2 or 4-3-2-1 formations that the Scot is likely to deploy this season.
Ferguson needs Anderson to discover his fitness and best form quickly. It’s almost two years since the Brazilian could claim to own both. The Scot must also draw Michael Carrick out of the year-long slump that has robbed the former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder of far too many key assets.
Then there is the Hargreaves question. The player will surely never play for the club again, leaving Darren Fletcher as the club’s only genuine tough-tackling defensive midfielder. Suspension, injury and burnout hold a constant fear.
United has acquired defensive cover in a sensible move by Ferguson, whose side suffered in that department at times last season. Smalling though is no experienced campaigner, leaving United’s manager reliant on Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic’s fitness remaining on a more even keel than at any time in the last 18 months.
Up front Ferguson has an embarrassment of riches, assuming Rooney rediscovers his fitness and form permanently. Hernández’ acqusition will, hopefully, reduce the burden on United’s talisman.
Michael Owen will rightfully be restricted to a bit part role, while Dimitar Berbatov’s early season promises much. But few supporters will now count on the Bulgarian to maintain it throughout the season.
In wide areas Nani and Antonio Valencia – eventually in the Portuguese winger’s case – boasted outstanding seasons last time out. Each will offer an attacking threat from wide that is equal to almost anything on the continent. The replacements, Ryan Giggs, Ji-Sung Park and Gabriel Obertan offer adequate cover.
Yet Ferguson enters the season with more questions hanging over his squad than is comfortable. Certainly more than at the height of United’s success.
Hope, they say, is no kind of strategy.
What may save the club’s season, at least domestically, is the failure of United’s rivals to improve key areas. Chelsea essentially replaced like-for-like in swapping Joe Cole for Yossi Benayoun, while Ramires will add much-needed quality at the base of Carlo Ancelotti’s three-man midfield. Perhaps the biggest victory for the Italian is the return of the truly outstanding Michael Essien from injury.
Meanwhile, Arsenal has strengthened in central defence but failed to acquire a goalkeeper, which will surely cost Arsène Wenger points this season.
City, being City, will surely fall short of the Premier League title as £130 million worth of new acquisitions bed in.
In Europe though Barcelona has done outstanding business, replacing the ineffective Zlatan Ibrahimovic with the Spanish goal machine David Villa. Javier Mascherano is surely an upgrade on the hopelessly overrated Yaya Touré.
Meanwhile, Real Madrid has also found real value in recruiting the brilliant playmaker Mesut Özil, along with Sergio Canales and Sami Khedira for little more than €30 million.
The activity during the window points to a tight race domestically, where Chelsea must be considered favourites. A probable knock-out round exit awaits United in Europe.
For the owners that scenario remains economically acceptable. After all, United was the biggest grossing club in the Champions League last season despite the early exit and revenue is the Glazer family’s only concern.
Fans might just think differently come may.[table id=5 /]
Sir Alex Ferguson says he is close to finalising his 25 man Premier League squad but may have to make a last-minute call on injured players. New rules dictate that Ferguson must name a maximum squad of 25 men, including eight players deemed as home grown. The Scot may also name an unlimited ‘B’ list of under 21 players to supplement the squad.
Premier League rules, agreed by club chairmen last September, state that home grown players are those registered by an English club for at least three seasons between the ages of 16 and 21. Ferguson is well served in this department with 12 players in his ‘A’ list and another eight on the ‘B’ list this season.
The United manager will also benefit from naming a number of first team squad members on his ‘B’ list, including Rafael da Silva, Chris Smalling, Federico Macheda and Gabriel Obertan whom are all under 21 as of January this year.
Ferguson’s final Premier League squad is also likely to match his Champions League squad very closely, although the rules are not identical. UEFA also stipulate a 25 man ‘A’ squad but have no provision for home grown talent. The United manager can also name a ‘B’ list of players born on or after 1 January 1989, so long as each player was eligible to play for the club for any uninterrupted period of two years since their 15th birthday.
However, Ferguson indicated that he may be forced to leave out injured pair Anderson and Owen Hargreaves if either has not recovered from injury by the time the window shuts. Anderson is expected to return in late September, while Hargreaves remains at Dr. Richard Steadman’s Denver clinic for the foreseeable future.
“It does give me a problem, but I’ve just got to wait as long as I can,” Ferguson said overnight in Houston, where United faces the MLS All-Stars last on Wednesday night.
“I have to make a decision at some point of course and it depends on when I think those players can come back. Most of it [the squad] is formulated in my mind, but one or two I have to make decisions on.”
With 25 men probably on the ‘A’ list already, Ferguson is likely to face a tough choice over Anderson and Hargreaves only if the Scot dips into the transfer market for a player over the age of 21 before the window closes on 1 September this year.
The new rules, despite some media coverage to the contrary, are not aimed at increasing the number of English players in the Premier League, although they will offer younger players more exposure and prevent player stockpiling.
Indeed, United is already well place in terms of squad composition compared to rivals Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and especially Liverpool. While City may leave expensive signings on the sidelines, or ship them out this summer, Liverpool can only name a 20-man senior squad as it stands. Similarly Chelsea and Arsenal are each short of home grown talent within the senior ranks.
Ferguson may face a tougher choice at start of 2011/12, with home grown players Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville possibly retiring. That said a number of the current ‘B’ list including the da Silva brothers will qualify as home grown if they are not already by next summer.
If the legendary United triumvirate does retire Ferguson will face some serious challenges rebuilding his squad, with Michael Owen and Hargeaves also out of contract in June 2011. While Owen’s contract includes an option for a third season at the club, it will take a minor miracle for Canadian-born England international Hargreaves to earn another contract with the club.[table id=5 /]