The Manchester United conundrum

It seems that some people think solving the Manchester United conundrum is as easy as flying an anti-David Moyes banner over Old Trafford.

Others believe it to be a task that will require more than a £100m splurge in the summer transfer window to complete.

Whichever way Manchester United’s current plight is observed, you can’t help but wonder where it all went so wrong.

Perhaps the most startling difference between the 2012/13 title-winning side and the current 2013/14 squad is the defence.

Nothing has changed in terms of personnel yet it looks completely dysfunctional.

Having watched several Manchester United games this season from the comfort of a local pub, it has even appeared to be frightened, almost paralysed with fear.

This was so devastatingly demonstrated by Manchester City’s bludgeoning of their arch-rivals in the very first minute at Old Trafford on Tuesday night.

City swarmed forward and fizzed around the United defenders as if their legs had been soaked in a concrete bath. They were motionless, scared and lacked aggression.

David Silva danced around two United defenders with embarrassing ease, before Samir Nasri’s simple shuffle and shot hit the post and fell straight to Edin Dzeko who tucked the ball away with the sort of unchallenged freedom strikers can only dream about.

Who would replace this ailing defensive unit, then?

Unfortunately for David Moyes, summer signings will be hard to come by.

Not only is the World Cup a traditional obstacle in transfer dealings, but the cunning Old Trafford executives have arranged a pre-season tour of the United States just weeks after the final in Rio.

This means that not only will world-class players be recuperating on holiday and therefore be unavailable to negotiate with, but any prospective signing would not have the chance to integrate with the squad.

Manchester United’s troubles don’t end there.

In midfield they lack energy, creation and combativity. Marouane Fellaini has so far proved to be a dazzlingly questionable signing, while Juan Mata has failed to make an indelible impact since his £37m January move from Chelsea.

Tellingly, both new signings have failed to score since their arrival at the club.

Moyes has been very active on scouting missions throughout the winter and has reportedly had Sporting Lisbon’s holding midfielder William Carvalho scouted 12 times.

Carvalho would be an ideal fit at United but the English champions are not his only suitors – and there Moyes faces another problem.

It is becoming harder and harder to believe that world-class players and those of similar potential would choose United as their next club over another one such as Barcelona or Real Madrid.

Moyes could do much worse than blooding the promising Nick Powell if his pursuit of Toni Kroos is fruitless, but it would be a blow similar to the failed chases of Thiago Alcantara and Cesc Fabregas if Carvalho decided against a move to Old Trafford.

Would Manchester United’s under-fire manager then be forced to panic buy as he has apparently done with Fellaini and Mata?

All the current criticism of Moyes is not only misinformed, it is premature.

The Scot has barely had a chance to construct his own side, allowing the new recruits to gel and then getting them to play in the manner he wants.

Therefore he should be judged midway into the 2015/16 season, when it will become clear if his forthcoming transfer strategies have worked or not.

If he is to succeed he can afford no repeat of his previous transfer dealings. That said, the World Cup barricade might prove to be his maker.

Then there is the spectre of European football.

Before the home game against Aston Villa, a five-point gap separates United in seventh and Spurs in sixth. The final Europa League place is awarded to sixth place with a Champions League spot all but mathematically beyond United.

If United do miss out on European football they could struggle to attract the biggest names to the club – and that is a focusing chastisement of their deficiencies this season.

Given all his current challenges, and the ones that inevitably lie ahead, Moyes will be hoping that he is afforded the time he needs to reconstruct a side so alarmingly in decline – and with a six-year contract in hand it is logical for him to be given it.

Who are the best and worst Premier League chairmen and owners?

As Jonathan Swift, the author of Gulliver’s Travels, once said, “It is in men as in soils where sometimes there is a vein of gold which the owner knows not.”

Worryingly, this quote could apply to several Premier League chairmen this season after a series of controversial and seemingly unwarranted sackings.

Latest of them all is the fiasco at Cardiff City, where manager Malky Mackay was finally put out of his misery by the oblivious Vincent Tan.

However, Tan is just one of a number of Premier League club owners to have shown little remorse in pursuit of good results and ‘better’ performances.

How long will it be before the Premier League’s managerial environment mirrors the Latin American one?

Only this year, Mexico employed four different managers in six weeks to get them to the World Cup finals.

Supporters of that cut-throat strategy will argue that it worked as Mexico made it to Brazil this summer, but opponents to it will point towards an apparent culture of ‘short-term’ gains where good results coincide with spiked player performances – brought about by a need to impress the new manager and therefore gain a regular starting slot.

Either way it’s clear that long-term stability, reputation building and familiarity are the best recipes for club growth – certainly in English football. With that in mind, who makes the top five best and worst Premier League chairmen/owners?

I’ll hit you with the good first:

5. John W. Henry, Liverpool owner and chairman

Liverpool fans across the country rejoiced when Henry made a bid for Liverpool in 2010. He was eventually successful and replaced the embittered and faltering Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr. as owner shortly afterwards. A billionaire businessman, Henry built up a rapport with Reds fans when appointing club stalwart Kenny Dalglish in 2011. He then backed Dalglish by granting the £57.8m spent on Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll after Fernando Torres’ £56m sale. The Suarez transfer is undoubtedly the best of his reign so far, and plans to renovate Anfield rather than move to Stanley Park are also proving popular. It seems he has no intention of enjoying the headlines and has the club’s best interests to mind – which is perhaps the ultimate sign of a good owner.

4. Sheikh Mansour, Manchester City owner

Love him or despise him, Sheikh Mansour’s billions have overseen a huge change in fortunes for the club historically seen as the second-biggest in Manchester. Rival fans have offered jibes of ‘can’t buy class’ and ‘Man-cash-ter City’ but the transformation of the club has been so comprehensive that they have usurped United as the giants of Manchester on current form. Mansour has also funded an investment in young talent and a symmetry with Barcelona’s youth academies which will benefit them in decades to come. Overall, it’s hard to see how else City could have reached their current level if Mansour had not delved into his pockets.

3. Bill Kenwright, Everton chairman

Kenwright has gradually increased his involvement with Everton, which peaked in 2004 when he became the club’s majority shareholder. He has been on the board since 1989 and supported the Goodison Park club as a boy. He is also an astute and loyal chairman in terms of managerial appointments, having enjoyed an 11-year stint with David Moyes at the helm and replacing him with Roberto Martinez, himself a loyal and passionate boss having stayed with Wigan through good and bad spells. Everton have not always had the budget to spend on transfers, but that is not a concern when wise purchasing and faith in young talent are among Kenwright’s beliefs.

2. Huw Jenkins, Swansea City chairman

Swansea are in safe hands with Jenkins as chairman, not least because of his tight purse strings. This summer he admitted that the idea of spending £12m on one player – Wilfried Bony – made him uncomfortable, but a recent history of transfers suggests he likes to pay little for more. Michu for £2m and Pablo Hernandez for £5.5m are cases in point, while manager Michael Laudrup could also be included on that list having done a superb job since taking over last summer. But Jenkins should be credited with saving the club from failure in the Football League, having cleaned up the club’s finances. Swansea now boast multi-million pound profits and also won the league cup last season under Jenkins’ guidance.

1. Peter Coates, Stoke City owner and chairman

It’s not often that a Premier League chairman has two bites at the cherry, but in the case of Peter Coates that much is true. A lifelong fan of the club, even having trials with them as a player, Coates will always have their best intentions at heart. His first tenure as owner lasted eight years until 1997, when he stepped down after protests from fans. However, Coates then set up bet365.com in 2000 and took ownership of the club again in 2005, showing loyalty and support to Tony Pulis who managed the team for seven years – a rare tenurial stint. Coates clearly knows how to run a big operation and his preference for British managers must also be welcomed in the modern game. His absence in the headlines is also good news for the club and, taking everything into consideration, Coates has done an extremely good job.

Now the bad:

5. Malcolm Glazer, Manchester United owner

Possibly the least-popular man in the red side of Manchester, Malcolm Glazer’s takeover of the club piled hundreds of millions of pounds worth of debt into the Old Trafford outfit. In his defence he has always committed the necessary funds for big transfers, but that is largely due to the club’s ever-expanding sponsorship portfolio. Fans continue to worry over the rumours that the Glazer family is withdrawing funds from the club. The bottom line is that Glazer’s incumbency has been a shady one and fans are reluctant to trust him.

4. Ellis Short, Sunderland owner and chairman

One of the motifs of bad ownership is the regularity with which managers come and go. In Ellis Short’s case, since he assumed full control of the club in 2009 he has sacked three managers which is a healthy – or unhealthy – ratio. In particular, the appointment of Paolo di Canio caused a stir given the Italian’s constant flirtation with controversy, but in Gus Poyet he seems to have finally made a decent change. Short has also been criticised for his handling of Martin O’Neill, who was widely considered to be a success at Sunderland having saved them from relegation in his first season in charge. It is that type of impatience which earns Short a place on the bad side of this blog.

3. Assem Allam, Hull City owner

Another hugely controversial owner, Allam has done little to enamour himself amongst Hull’s home support. His proposal to Americanize the club’s “common” name of Hull City to Hull City Tigers has been met with widespread anger in the footballing community but Allam is showing little sign of relenting. It is effectively a marketing tool, but Hull’s hardcore support continue to resist by singing ‘City til we die’. Allam, in typical mood, suggested that they could “die as soon as they want.” Has there been a more charming owner?

2. Mike Ashley, Newcastle United owner and chairman

Ever since downing a pint in amongst Toon fans during a trip to the Emirates, Newcastle owner Mike Ashley has been a figure of fun in the footballing world. His popularity was initially high after appointing Kevin Keegan as manager, but his decisions ever since have proved extremely unpopular. Notably, his friendship with Joe Kinnear – who later became manager – and Dennis Wise, who worked closely with Keegan, were negatively received. After Keegan resigned, he put the club up for sale but never enticed a buyer. Other recent controversies include changing the name of St. James’ Park and reappointing Kinnear in a director of football role. Ashley’s tenure is a fine example of how not to run a football club.

1. Vincent Tan, Cardiff City owner

The king of the worst Premier League owners, Tan’s every action has been divisive and infuriating for Cardiff fans. Changing the club crest and kit colour was viewed as heresy by Bluebirds fans, but Tan’s ill-advised moves have not stopped there. He removed the respected head of recruitment Iain Moody and hired Alisher Apsalyamov – a friend of Tan’s son who, embarrassingly, had no previous footballing experience and worse still, was placed on work experience with the club at the time. Up until today Malky Mackay was in charge but, after a tumultuous public row, he was sacked. Mackay’s sacking was the end of a two-week conflict which came about after an email sent by Tan ordering Mackay to ‘resign or be sacked’ was leaked to the media. Despite great support from colleagues and supporters, a 3-0 loss to Southampton spelled the end for the affable Scot. Cardiff fans will be wondering when Tan’s spell at the club will end, too.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

Who are the best and worst Premier League referees?

One of the most asked questions in football is, “Who’d want to be a referee?” – only someone capable of ignoring volleys of abuse hurled at them from all parts of the pitch, and a good amount from the stands. And the dug-outs. And those perched in front of a TV.

Newcomers to football might wonder why these referees, who give up their Saturday afternoons to officiate in the biggest games, actually put up with all the insults.

It could be because they get a great deal of protection from the sport’s governing bodies.

For instance, five years ago the FA started a ‘Respect’ campaign which was broadened by UEFA and FIFA, but which, like so many other schemes, has done little to mollify those who shout at officials with Neanderthal-like ferocity.

UEFA and FIFA have even refrained from publishing referee statistics, i.e. the number of yellow and red cards they have awarded in a given season, to further protect them from the bitterness that they so often encounter.

However, it is also said that the mark of a good referee is to go through a game virtually unseen. So who are the best and worst referees that Premier League fans have the pleasure of watching?

The good ones are up first:

5. Martin Atkinson (26 yellows, 1 red in 2013/14)

Fans can readily expect a good level of consistency from Atkinson, which is a quality so often desired by commentators around the country. His calm demeanour and the fact that he is also one of the more experienced referees currently officiating in the Premier League means he is a safe bet for the more explosive matches.

4. Mark Clattenburg (34 yellows, 0 reds)

A couple of years ago, Clattenburg would not have made the good list. His former tendencies to be erratic and inconsistent in big matches were key pieces of evidence on that front. However, after serving an eight-month ban for breach of contract he has enjoyed a renaissance. Now seen in high-profile games and aided by stronger and more accurate officiating, Clattenburg is one of the country’s top referees.

3. Howard Webb (29 yellows, 0 reds)

Up until the 2010 World Cup final, Howard Webb might have been recognised as the best referee in the world. However, the feisty nature of that match coupled with his decision not to send Dutch midfielder Nigel de Jong off for a ‘kung-fu’ challenge on Spain’s Xabi Alonso has tarnished his reputation somewhat. As a result, the FA has shared around the highest-profile matches more recently, despite Webb maintaining a level of respect from players that is rarely enjoyed. Is that because he’s a policeman?

2. Chris Foy (23 yellows, 1 red)

Steadfast and commanding, Foy finds himself high up on this list. Although recently developing a reputation for shyness in awarding penalties, Foy is a very capable referee who rarely makes glaring errors. Foy, 51, is currently in his eighteenth season as a professional referee and has worked his way up from the Football League to the top flight.

1. Andre Marriner (40 yellows, 4 reds)

Although card happy this season, Marriner has improved his officiating and is now considered to be one of the top referees in the FIFA family. The pinnacle of his career to date was the 2013 FA Cup final, where he became one of the few referees to show a red card in the final, after dismissing Manchester City’s Pablo Zabaleta for a reckless lunge. That he was chosen to officiate that match is evidence of the quality of his refereeing and could be in with a chance of travelling to Brazil next summer.

Now the bad…

5. Anthony Taylor (32 yellows, 2 reds)

One of the youngest referees in the Premier League, Taylor visibly lacks the experience required in big games. Unfortunately for him, he fails to assert his authority in matches, and players are often seen howling at his decisions. That he is rarely picked for games involving the top-flight’s largest teams suggests the FA lack confidence in him at this stage of his career.

4. Mike Dean (34 yellows, 2 reds)

Guilty of awarding soft penalties and often too card happy, Dean is also notorious for his inability to let games flow and is perhaps fond of the sound of his whistle. Despite his shortcomings, Dean is an experienced official and regularly oversees derby matches and other high-profile fixtures.

3. Phil Dowd (43 yellows, 0 reds)

In the past, Dowd was a figure of fun for his bulging waistline, but must attract praise for lifestyle changes that have helped him lose weight. Sir Alex Ferguson was one of the leading critics of his fitness, once remarking that Dowd was often found too far behind play to make key decisions. Dowd’s style also irritates, especially his snarling approach to on-field conversations and a whistle-happy tendency.

2. Jonathan Moss (33 yellows, 2 reds)

Moss, much like Taylor, has a lack of experience at the top level and consequently is prone to making decisions which are often inconsistent. He has twice been the specific subject of criticism on Match of the Day this season, and was guilty of a nightmare display in Crystal Palace’s trip to Old Trafford where several highly contentious decisions went against the Eagles – notably the dismissal of Kagisho Dikgacoi after Ashley Young’s dive.

1. Michael Oliver (44 yellows, 1 red)

To coin a popular phrase, Oliver is a ‘bottler’. A measure of a referee is their ability to withstand the heated atmosphere and pressured environment of top-flight football and, on many occasions, Oliver has quivered in the face of such requirements. He is, nevertheless, highly-regarded by the FA and has overseen his fair share of big matches. In mitigation, he is very young and will only improve with more experience, but has perhaps been promoted too soon into his career – and that is sorely evident.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

Can Manchester United be regarded as a ‘big club’ any more?

It may not seem obvious at first glance, but the roots of decline at Old Trafford have been growing for several seasons now. That they have been simultaneously camouflaged by a series of poor performances from many of their title rivals has helped them immeasurably.

But on May 8 this year, United’s manager – their great pillar of stability and trophy-winning continuity – Sir Alex Ferguson retired. David Moyes was swiftly announced as his successor, and it hasn’t taken long for the vultures to circle ominously above this once fearsome club.

Ferguson’s absence has exposed United’s decaying inner core – quite the opposite to innumerable suggestions that he had left the club in rude health following a record-breaking twentieth league title.

Moyes has acceded to a creaking throne which is in need of some refurbishment. One such issue within the club is the unfortunate loss of three promising young players who are now flourishing at their new clubs.

Serbian winger Zoran Tosic left the club almost as quickly as he came. Bought for £7m in 2009 he made just two appearances for United. His slight frame was deemed too diminutive for the physical pressures of the Premier League and he was sold to CSKA Moscow for £8m – where he has since scored at a rate of one goal every five games.

Even more surprising was the club’s inability to tie down Paul Pogba to a long-term contract. The young Frenchman, who United had so controversially ‘poached’ from Le Havre as a 16-year-old was starved of opportunities at United and when Juventus registered their interest he never looked back.

The pain United must have felt last season when Pogba enjoyed a breakthrough year for club and country would have been considerable as the Frenchman had long been identified as the type of player to replace Owen Hargreaves in the long-term.

More startling though, is their refusal to exercise a buying option on Tosic’s compatriot Adem Ljajic. The young Serbian also performed superbly last season in Serie A, scoring 11 goals in 28 games for Fiorentina, who showed no such disregard for Ljajic’s potential.

Ljajic has been heavily linked with a big-money move to AC Milan this summer and it is not hard to see why – unless you’re United, that is.

Infact, United’s impotence in the transfer market has long been a problem. They can only count Dimitar Berbatov and Robin van Persie as true world-class signings since the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009.

It is an affliction that has spread to Moyes’ reign as manager – a point exemplified by United’s failure to sign midfielders Thiago Alcantara, Kevin Strootman and now, in all likelihood, Cesc Fabregas.

United have also been scuppered in a bid to sign Leighton Baines from Everton for £12m. Also, at the time of writing, the Twittersphere had been chirping with rumours of an impending bid for Baines’ clubmate Marouane Fellaini.

Quite how Fellaini will feel about being a fourth-choice transfer target remains to be seen but Moyes’ desire to make a high-profile midfielder his marquee signing is clear.

Could it be that United’s international appeal amongst the top-name footballers is on the wane? That type of appeal appears to be in direct opposition to the surge in popularity of the club as a brand and business, with profits steadily eating into the steep pile of debt created by the Glazer family’s takeover of the club in 2005.

Part of the problem in attracting the best players in world football has been United’s form in European competition. In the 2011/12 season, United were ignominiously dumped out of the Champions League in the group stages, and then comprehensively outclassed by Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League.

All this embarrassment followed a Champions League final loss to Barcelona in 2011, their second such defeat to the Spaniards in the space of three seasons.

Their playing style has also changed, in line with a change in world football. Gone is the swashbuckling, all out counter-attacking of the early 2000s. A more measured, precise passing game with an emphasis on spreading play out to the wings has since taken hold.

Critics had called it more conservative, but in the current climate United would have been torn apart had they not adapted their game – something Ferguson famously addressed with his fondness for a fluid 4-5-1 in defence, which morphed into a 4-3-3 in attack.

It had also seemed that United were without a playmaker until the signing of Shinji Kagawa last season, but even then he was used sparingly in a debut season blighted by injuries. He should be the answer to Moyes’ search for a central midfielder, and his preferred position – in a more advanced midfield role – will provide Moyes with flexibility in that area of the pitch.

Added to the concern of a lack of signings this summer is Wayne Rooney’s apparent desire to leave Old Trafford. Chelsea, led by the returning Jose Mourinho, have failed in two bids for the England striker, and it seems that a fee of around £35m will be enough for United to consider selling.

Moyes, for the moment, remains committed to the idea of keeping Rooney at the club, despite his admission that van Persie was ahead in the pecking order at the moment.

If Rooney was to leave, his departure would give a chance to three exciting understudies – Danny Welbeck, Javier Hernandez and Angelo Henriquez.

The trio are destined to become the heart of United’s forward line in the future, and will be given their opportunities by a manager who, like Ferguson, is keen on blooding young talent.

United’s poor pre-season form – they have only registered two wins in six games against limited opposition – will also concern Moyes. That said, he has given a number of chances to exciting talents Jesse Lingard, Adnan Januzaj and Wilfried Zaha, who look ready to make the step up into regular first action.

Lingard has been arguably the most impressive, scoring four times in four games during the club’s pre-season tour of Asia.

So, while United have recently struggled to compete with clubs like PSG and Monaco in the transfer market, it seems that there is no need to buy big when the conveyor belt of talent is bringing along players of Lingard’s and Januzaj’s quality.

In that respect, Moyes has the chance to emulate Ferguson and manage a team full of exciting young players, building the club into a feared standing once again.

For the moment though, United are not as feared in playing terms as they used to be. And while they are still a big club they are not as big as they once were, and it may take time to reassemble the towering presence in world football that they constructed for themselves throughout the 2000s.

The Transfer Silly Season

When it comes to football transfers, few leagues are as captivating as the Barclays Premier League.

With the hugely entertaining Confederations Cup now several weeks past, the players involved have returned to their clubs and others have jetted off to their new ones.

It was widely thought before the 2012/13 season ended that most business would be done after the Confederations Cup finished – and those premonitions have been emphatically proven in England.

In recent weeks there have been a flood of deals concluded, thwarted and hijacked. Some clubs are beginning to feel the pressure too – notably Arsenal.

Having only signed Yaya Sanogo on a free transfer from Auxerre in this transfer window, manager Arsene Wenger has been keen to dispel the accusations that the North Londoners are featherweights in the transfer market.

The money is clearly there for Wenger to spend – the club have turned in successive years of profits – and he has confirmed this by bidding £35m for unsettled Liverpool striker Luis Suarez.

This first approach was robustly swatted away by Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers, but it did not deter Wenger, who sanctioned an improved £40m + £1 bid for the Uruguayan this week.

That triggered a release clause in Suarez’s contract which permits him to talk to the Gunners, but Liverpool want a figure in excess of £50m with Rodgers, somewhat justifiably, believing that Suarez is worth as much, if not more, than his compatriot Edinson Cavani, who was snapped up by PSG for a cool £55m.

Yet if Suarez moved to Arsenal, it would go against all the clues he has given as to where his future lies. He has publicly admitted his fondness for Real Madrid, but they have not made an offer yet.

That could be because Madrid are busy trying to lure Gareth Bale away from Spurs. A figure in excess of £85m is rumoured to be the price tagged on Bale’s services, but Spurs chairman Daniel Levy is reluctant to sell – for two reasons.

Bale has quickly become the face of the club – he features on almost every promotional banner and marketing strategy the club unveils, and secondly his value to the team is colossal.

21 goals and 9 assists in 33 games last season proves why he is coveted so fervently by Madrid, who have spent heavily as usual this summer.

Midfielders Isco (€24m) and Asier Illarramendi (€32.2m) have both signed deals at the Bernabeu, and a further outlay of €98.5m on Bale would be more than the €93.9m they paid for Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009.

Bale is the closest player on the planet, in terms of free-kick technique and running with the ball, to Ronaldo and it would be interesting to see how they would both fit into the same team.

Spurs fans will be hoping Bale doesn’t move but Spanish newspaper Marca, renowned for its close ties to Los Blancos, ran with a story on its cover this week with Bale rumoured to have agreed a six-year deal with his pursuers.

Marca have previous, which is why Spurs fans should be worried. They correctly broke the enormous Ronaldo and Kaka transfers and would not publish such a story without specific knowledge of the deal. There is no smoke without fire, and Spurs are likely to lose the Welshman unless they pull off something miraculous.

Bale has also been linked to Manchester United who, like Arsenal, have had a very quiet summer.

United have failed with deals for Thiago Alcantara and Cesc Fabregas – the latter the subject of two rebuffed bids of £25m and £30m – and have also seen fellow target Kevin Strootman opt to join Roma instead.

A £12m move for Leighton Baines has also proved fruitless and United fans have reason to worry with unknown Uruguayan right-back Guillermo Varela and Wilfried Zaha the only new signings so far this summer.

With United clearly on the hunt for a central midfielder, any approach for another midfielder could also be futile with the subject of that hypothetical bid being their third-choice behind Thiago and Fabregas.

United would do well to blood some youngsters though. Nick Powell looks mightily impressive at 19-years-old and is tipped to become an England regular in the future, while Tom Cleverley established himself in the first team last season with a string of composed performances.

But it hasn’t all been about incoming players at Old Trafford, as Wayne Rooney will testify.

The 28-year-old has been linked with Chelsea ever since returning manager Jose Mourinho made a bid of £30m for the England striker. That deal, United said, included the pick of Juan Mata or David Luiz, but that is likely a mischievous attempt to publicly unsettle Chelsea’s two most influential players.

Chelsea have bought well this season, adding German striker Andre Schürrle and Dutch midfielder Marco van Ginkel to their squad in deals totalling £27m. Highly-rated Belgian loanees Romelu Lukaku and Kevin de Bruyne have returned to Stamford Bridge and their presence will be similar to new signings.

Manchester City meanwhile, favourites alongside United and Chelsea for the title, have bought swiftly and impressively, signing midfield duo Fernandinho and Jesus Navas and strikers Alvaro Negredo and Stevan Jovetic for a combined £90m.

In signing four high-quality players, new manager Manuel Pellegrini has avoided what his predecessor Roberto Mancini did last season and bought well to improve the team.

While City have been very proactive in the transfer market, they have been outgunned by Sunderland, who have signed nine players so far as boss Paulo di Canio looks to refresh the team and exert his influence on the squad.

Southampton too, have bought with power, signing centre-back Dejan Lovren for £8.5m and Victor Wanyama for £12m. Some critics have pointed to what seem to be inflated fees for the duo but the signings are a signal of intent from manager Mauro Pochettino, who has been impressive since taking over from Nigel Adkins last season.

There will be more outrageous rumours, ballooned fees and surprising sales before the transfer window shuts in five weeks, but with the total amount spent by Premier League clubs currently bubbling at just under £300m, England’s biggest clubs will be keen to continue to splash the cash to show they can compete with Europe’s superpowers in the transfer market.  

If they don’t the danger of this great league becoming full of selling clubs, much like the scenario now seen in countries such as Holland, will loom ever larger – and that, for a league which boasts of being the best in the world, could be lethal.

Ferguson retirement opens door for Moyes

“Football, Bloody Hell.”

Those were the immediate thoughts of the soon-to-be knighted Alex Ferguson in the aftermath of Manchester United’s iconic 2-1 victory against Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League Final at Camp Nou.

Goals in the dying minutes, first from Teddy Sheringham and then sensationally from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, gave the club a second European Cup triumph.

It was Ferguson’s first European title at the Old Trafford club – but his thirst would prove to be unquenchable.

He would go on to manage arguably the biggest club in the world for 14 more seasons, collecting 38 trophies in all before announcing his retirement this morning.

United are now left with a gaping hole in their managerial hot seat – a hole that might never disappear completely.

The white-hot favourite to succeed Ferguson is David Moyes who, at 1/20 on with some bookmakers, is expected to be announced as the 71-year-old’s successor in a matter of hours.

But is Moyes really the best candidate for the job?

Ferguson’s fellow Glaswegian has managed current side Everton for 11 years on a restricted budget – in fact his rule at the Merseyside club is the third-longest in the Premier League as it stands.

Moyes has long enjoyed a pleasant relationship with Ferguson, and has often accepted advice on his career from the outgoing United boss.

Additionally, United are thought to be keen to employ a manager who bears the same managerial traits as their beloved retiree.

This would place Moyes in a strong position due to his loyalty and willingness to involve young players in first team matches – indeed it was Moyes who gave 16-year-old Wayne Rooney his Premier League debut in 2002.

Further strings to Moyes’ bow include his knowledge of the Premier League and his man-management skills, but several serious blotches on the 50-year-old’s CV mean that he will be a massive gamble to a club of United’s pedigree.

With just a handful of European games (most of those in the Europa League) as manager of Everton, Moyes has a minute amount of experience in a footballing environment – as proved by the successes of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund – that is rapidly evolving.

His Champions League experience stops short of the competition proper, with a disappointing 4-2 aggregate defeat to Villarreal in the third qualifying round in 2005 providing further reinforcement to those who believe he is under-qualified for the United job.

Then there is the fact that Moyes has never won a trophy in his managerial career.

Arguably, this is hardly surprising given the finite resources he has at Everton, but that record would normally be unacceptable for a club of United’s history, especially given the rich success that Ferguson has enjoyed.

Signing Moyes might also dissuade big-name players from joining the club in the future too.

Past signings have spoken of their admiration for Ferguson, the club and the supporters, but would reported United targets such as James Rodriguez and Robert Lewandowski actually be convinced enough by Moyes as a manager to sign?

Transfer pulling-power aside, Moyes has never had a massive transfer budget at his disposal and should he get the United job it will be a test of his nous as a manager to make astute signings.

A warning has already been cast by his current arch-rivals Liverpool, who delved deeply into their pockets at then manager Kenny Dalglish’s behest to acquire the services of Andy Carroll for £35m, Stewart Downing for £20m and Jordan Henderson for £16m – all of whom have failed to light up Anfield since their arrival, with Carroll even joining West Ham on loan this season.

Such ill judgements were indicative of a man who had never had as much money to spend before – but will Moyes, when faced with the same scenario, prove just as foolhardy in the transfer market?

His transfer history at Everton suggests otherwise, having bought well over his decade at the club to secure the signatures of players such as Marouane Fellaini, Mikel Arteta, Kevin Mirallas and Leighton Baines.

Despite being the overwhelming favourite for the United hot seat, Moyes has competition from Jose Mourinho and Jürgen Klopp.

Mourinho, just days before Ferguson’s announcement to retire, seemed destined to leave Real Madrid for Chelsea.

That does appear to be where the flamboyant Portuguese will end up, especially a lack of endurance at former clubs suggests his short-term stints are at odds with United’s wish for a long-term manager.

Then there is Borussia Dortmund’s Klopp, an exciting young German manager who has wrestled with the might of Bayern Munich in his home country to produce successive Bundesliga titles and a Champions League final this season.

At 45, Klopp has exhibited the tactical awareness and innovation needed to dismantle sides such as Real Madrid, even destroying Bayern 5-2 in the German DFB-Pokal Cup final last season.

Yet Klopp, who is at the forefront of the German revolution in the Champions League, is contracted to Dortmund for another season and has little experience of the English game.

United fans would be impressed by his tendency to create sides with attacking flair and defensive diligence, but Klopp is unlikely to be considered with Moyes so close to being chosen as Ferguson’s successor.

So the 1/20 price appears to have Moyes’ name all but announced as the next United boss, but will his lack of experience in European competition and a trophy less cabinet eventually prove costly?

Or will the skills displayed during his time at Everton evolve into those fit for the helm at Old Trafford?

Manchester United already seem to know the answers to those questions.

Cüneyt Cakir, the stage is yours

It is said that good referees are invisible for the duration of a football match.

Yesterday night, Turkish official Cüneyt Cakir was anything but.

Maybe that was down to the 36-year-old’s garish turquoise shirt? Unfortunately for him, it wasn’t.

Mr Cakir created a frenzy of disbelief inside Old Trafford when, with Manchester United 2-1 up on aggregate against Real Madrid in the Champions League last 16, he sent Luis Nani off for serious foul play.

United were incensed because the decision allowed Madrid back into the game, before they cruelly killed the hosts off with two goals in three minutes from Luka Modric and ex-United star Cristiano Ronaldo.

To the letter of the law, Cakir was probably correct to show a straight red. Nani’s right boot made contact with Madrid right-back Alvaro Arbeloa’s rib cage in an aerial duel and after a brief break in play to allow both players to gather themselves, Cakir brandished red.

FIFA’s law 12 on fouls and misconduct provides that “A player is guilty of serious foul play if he uses excessive force or brutality against an opponent when challenging for the ball.”

So, Nani was justifiably sent off? Perhaps not.

It is widely held throughout the global footballing community that part of the art of refereeing is the official’s ability to apply the laws of the game with judgement of the footballing situation in question.

With the ball coming over Nani’s shoulder, the Portuguese winger’s eyes were fixated on the ball, with Arbeloa making a late entrance onto the scene. There was no intent to commit “excessive force or brutality” on Nani’s part.

Does there have to be? Once more, perhaps not. Taking everything into consideration, most referees would have realised that it was a 50/50 challenge, there was no malice involved, and that it had not been a high-tempered match up to that point.

This makes Cakir’s decision all the more robotic – and he has previous history.

Cakir, an insurer with a love of table tennis, became an elite referee in the 2007/08 season, and has since officiated several matches in the European Championships, Champions League, Europa League and Club World Cup.

What is immediately recognisable when glancing through his record is that, in the 134 games he has refereed since the 28th of March 2007, he has failed to give a card in just four of those games.

The plot thickens further when Cakir’s habits are examined more closely, and how predictable his style of officiating is.

Cakir would have first come to the attention of English fans when he officiated Chelsea’s 4-1 win over Spartak Moscow in the 2010/11 Champions League. It was a straightforward match to referee, with only four bookings dished out.

His next European match came three months later – a Europa League tie between Villarreal and Napoli which finished 2-1 to the hosts. It was marred by nine bookings, six of those coming in the second half.

Exactly three weeks later he sent off Manchester City’s Mario Balotelli in the same competition,  booking eight other players as City went out 2-1 on aggregate to Dynamo Kiev, despite winning 1-0 on the night.

Such a high volume of bookings means that Cakir’s style of refereeing is to adhere as closely to FIFA’s rulebook as possible.

Perhaps he enjoys the limelight when he flashes cards about. For certain, it is an inorganic approach to refereeing, and the statistics reinforce that point.

Last season, Cakir took charge of 34 games in the domestic Turkish Superlig and both elite European competitions.

He managed to show 172 yellow cards in that time, complete with nine red cards for good measure.

Across the 34 games, that is an average of 5.32 cards per game – an unusually high figure.

Those who have followed Cakir’s eye-catching refereeing since that time will have noticed his style of observing the match and the players in it during the first half, before unleashing a flurry of cards in the second period.

Last season he showed 61.3% of all his cards in the second half, and there were some high-profile matches during that time.

The infamous 2-2 draw between Barcelona and Chelsea at Camp Nou was famous for John Terry’s needless sending-off – a decision which Cakir got right – and the fractious nature of the match, with an additional eight players booked.

In Cakir’s homeland, the notorious Istanbul derby between Fenerbahce and Galatasaray is almost always an ill-tempered affair. So it proved in 2012 too, when Cakir sent off two players and booked 12 others.

His form continues into the current 2012/13 season when, after officiating just 25 games, he has already sent off eight players in all competitions, and has brandished 110 yellow cards.

That is an average of 4.72 cards per game – again, an unusually high figure.

When his performances are compared to that of England’s most card-happy referee, Martin Atkinson, Cakir’s super-strict manner is exposed again.

Atkinson has taken charge of 27 matches in all competitions this season, amassing a total of 107 cards, just one of which has been red. His average of 3.96 cards per game is a staggering 0.76 cards beneath the level of his Turkish colleague.

Cakir’s performances also seem to be more negatively prolific as the profile of the match amplifies. In his first major international tournament – Euro 2012 – he only officiated three games.

Yet, he still managed to brandish 18 yellows and one red, 13 of those coming in the second half and nine coming in the derby between Portugal and Spain. Ireland’s Keith Andrews was the man dismissed in a 2-0 loss against Italy.

In a World Cup Qualifying match between England and Ukraine, under three months later, Cakir showed 10 cards, sending off Steven Gerrard in the 1-1 draw at Wembley with (yes, you guessed it) all 10 of the bookings coming in the second half.

Cakir has also sent off Sergio Busquets for Barcelona in the Champions League this season, and Gary Cahill for Chelsea in the Club World Cup final. He now has Nani to add to that list of big, game-changing decisions.

With atmospheres no more hostile than those in his homeland, you would think Cakir has the necessary mental qualities in a referee to officiate in the biggest of occasions. All the matters discussed in this blog seem to suggest otherwise, but still FIFA and UEFA continue to give him high-profile games.

Perhaps that’s because he is a limpet to the rulebook. With that in mind, does he do a good or a bad job?

Does the fact that he gives a high amount of cards mean that he sees fouls no other referee does and should therefore be given credit for doing so?

One thing that seems certain is that Cakir will officiate at his first World Cup in Brazil next summer, and because of his latest attention-grabbing decision the weight of one billion eyes will be upon him.

If he continues to make similarly mechanical decisions in Brazil, he should probably turn his hand to officiating table tennis matches instead.