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.

Advertisements

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.