Manchester United: Time for Wholesale Changes, Part 3
Make no mistake. Sir Alex Ferguson will be angry.
Was this the moment the power change in Manchester was confirmed? If City now go on to win the title, will Sir Alex hang up his boots? Is Pep Guardiola already lined up to succeed the greatest manager of all time?
Whatever happens now, City have completed a famous double over a United side that didn't have the wit, strength or guile to break them down.
This also may be the last time Sir Alex will start his two elder statesmen together. He called on his most reliable big game players and tightened up the defence to get a result which United never looked like getting.
Okay, so one error by Chris Smalling decided the match, but the simple truth was that United never looked like scoring. Giggs, Park and Scholes did nothing wrong, but Nani and Rooney could do almost nothing right.
If he stays at the helm, Sir Alex isn't suddenly going to become a pragmatist overnight. He's not going to fundamentally change his formation from 4-4-2 at home and 4-5-1 away and in big matches. But he badly needs to freshen his squad.
If he had any doubts about the need for fundamental change, those will have been dispelled on Monday. They will have been simmering since the Wigan defeat and boiling after throwing away a cast-iron win against Everton.
United don't do this. They revel in 'squeaky bum time.' They almost always come stronger as the season goes on.
This time it's different. With only one win in the last four and a pathetic four points out of 12, the title is slipping away. Short of another great performance from Newcastle United, it is City's to lose now. They have the momentum and it would be no surprise if United surrendered it at home to Swansea.
With all the scouting, research, personal visits to watch players and a dossier to choose from, Sir Alex will not hang around now. There may well be several deals already in the offing. He has three months to put together a title-winning squad for next season.
The European Championships and the Olympics are a distraction he can do without. He will want certainty as soon as possible. Then he can begin to build a relationship with his new charges.
Meanwhile, the number of players at risk will have grown. Of course many are secure for the future, but who would question Patrice Evra's departure? He has not had a good season defensively. He is one of the best attacking wing-backs in the world, but the two City defeats have shown up his woeful limitations as a defender.
It's time for wholesale change at Old Trafford in a way that we may have never seen from Sir Alex. His reputation is at risk. He knows he should have sorted the midfield problem long ago. If he still intends to continue, he has to reassert his stature in the English and European game by having a clearing out and making some marquee signings.
In this the final part of the trilogy, we examine how much room he's got–financially and manpower-wise, and whom he might like to sign into those positions.
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Sir Alex has never replaced Cristiano Ronaldo, but then, he never replaced Ruud van Nistelrooy, or Roy Keane, or Eric Cantona. He'll never replace Ryan Giggs or Paul Scholes either.
He has also not spent all the Ronaldo money.
For those who cannot understand how United's "worst team for years" have done so well this season, the defeat to City will leave them vindicated.
It is true that there have been glaring deficiencies–especially until Scholes came out of retirement–but Sir Alex has compensated for those with a togetherness in the squad and a willingness to subjugate personal ambition for the good of the team unlike ever before.
He has also refused to compromise on United's determination to try to win every match–with disastrous consequences in the 6-1 loss to City.
For all the criticism that may come his way, United already have more points than they won the title with last year. When they are on song, as they were against Arsenal, they are irresistible.
But next year, Giggs and Scholes should be relegated to squad players and the core of the European and Cup sides, because Sir Alex has to spend big to complete the transition to the next dynasty.
Debt and Financial Fair Play
Sir Alex will have little difficulty shifting the players he wants to let go this summer, and they will collectively raise a decent pot for spending.
This is where no doubt the anti-Glazers will be shrieking about the debt preventing Sir Alex from having anything other than the cash from sales to spend.
There is plenty of cash to spend, even if the debt continues to need servicing. United are probably the most sustainably profitable football club in the world. Surely the biased TV rights deal in Spain cannot be allowed to continue, even if the EC has to get involved.
In any case, with the Singapore float going ahead this year, the debt will be repaid. There will then be up to £100 million to spend on transfers every season if Sir Alex or his successor wants it. Financial Fair Play will not be an issue for United in the way it will be for City, Chelsea, and Liverpool.
So, assuming there is still £50 million set aside from the remainder of the Cristiano Ronaldo pot, there will be more than enough to sign whoever is needed to fill the last pieces of the jigsaw.
Sir Alex will still seek value, but won't shy away from making the sort of decisions that brought Ferdinand, Rooney and Berbatov to Old Trafford.
Proceeds from Sales
Leaving aside those players going on loan, the following may well go for decent money:
Berbatov— £12 million
Bebe, Brady, King, Wootton, Norwood, De Laet, Kusczak—collectively, £6 million
Michael Owen—will probably go on a Free
Total: £50 million
In addition, there will be up to another £50 million to complete the next phase of the "project."
So in total, Sir Alex could have £150 million if he wants it.
The question is, how will he spend it?
How Many Spaces Will There Be in the Squad?
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There will surely be a space for him. He can be better than Samir Nasri, who Sir Alex thought he had signed last summer, only to be gazumped by City with an extra £40,000 a week.
The Boss wouldn't have worried about missing out on a financial mercenary—until Nasri helped shatter United's title hopes on Monday night with a standout display of creative, skillful attacking football.
But Sir Alex and David Gill will not lose their sense of financial discipline. The agreed wage will be more important than the capital sum paid. He wants players who want to play for the shirt and stay for their careers, not would-be millionaires like Carlos Tevez.
When money starts to dominate, motivation can be at risk. You surely don't think either Ryan Giggs or Paul Scholes are anywhere near the wages that Wayne Rooney earns?
How many players could Sir Alex sign?
There is no need to take account here of loanees returning, because they aren't going to make the first choice 18 or even 25.
There is plenty of budding talent on United's books—in the Reserves, out on loan and even coming through the Academy.
Sir Alex's focus can rightly be on the match-winners and the match-savers. His biggest challenge next season will be keeping everybody happy with their playing time.
Sir David Gill revealed that it will be a busy summer, which will be no surprise to anyone, but one aspect of that will be the need to award new contracts to existing players. Among those will be Welbeck, Nani and Zeki Fryers. They will be part of the new United evolving over the next two or three seasons.
The first place to start in determining how many new signings he can make with the money available is the shape of the squad under UEFA regulations together with the gaps left by those who leave.
We reviewed the regulations on shape of squad in Part 2. The key factor is the requirement for eight home-grown players. Assuming that Giggs and Scholes sign one more year, there will be no difficulty, with Rafael, Cleverly, Fryers, Welbeck, Tunnicliffe, Evans, and Will Keane for starters.
Taking out those who I expect to leave, either by transfer or on loan, the residual squad could look like this:
De Gea, Lindegaard, Amos or Johnstone
Rafael, Jones, Smalling, Evans, Ferdinand, Evra, Fryers, Brown, Veseli
Giggs, Carrick, Scholes, Nani, Young, Valencia, Cleverly, Lingard, Petrucci, Tunnicliffe, James
Rooney, Hernandez, Welbeck, Keane, Cofie
In my opinion, this leaves room for two defenders, four midfielders and one striker—seven players in all.
So What Is the Need?
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There are four key questions regarding the players Sir Alex will sign.
What is the need?
Who is good enough?
Who has versatility and adaptability?
Who fits the United culture and wants to stay for the rest of their career?
What is the need?
Another Paul Scholes you say.
No matter how outstanding Paul Scholes has been, United will play with a different style after he's gone—more in keeping with Barcelona than the United of 1999, with Beckham and Scholes spraying 60-yard passes all over the place.
In due course, Scholes' place will be filled by Wayne Rooney. It's easy to forget that Paul played for most of his career at United in a number ten role, rather than the deep-lying position he has adopted mainly since his return.
Thus, in midfield there is a need for pace, creativity, great technical skill, and the ability to defend as well as attack when needed.
In defence, Sir Alex likes full-backs with pace, creativity, and ball-winning ability, together with, ideally, versatility. Look at Jones and Smalling, for example.
Finally, in attack, if he's letting Berbatov go, he will surely buy a proper experienced number nine; a natural finisher with pace, strength and height, like Drogba or Torres (or like Alex Ferguson!)
Who is good enough?
Chelsea have just signed Marko Marin. He is injury prone and surely no more than an experienced squad player.
Wenger signed Yossi Benayoun and Mikael Arteta last summer—again, no better than squad players.
Sir Alex doesn't need any more squad players; he's got plenty coming through from the reserves, some of whom will establish themselves next season, like Zeki Fryers and Paul Pogba.
With the money he has to spend, he has no need to mess around with the Marko Marins or Charlie Adams of the world. He will want to buy class and–wherever possible–fully established players.
This doesn't mean they have to be 26, like Ashley Young, but he must have a nucleus of experienced wise heads as well as young bucks to get the right mix going forward.
Versatility and adaptability
One thing Sir Alex isn't overloaded with is left-footed and truly two-footed players. Ryan Giggs will be a great loss when he goes. Scholes also is two-footed.
Evra is left-footed, as is Fryers and Evans, but Fabio (who plays left back and is going on loan to Benfica) is more right-footed, but basically two-footed.
Being able to play in more than one position is also a bonus. We're not looking for another Paul Madeley or John O'Shea, but there are several among the stars Sir Alex has his eye on who can play in more than one position and are gifted with both feet.
Fitting the United mould
What do Chicharito, Valencia, Jones, Smalling, De Gea, Michael Owen, and Ashley Young have in common? Apart from them being signed in the last couple of years, every one of them would gladly stay for the rest of their careers.
When you have that humility, commitment, loyalty, and determination to fight for a place in the first team, it is easier to build a squad of 25, 30 or even 35 players who will give their all when called on, train their socks off when they are not, and be prepared to take their chances.
As I indicated earlier, togetherness, loyalty to the cause, and willingness to work for each other are among the hallmarks of a squad that has exceeded everyone's expectations except Sir Alex's this season.
So Samir Nasri was a near miss, but among all the players Sir Alex has watched and scouted over the last couple of years, you may rest assured that they will have the right character, attitude and determination to fit into the United mould as if they were born into it.
When City and Chelsea struggled earlier this season, it was resentment and disunity in the squad that was at the root of the poor performances.
United will never suffer from these while Sir Alex is at the helm, as well as his heir, assuming he recruits the right successor.
United is a team through and through, from the players to the coaches and everybody who supports them. Every player that Sir Alex signs will be vetted to be sure they fit in the way Michael Owen has, for example.
First and foremost they must want to come to United.
So who are we looking at?
The bold assumption is that Vidic will be sold, assuming his injury has impacted his effectiveness. There will be no shortage of suitors. Even if he stays, I would buy another central defender.
Also, I am assuming Darren Fletcher will retire due to his chronic bowel problem.
If you want to review the players who I think will leave, have another look at Part 1.
Otherwise, here are the suggested signings to take forward the next Manchester United era.
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In defence, United need another Vidic to play alongside Ferdinand for a couple of years and then Evans, Smalling or Jones.
Neven Subotic fits the job description. Although Borussia Dortmund have just swept to the Bundesliga title, they will not be averse to a couple of fat-fee sales to restock the squad for an assault on next year.
Nemanja Vidic's fellow Serb has already played 29 times for his country at only 23 years of age, and has scored 10 goals in 129 appearances for his club.
United don't score anywhere near enough goals from set-pieces. They get the service from Nani, Valencia, and Young. Together with Chris Smalling and probably Phil Jones, Subotic can change that statistic.
If they somehow can't manage to land Subotic, the fallback could be FC Twente defender Douglas.
Debuchy or Yanga-Mbiwa
It's even more clear now that United need another left back. While Fabio is going out on loan to Benfica to get more top level European experience, with the view of coming back after Evra has gone, Monday showed that there is a need for somebody to immediately step in.
Zeki Fryers has shown huge promise and will be given a proper contract and a chance next season. After Monday, Patrice Evra isn't safe. It would be a risk to let him go without a mature replacement, but it should be remembered that Jonny Evans is left-footed.
With another central defender coming in, this is a viable option were Evra to go, but Sir Alex must still sign a left back.
The first choice appears to be Matthieu Debuchy. Something of a late developer, he only gained his first three caps for France this season. But he has caught a few scouts' eyes and apparently Sir Alex also.
Loads of managers would like Jordi Alba and Sir Alex is at the top of that list. Unluckily for him, however, Eric Abidal is seriously ill and Barcelona need a long term replacement.
As a fallback for Alba or Debuchy, it seems that Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa is a likely candidate.
Born in Africa, he is already captain of Montpellier at the tender age of 22. While he is in some senses raw, he holds a European passport and can play anywhere across the back line. Sir Alex would probably start him at left back but he is the sort of utility player United needed in their injury crisis this season.
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Midfield is the area most in need of desperate surgery.
It is all very well having Giggs and Scholes sign new one year contracts, Carrick available for the next 3 years or so and Cleverley coming through.
The truth is that, before Scholes' return from retirement, this was the fulcrum most likely to derail United's title bid and the most glaring inadequacy in their European campaign.
Sir Alex should not beat about the bush in making signings here.
He needs to completely rebuild. Of course, you keep the elder statesmen–especially for the Cup and European campaigns–because they bring experience in depth.
But ball-winning, creativity, and pace are needed in midfield.
There are three aspects that I think need addressing:
- A skillful technician who can play through the midfield or on either wing;
- A defensive midfielder who can win the ball, break from the back and start attacks (like Yaya Toure for City);
- A playmaker, or 'quarterback' like Paul Scholes used to be.
Modric, Kagawa, or Erikssen
Starting with the latter, there will never be another Paul Scholes.
In Luka Modric, however, Sir Alex would have the dream replacement. With all due respect to Tottenham, they are not the team that United is. In my opinion, we haven't seen the best of Modric. He has had to work too hard at Spurs.
Sir Alex will try to tempt him with the promise to build the team around him. He is transfer target number one. Many would have liked Wesley Sneijder, and he would fit the bill, but he is a year older, has had too many injuries for my liking, and costs too much in fee and wages.
I would be tempted to go for Kagawa as well. With Ji Sung Park likely to go, he is a ready-made replacement, scores lots of goals and is a marketeer's dream for United's Far East market.
If Modric won't come, it is worth taking a risk on Christian Erikssen. It may well take them a year or two to reach their potential, but they can both be world-class. Erikssen looked impressive for Ajax and would flourish in a better team with class.
Gaitan or Hazard
Of the two, I would prefer Eden Hazard. At 21, he is the bigger risk, but he has already shown me enough to suggest that he is worth breaking the bank for. He has indicated a wish to come to the Premier League and United should satisfy that hunger.
He has everything as a midfielder, but can fill the gap left when Ryan Giggs retires. He can play through the middle or on the wing, as can the older Gaitan, but Eden would be my choice.
There were two standout players for me in the Athletic Bilbao side that destroyed United. This is the one I would break the bank for.
At just 23, he has already played 180 times for his club, scoring 20 goals. Compare him with Tom Cleverley, who many people have labelled the "new Paul Scholes." There is no comparison. He is a giant in every sense of the word. He has a long future with Spain and has grown up for his country alongside David de Gea.
His overriding virtue is that he can play as a defensive midfielder or in central defence. This gives Sir Alex so many options. It releases his creative midfielders to rampage when appropriate, and can be a critical player in matches like the Monday night's derby.
So for the midfield, I would buy at least Modric, Hazard and Martinez.
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United need an orthodox number nine with European experience.
It must have broken Sir Alex's heart to see Karim Benzema go to Real Madrid, where he has flourished and displaced Gonzalo Higuain–himself a world-class striker.
Dimitar Berbatov has done an excellent job, but doesn't carry the physical presence that a Duncan Ferguson (or an Alex Ferguson, for that matter) would have done in their pomp.
Huntelaar and Wolfswinkel have been continually mentioned in dispatches. The former would probably make an excellent third- or fourth-choice striker; the latter still has to prove himself. With Welbeck and Keane already on the books, why bother?
What United need right now is the finished product; someone to put fear into the heart of any defence in the way that Didier Drogba has for Chelsea.
There are only two candidates I would consider. They are both the finished product and have the makeup to become legends at Old Trafford.
Llorente or Cavani
I had forgotten how good Fernando Llorente is until I watched him against United.
Danny Welbeck has the makings of such a great striker and may well prove this in the European Championships—but Llorente is the finished product.
OK, so I'm trying to take two Basques from Bilbao, with their all-Basque policy. But they have relaxed their criteria in recent years and are prepared to recruit players who have played for other Basque clubs (including both the French and Spanish sides of the border).
Also there are a surprising number of potential candidates that Bilbao could bid for with the £50 million that Martinez and Llorente would fetch, including:
Almunia, Del Horno, Xabi Alonso, Arteta, Inigo Martinez, Gonzalez, Aduriz, Agiretxe, Monreal, Stephane Ruffier, Azpilicueta, Raul Garcia, and Ander.
Surely with Bilbao's success and rising stock this year, they could attract several of these Basques?
In the event that Sir Alex couldn't land Llorente, the best alternative would be Edinson Cavani of Napoli. He has also been a revelation in this year's Champions League.
Again there would be no shortage of competition for his signature and, as with Hazard, Chelsea and City would be potential suitors.
But he also could be a legend at Old Trafford rather than a squad player at City. If Tevez stays, they may not have the same need.
Nevertheless, my first choice is Llorente.
So, in concluding this three part review of the need for wholesale change at Old Trafford, we can conclude that:
Several players will be leaving (made even more likely after Monday);
There is plenty of squad room and a truckload of young talent coming through. In the next few years United will have a squad rich in strength and depth, with young players emerging every year.
The money will be available and Fergie should break the bank.
My six signings would be:
Subotic, Debuchy, Martinez, Modric, Hazard, Llorente
The fall-backs would be:
Yanga-Mbiwa, Douglas, Kagawa, Erikssen, Gaitan, and Cavani