Season Preview: Manchester United
It could be the soundtrack to United’s summer, right up to the moment an excitable Sky Sports News giddily SLAMS the transfer window shut with all the self-aggrandisement we’ve come to expect of that preposterous night in late August when a red-eyed, Red-Bulled Jim White bellows at us like deaf aunts (typo) about transfers that possess only a modicum of the excitement he strains so painfully to convey. “THE EMAIL MACHINE HAS GONE INTO OVERDRIVE!” It’s a computer, dim wit, or otherwise a printer; calm down and have a biscuit.
That elusive, world-class central midfield signing United fans – and the team – crave is still at large. David Gill says he will pursue a fourth summer signing when United return from the US, though “nothing is imminent”. A deal for Wesley Sneijder, the unnamed target, is still fraught with complexities. It might go right to the wire – god help SSN, and us, if it does – but might not materialise at all. Should that be the case there will be United fans for whom this casts a significant shadow over a 19th title defence, even though the rest of the squad is well tended to after a £50million outlay already. Some might not have expected that, even with a changing of the guards after the retirement of Scholes, Neville and van der Sar, or the sales of John O’Shea and Wes Brown to Sunderland. Darron Gibson would almost certainly have joined the list of departees, but Darren Fletcher’s continuing strife with illness and the lack of a midfield signing may earn him a reprieve.
In defence and attack, United are well stocked. David De Gea must adapt quickly to a level of pressure he is yet to face, but he’ll be pushed by the capable, ambitious Anders Lindegaard, with Tomasz (Terminator voice: “Call me Tom”) Kuszczak thrown in too. Keeping the Ferdinand-Vidic partnership intact is vital to De Gea bedding in, while multilingual Evra, the Da Silva twins and Chris Smalling, fluent in seven languages, can navigate communicative barriers. Defensive quality and versatility abounds, despite a whiff of youthful inexperience; of eight recognised defenders, three (Evra, Fabio, Rafael) are full-backs, and five are centre-backs (Ferdinand, Vidic, Smalling, Evans, Jones), while Jones, and to a lesser extent Evans and Smalling, could fill in at full-back. Two players per position should suffice.
In attack United have an embarrassment of riches. Ashley Young negates last year’s lopsidedness should Valencia or Nani suffer injury or loss of form, and I will tip Young for a top season outright. Wayne Rooney and Chicharito have developed an exciting understanding, while Dimitar Berbatov is influential if almost criminally underappreciated, Michael Owen willing, Danny Welbeck and Kiko Macheda keen to prove themselves.
That leaves the centre of midfield, where solutions to replacing Scholes are polemic; a late dash for the most expensive of United’s supposed targets, or doing it ‘in-house’. Signing Sneijder has undoubted wow factor, while the latter option would leave some fans rueful, others amassing baying mobs with pitchforks and flaming rags on sticks. Aside from replacing van der Sar, signing a top-class midfielder was a priority this summer. But if the player – or players in United’s case – that you want aren’t available, what choice is there?
Herein lies another problem with the SSN generation. The summer months are so tedious (not for me, I like a break) that some fans are like dogs left in hot cars, freed only to be tormented by brattish kids pulling their tails. These fans play Football Manager locked in bedrooms, shunning friends, females and what little reluctant sunlight the British summer deigns to gob our way. They’re addicts amidst the zenith of withdrawal, and one substitute is transfer rumour. The modern football fan lives off this stuff like it’s the only nutrition they’ll ever receive. They’re experts, ITK, and know all the talked-about talents in Europe and beyond from champ man scouting, their ‘sources’, and supplemented with often misleading youtube edits. They know who would be the perfect signing and think it astonishing that Fergie, or whoever, doesn’t just get his bloody laptop out, click ‘make offer’ and tap the necessary keys to capture that Azerbaijan wonderkid you must be stupid if you haven’t heard of (any teenage player on the market is a ‘wonderkid’).
A great many more factors than simply watching somebody and thinking ‘yeah, he looks all right’ go into a signing these days. The player needs to be watched extensively, over many months perhaps.
Better clubs like to know about the player’s character, his background. His club have to want to sell. You have to agree a price, wages. He has to want to join you, not another club who may be competing for his signature. Ok, you’re thinking ‘Bebe’, after that, aren’t you? Poor Bebe. But he was an exception. Chicharito is more like the rule; a deal done in secret, after months of research and courtship – or even Phil Jones this summer, a transfer which came out of the blue.
Clubs often have three or four targets for an identified position, hierarchically sought. So United’s were, for argument’s sake, say, Modric, Sanchez, Nasri and Sneijder (all technically different, I know). But if all avenues are closed, you can’t just keep going down the food chain until you end up with a Joey Barton (who is happy at Newcastle anyway). You’ll end up with a squad like Liverpool’s under Rafael Benitez. Sir Alex generally shuns signings which I’ll term ‘for the sake of it’, and I admire that. That United need a top midfielder is not in doubt. That United should sign a midfielder no matter what would be short-termist in the extreme.
Some fans are only happy when they’re unhappy. I wasn’t particularly delighted when I heard the Ashley Young rumours before Christmas (that he was signing, not ‘those’ rumours). As is usually the case, you come round to Ferguson’s way of thinking – he’s like Derren Brown. And you have to think he has looked like a really good addition in pre-season. Ashley, not Derren. Christ, we’d have no problems overthrowing puny Barca with Derren Brown psyching the shit out of Xavi and Iniesta in the middle of the park.
It’s almost become a cliche for fans to shrug and say, ‘well, Fergie rarely calls it wrong’. Except plenty aren’t this time. They want something done about the midfield. And now! But while a fan ponders today, a good manager prepares for tomorrow. Great ones have an eye on next week, next month, next year.
So another idea that gained traction is to boldly show faith in a plethora of youth talents, the most exciting group at Old Trafford since the early nineties. However, three young midfielders whom United coaches rate very highly – Ravel Morrison, Paul Pogba and Ryan Tunnicliffe – are not yet mentally or physically mature enough for the rigours of regular first-team football, despite temptations to reward their FA Youth Cup and Reserves exploits. Tunnicliffe is on loan at Peterborough anyway, while Morrison and Pogba will hopefully be given scope, under careful guidance, to stake a claim for 2012/13. Those three players must have been at the back of Ferguson’s mind when he said recently he didn’t think he would sign anyone else this summer – he may have been bluffing, of course, as Gill’s latest comments suggest.
If there’s no Sneijder then United must – like the A-Team left in a fireworks factory and somehow they build a fully-armed tank – make do with what’s already there: Michael Carrick (discovered his best form in an age late last season), Anderson (a defining campaign awaits), Darren Fletcher (needs fitness and form), Ji-sung Park (capable in the centre), Ryan Giggs (there is a light that never goes out), Darron Gibson (yeah, I know), and Tom Cleverley (a bright, understated addition to the squad). Cleverley may earn playing time out wide, but he can play in the middle and offers a genuine goal threat, which few others do (discounting Young and Nani as wingers).
United without Sneijder might fill fans with rage, apprehension or both going into the new season. I’d guess it’d frustrate Sir Alex too. But another Knight might attest with pouting prudence, “You can’t always get what you want”. United have a very impressive, balanced squad, Sneijder or not. It might not be perfect, but as Jagger adds, and United will hope: “if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”
More of the series here.