MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 30: Manchester United Manager Sir Alex Ferguson looks on during the Carling Cup Quarter Final match between Manchester United and Crystal Palace at Old Trafford on November 30, 2011 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
United's new solidity shows Ferguson's influence - but his own short-sightedness has also hindered them this season.
In the past few weeks, Sir Alex Ferguson's true influence over Manchester United has been made clearer than ever. Nobody expected Manchester City to demolish them so completely at Old Trafford, and in the wake of such a humiliating defeat, Ferguson spoke openly of the need to go back to basics. True to form, United's response to that mauling has been defensive solidity, grittiness, and, well, a style of football about as exciting as a Thursday night at Paul Scholes' house.
This is typical from the late Ferguson era of caution. As in 2009, the reaction to a foe which appears to be overwhelmingly powerful is to ride out their purple patch of illustrious form by eking out unwatchable 1-0 wins with the sole aim of keeping in touch, eventually to overpower them as the season grows old and Rafael Benitez's Liverpool\Roberto Mancini's Manchester City begin to run out of steam. It's worked in the past, and it seems to be going according to plan so far this season.
With the lack of quality present in the current Manchester United side, it's been a popular line recently that Ferguson remains their most valuable asset - the man who really wins them titles. But this year, his judgement must seriously be called into question, particularly over the transfer of Ashley Young. The knight was at it again in the media recently, stating that he didn't see a single player available over the summer who could've improved the team. Let's just get this out of the way - that's clearly an outright lie. For a while now, we've assumed that Ferguson has wanted to buy a midfielder, but was held back by the Glazer regime - one so austere that Angela Merkel was allegedly heard to remark "I don't see why they can't just spend some money - you gotta speculate to accumulate!" at a recent EU crisis meeting. That doesn't, however, take into account the one gaping hole in the theory that Ferguson is, outrageous lies aside, blameless - why on earth did he buy Ashley Young?
Young is a decent footballer. But after his first couple of games, he's been substandard for United, a compact little package of misplaced crosses, poor shots, unseen passes and some rather embarrassing diving. He's shown at Villa, and now at United, that he is hopelessly unequipped to play his much-vaunted role 'in the hole', and yet even if he had maintained his outrageous form from the 8-2 thrashing of Arsenal - when everything he touched seemed to fly into the top corner or onto an unmarked United head - the question still remains why on earth Alex Ferguson chose to bolster a side that was hopelessly weak in midfield and very strong on the flanks with a born winger.
It's true that £15million doesn't buy you too much these days, but let's examine some of the other players that moved for that amount or less in the same window. Scott Parker is an obvious one, snapped up by Tottenham for a mere £5m and currently in the form of his life, having inspired them to a colossal run of imperious form, as they have moved above United in the league. Another is Arturo Vidal - signed by Juventus for just £8m, who has been instrumental in helping the Italian giants back to their place among the cream of Italy. In other words, whilst glossing over the problem of wages slightly (though with all the departures from Old Trafford, there was still surely some money leftover), Ferguson could've signed not just one, but two superb midfielders for the price he decided was acceptable for a good-but-not-great winger. He can't escape criticism so far - though of course there is also time for him to be proved right. At the moment, however, all the signs point to a glaring and perhaps fatal missed opportunity to repair some very dangerous flaws. Whether pragmatism, will, and determination will be enough to succeed this time, could be more down to Manchester City. As the famous line goes, "It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail."