"My greatest challenge was knocking Liverpool right off their [bad words!] perch. And you can print that." Ask him, Sir Alex Ferguson is above all else interested in winning – whichever rationalisation for it he’s using on the day. On that basis we can assume that the signing of players based on potential, rather than simply what they can bring to the team – Manchester United’s latest affectation – probably isn’t a sudden lunge at the moral high ground from him. No, it’s another symptom of the Glazers’ debt crisis. And it’s a worry, not a cause for celebration.
When United refused to take up the option to sign Carlos Tevez on a new deal two years ago, the New Deal emerged. Gambling on potential would replace the signing of established stars – Tevez, Hargreaves and Berbatov became Smalling, Hernandez and Valencia. Not signing Tevez sparked frustration initially, but over time fans have been pacified by success. With a league title, a Champions League final and a League Cup since the change in direction, it’s even become a source of pride that the team can continue to win whilst bringing through a new group of relatively inexperienced players. Success has distracted from what motivates the current transfer strategy: the management of debt – younger players are cheaper.
There should be resentment, not acceptance of the situation. United have earned the right, over time, to spend big on big names. Now that’s been taken away, yes, credit should be given to Ferguson for keeping things going, but the point is, he shouldn’t have to be made to work so hard at it.
Too little was made of the top-down reform at the club in 2009. For those unaware, the Glazers imposed an embargo on buying players aged 26 or over where a "significant fee" might be involved. From that point to this, faith in Ferguson and faith in the direction that the team is moving hasn’t been the same thing – his reign as an authoritarian ended then and there. Signing cheaper players, with greater resale values, with greater profit-margins in mind, is the sterling work of the Swindle Family Glazer.
Whilst winning has indeed meant giving young talent a chance in the past, Ferguson himself has never imposed strict rules or quotas on the matter. Eric Cantona wasn’t shunned to allow Paul Scholes to mature into the real deal, that wasn’t necessary. Having both is almost always the better option. Older heads are around the playing staff to guide younger players at the club – a positive influence and a brilliant resource. Ferguson wouldn’t impose the risk that an either-or policy brings – what would be his incentive?
The merits of young players bought in as a part of the current policy aren’t in doubt. Chris Smalling and Javier Hernandez were pivotal to the successes of last season and Phil Jones and David De Gea have the talent to continue the trend. Credit is rightly attributed to the manager and his team of scouts. Players brought in have consistently proved capable in spite of a lack of first team playing time at previous clubs. The formula of buying up players aged around 20, once they have already shown some signs of maturity, has undoubtedly been effective.
But things are changing at United. With the losses of Paul Scholes and Edwin Van Der Saar over the summer, and Ryan Giggs likely to move further towards a coaching role this season, the emphasis will, more than ever, be on the younger recruits that are replacing them. Not just on the pitch, but in the dressing room.
And things are changing at other clubs. Criticising a team for winning a league title is as ridiculous as it sounds, but there is room to acknowledge some weakness in the teams United were competing against last year. Chelsea looked lost for much of the season, City are still growing and Arsenal choked when it mattered again. Now though, Chelsea look likely to invest heavily in their squad and so do City – even Liverpool seem happy to spend. Threats from outside are set to ratchet up the pressure this season.
Refusing to sanction experienced signings looked a secure policy when the club was rife with thirty-somethings. As they seep away and the outside world becomes a more imposing prospect, the validity of being so strict becomes questionable. How will a new generation of players react to setbacks without the on-pitch support that they’re used to? Are they capable of the same resilience that won United the title in May? The truth of the matter is that no-one can know how they will react to the responsibility of playing regularly for a club like Manchester United. That unpredictability adds an element of risk which need not be there –and wouldn’t be without the prioritisation of saving cash.
Barcelona are the model answer. For every youth product breaking through there, a senior professional is on offer to look up to – for Sergio Busquets there’s Xavi; for Pedro, there’s David Villa; the list writes itself. With the club run with its own interests at heart, buying-in some experience isn’t questioned, that would be odd. In contrast, at United next season, only Wayne Rooney, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra are likely to play regularly and be able to say that they’ve seen what 26 years look like. And that sounds less and less like a decision taken with the club’s best interests in mind.
If United are to be compared to anyone in years to come then, it’s Arsenal. Only Arsene Wenger’s stubbornness matches United’s uncompromising attitude towards signing older players. Wenger’s refusal to sign anyone for anything but the medium-to-long term has correlated with a six-year spell without any trophies. United are, frankly, putting themselves in danger of following suit. The great sadness is that it will not be because of any mistake from Ferguson, it’ll be because the owners saw the value in the future and couldn’t wait to have it now.