After the various Player of the Year gongs were handed out, Manager of the Year Sir Alex Ferguson named Luka Modric (conspicuously absent from official shortlists) as the league’s best player. Quite a commendation. I mean this is a Scottish football manager talking after all, and not just any Scottish manager THE Scottish manager. Sir Alex Ferguson. He would know right?
Well no he wouldn’t, actually.
Fergie, I’m afraid, has no idea when it comes to buying midfield players.
Admittedly, he had some success in the early nineties. It would be churlish to suggest that Paul Ince and Roy Keane were anything short of magnificent additions to Ferguson’s first successful United sides. Keane was bought in 1993, though, and Manchester United have not bought a really top midfielder since then (those of you screaming Owen Hargreaves’ name at your laptop/smart phone/tablet relax, I’ll get to him).
One reason for this, of course, is the incredible seam of midfield talent unearthed by United’s youth system in the early nineteen-nineties. Having won the 1992 FA Youth Cup with a midfield that included Nicky Butt, David Beckham and Ryan Giggs, United finished runners-up the following year with Paul Scholes replacing the by-now first team established Giggs. The midfield richness of the Youth Team’s dividends in this period relaxed the need for outsourcing; Idaho doesn’t import potatoes, does it?
Now though, with Paul Scholes’ retirement, Ryan Giggs is the only surviving member of United’s dominant youth teams.
This situation has been inevitable for years and Ferguson, as the pragmatic genius he is, has attempted numerous solutions over the last decade or so. The most famous was the 2001 signing of Juan Sebastien Veron, which it is fair to say didn’t work out. The most infamous were the 2003 signings of Kleberson and Eric Djemba-Djemba, which it would be remiss of me to describe as anything short of apocalyptically disastrous. Recent additions have proved more successful, especially since some of the slack has been picked up by the emergence of the unspectacular but nonetheless solid Darren Fletcher. Michael Carrick (signed in 2006) is not United’s most popular player, but his appearance in this season’s Champions League final is testament, at the very least, to his sticking power. The same is probably true of 2005’s Ji Sung Park. These are reliable enough performers, but you won’t dominate the domestic and European game with sides built in their images.
Many United fans, at this juncture, will point to the 2007 signing of Owen Hargreaves as their what-might-have-been man. Perhaps. Unfortunately, the truth is that Hargreaves’ United career is little more than a huge question mark. Yes, they won the League and Champions League in 2008, the closest he came to a full season. But, quite simply, 27 appearances in 4 years are far too few for the Canadian/Englishman to count as a counterpoint. Hargreaves serves instead as a warning against the Million-Dollar Man (‘we can rebuild him’) attitude of a medical team buoyed by their recent success in rehabilitating Ruud van Nistelrooy.
Hargreaves had a good career prior to joining United, which is itself enough to suggest that he could have become a United great. It is clear, however, that sadly it didn't happen for him. For various reasons, then, and as incredible as it seems given his success, Ferguson has still to find a true success in this incredibly important area.
That may be about to change.
What United need, in Scholes’ absence, is an intelligent, technically gifted, modern (for which read small) creative midfield player preferably with proven Premier League pedigree. Fortunately for them, in spite of Harry Redknapp’s already wearying protestations, there’s one available in Tottenham Hotspur’s Luka Modric, whom, it seems, their manager already rates above any of his current players.
Modric’s quality and availability are not, sadly, secrets. Chelsea and Manchester City would probably both love a piece of the Croatian midfielder too. At 25 Modric squeezes under the age-limit the Glazer administration has imposed for expensive acquisitions, but the financial weight of their opponents in the likely bidding war will ensure that the playmaker moves for an absolute premium.
That and Ferguson’s inauspicious history in this area entitles the Old Trafford moneymen to regard the signing of Modric as a significant risk.
Perhaps they could bring Arsene Wenger in for a consult. The Arsenal manager lined up Patrick Vieira’s move to North London before he had moved himself and the totemic Frenchmen was just the first in a long and continuing line of sparkling midfielders that the Prof. has brought to the Premier League. Payment for services, of course, would be made in kind; Ferguson, unlike Wenger, is impeccably qualified to pinpoint Arsenal’s next centre-back.