At long last, the time to replace Alex Ferguson as manager has come. United need to make their move at the end of the season.
For a long time now, there has been a case for Sir Alex Ferguson's departure from Manchester United. The problem is that it has largely been a moral one, and football doesn't pay heed to such trivialities. The case rests on two notions: Firstly, his continued facilitation of the Glazer regime, and secondly his stylistic regression into negativity and pragmatism. Neither of these arguments is entirely watertight - it is open to question how much control even Ferguson had over the takeover, and United have generally been an attractive team to watch - but there was certainly room for more resistance than the loyal lapdog Ferguson has become, and while United have at times been prolific, they have neither had the relentlessness or fluidity of their great teams.
The counter to this is that the practicalities of removing Ferguson do not justify the potential high-ground to be gained. The last time he announced his retirement before deciding to carry on, his team became demoralised and entered an ominously shocking run of form. Furthermore, Ferguson has become so ingrained within the structure and identity of Manchester United that life without him would be a great leap into the unknown - would United become a less attractive destination for transfer targets? Would the youth system be neglected? Would United's much-fabled winning mentality abandon them? It's impossible to know.
The comparison of moral arguments to practical ones is frequently an apples-and-oranges scenario, as they're often directly opposed, but we are reaching the point where the case for pragmatism has weakened, and would seem to have shifted the idea of Ferguson's departure from potential catastrophe to a mixed blessing.
It would be facile to list Ferguson's blunders when they could be countered with an infiitely larger list of triumphs, even the more recent infuriating obsessions such as the needless goalkeeper rotation and starting Ryan Giggs, but the midfield problem, analysed to the point of obsession, has gone far beyond a simple foible. At first it looked like an oversight, then a fundamental problem. Arsene Wenger is often accused of being unable to build a back four, a dip in his side's fortunes coinciding with the retirement of many of the defenders he inherited. By that logic, would it not be fair to say the same of Ferguson and midfielders?
True, Ferguson oversaw the construction of perhaps the greatest English midfield of all time in David Beckham, Roy Keane, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs. Yet three of those were youth products, and the key here is not only being able to identify a player but also being able to deploy them effectively and alongside their teammates. Juan Sebastian Veron was an outstanding player criminally wasted by Ferguson, and it would be no surprise to see the likes of Shinji Kagawa go the same way. Then there are the string of bargain-basement signings, carthorses, water-carriers, utility-men and round pegs in square holes that have filled United's midfield ever since. The problem has gotten worse since Ronaldo's departure, but its roots go even further back.
Perhaps the final straw, the point at which it could no longer be claimed to be anything other than incompetence, was the departure of Paul Pogba. The youngster is now starting in midfield for Juventus, a team who have Andrea Pirlo plus three players who would perfectly fit United's gaping weakness in Claudio Marchishio, Kwadwo Asamoah and Arturo Vidal. Of the latter two, it remains baffling that little or no attempt was made by United to sign them, with Ferguson instead choosing to direct United's resources towards Ashley Young. This is not a 'why are United signing Michael Carrick when Damien Duff is available' moment - there are no caveats, neither ifs nor buts, and no future I-told-you-so on the horizon - it is simple mismanagement.
Yet whoever takes the throne will find that United have the ultimate trump card up their sleeve, something that no other great team in Europe has - a terrible, godawful midfield. A weakness now, of course, but in the event of Ferguson's departure a bonus, because it gives them a way to vastly strengthen their team almost immediately. Marouane Fellaini, Joao Moutinho, Lars Bender, Benat Etxebarria, Kevin Strootman... all are realistic targets for United in the summer, and all would give the team a shot in the arm like no other, a boost which would surely be enough to make up for any deterioration caused by Ferguson's departure.
Having said that, it seems an easy problem, and hardly one that needs a drastic solution. If that were the case, then it would have been addressed long ago - instead, Ferguson does not possess either the ability or will to make it happen. There is no other possible explanation, and his replacement is virtually guaranteed to address that at least. There is also little chance for progress in the centre to be undone by regression elsewhere - Ferguson's replacement would find a youthful, world-class goalkeeper in David de Gea, a crop of excellent young defenders in Jonny Evans, Rafael, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, and perhaps the greatest strikeforce in world football, with two forwards who could be mainstays at the club for a decade.
With the practicalities of it looking more and more viable every day, and it appears the time is, at long last, right for United to make the transition. Nobody could deny that Ferguson has given United fans the best days of their lives, but they are in serious danger of stagnation just two years after he seemed to be the only thing holding United together. He will want to leave on a high, but United can't have time for any romantic considerations when they will not get a better opportunity to make their move. That moral argument still rings true, and it helps to know that United will not only still be United when he goes, but they might have a chance to reclaim something that has been lost over the past few years. Ferguson doesn't need glorifying - his achievements speak for themselves, and it will help to remember him as he truly was - the greatest there ever was, twice the manager of Matt Busby, but half the man.