Second-guessing Sir Alex Ferguson is a dangerous pastime at the best of times, but as far as he’s concerned, this isn’t the best of times. Manchester United have begun the season without the new creative midfielder they so desperately need and Ferguson has sat through the summer and watched as players like Ozil and Van der Vaart have gone to other clubs instead of United.
The team has also begun with some indifferent results, giving away late goals to drop points at both Fulham and Everton and now failing to find a way past an obdurate Glasgow Rangers defence in a Champions League match at Old Trafford. Next up is a potentially tricky encounter against another bunch of underachievers in Liverpool on Sunday.
United need to win that game and win it well if the mutterings about Ferguson are to recede.
Of course, he’s been here before and has bounced back to confound his critics, but you have to wonder with each passing year whether the fire burns as brightly as it used to and whether he retains the ability to motivate and inspire his teams in the way that has characterised the majority of his tenure as United manager. Some United fans regard it as something approaching hubris to question anything that Fergie says or does, but there is a growing constituency of fans that believes that he is a lot closer to ending his Old Trafford reign than anyone suspects; possibly as soon as the end of this current season.
Time for a new prescription, Sir Alex…..
He has been fortunate this season in the sense that Paul Scholes is going through a creative Indian Summer of major proportions. Without Scholes, United would not even be within sniffing distance of Chelsea. However, you have to question the wisdom of going into a season relying on a 36-year old whose stamina must necessarily be limited and whose record in picking up injuries and suspensions is not the best. United have yet to come up against a team that can nullify Scholes’ influence, but I’m sure that this will be what Roy Hodgson has in mind for Sunday.
Stop Scholes and you stop United, it seems, because without him last night United were totally bereft of guile or imagination against a Glasgow Rangers team who carried out Walter Smith’s brief to the letter. Today, some United fans have been fulminating on the messageboards about Rangers’ lack of ambition, but their anger is misplaced and probably born out of sheer frustration at our inability to create any worthwhile opportunities against a team we were supposed to swat from our path.
Ferguson is the person against whom they should vent their frustrations. He was the one that decided to make 10 changes from the team that capitulated against Everton, throwing out the baby with the bathwater by excluding those that have done well for us – Berbatov, Vidic, Scholes, Nani – as well as those who didn’t perform on Saturday.
Instead, we got a lot of fringe players like Darron Gibson, Thomas Kuszczak and Fabio da Silva. To show how poorly United played, it has to be said that Darron Gibson’s inevitable handful of long-distance piledrivers represented our biggest threat on the Rangers goal. Having said that, and Gibson being Gibson, the people sitting behind and above the Rangers goal were probably in more danger than Alan McGregor in the Rangers goal. Quite how Ferguson has allowed the promising Tom Cleverley to go out on loan to Wigan whilst retaining the lumpen Gibson is beyond me.
“…and Gibson shoots…..”
There’s also the Rooney issue. Ferguson opted not to involve Rooney on Saturday as he didn’t want to expose him to the ‘nonsense’ he would get from the Everton fans. Since when was Rooney such a shrinking violet? Since never, that’s when….
As it is, Fergie has now invited every set of away fans for the forseeable future to get on Rooney’s case even more than they would be doing anyway. A major error of judgement in my view. All he needed to have said was that Rooney’s off-field problems had affected his readiness to play…which seems to be the case, because he was poor in the Rangers match and currently looks a shadow of the player that scored 34 goals last season.
In the summer, Fergie brought in a central defender (Chris Smalling, who looks a great prospect) and 2 strikers (Javier Hernandez and Bebe) who are both young and raw and will take time to settle. We are currently overloaded with front men; to Bebe & Hernandez, you can add Berbatov, Rooney, Diouf, Wellbeck, King, Owen and Macheda. Wellbeck is on loan at Sunderland, Diouf at Blackburn and King at Preston, which may or may not assist their career development. Owen’s continued presence at the club is something of a surprise, though the arrival of Gerard Houllier as Aston Villa’s new manager might see him on his way down here come the January transfer window. To my knowledge, Bebe has yet to represent United at any level.
With Rio Ferdinand’s fitness an ongoing worry, I can see the logic in acquiring Smalling, who looks a similar type of player. Hernandez may also turn out to be a good buy, though he will probably take half the season to settle in properly. As for Bebe…who knows? However, the point is surely that we have not strengthened where we have needed to strengthen for the past 2 years – central midfield.
Darren Fletcher will run all day and always puts in the effort, but with the best will in the world he is what Eric Cantona would describe as a ‘water-carrier’ Fletcher’s inability to penetrate the massed ranks of Rangers defenders last night should be an object lesson to the many United fans who confuse skill with effort. These are the same fans who poured scorn on Juan Sebastian Veron and who have made Dimitar Berbatov’s stay at Old Trafford an uncomfortable one (though he’s currently – but probably only temporarily – back in favour, it would seem). For them, effort and ‘getting stuck in’ means more than subtlety or skill. Five minutes of vintage Veron would have unravelled the Rangers defence last night, but to these people he was an expensive failure who never got ‘stuck in’ or ran around like a demented attack dog, as Fletcher is prone to do.
With Owen Hargreaves probably heading for early retirement, Michael Carrick injured and seemingly out of sorts anyway, and with the plodding Gibson seemingly capable only of peppering the crowd behind the goal, that leaves only Giggs & Scholes, the Statler & Waldorf of the Premiership, to carry the fight to the Dippers on Sunday. Where’s the young blood that United always profess to promote? To be honest, only Cleverley of the current batch of youngsters is ready for regular first team action and he’s at Wigan. So why didn’t Fergie bring in Ozil or Van der Vaart? The latter spoke openly of his admiration for United, but in the end, Spurs picked him up for a relative pittance.
If United fail to win on Sunday, you get the feeling that the Press will once again start to speculate that both Ferguson and United are in decline. Given our current form and the Manager’s bewildering decision-making of late, you get the feeling that there might just be a case to answer this time.
Finally, best wishes to Antonio Valencia for a speedy recovery from his horrific injury last night…..