Financial restrictions imposed by the Glazers are hindering United, even if Sir Alex Ferguson refuses to acknowledge it.
Sir Alex Ferguson was never slow to criticise past regimes at Manchester United, but won’t have a bad word said about the Glazers.
Perhaps it would be less embarrassing for Manchester United if Uefa had not taken a sledgehammer to the original format a few years ago and come up with something that makes you wonder whether the decision-makers in Switzerland ought to go back to the cutting room and start all over again.
The Uefa Cup used to be a semi-decent competition where clubs played their strongest teams and it was considered perfectly fine to stage games on the same nights as the European Cup. There was little of the disdain we have now and it was certainly not inferior to the European Cup Winners’ Cup, a competition that will always be cherished at Old Trafford.
But what we have today, the Europa League, is a strange and unloved place, a convoluted mess in which Fulham qualified this season via fair-play rankings and have been assigned home and away matches against NSI Runavik, Crusaders, RNK Split, FC Dnipro, Twente, Wisla Krakow and Odense, starting on 30 June, just to reach the point where they find out if they have made it to the last 32. At which stage there is a sudden windfall of those teams who have not done well enough to make it into the Champions League’s knockout rounds.
For Manchester City, there is no getting away from the fact their own demotion is a grave disappointment, but they can at least point out they accumulated 10 points in Group A and that no other team have failed to qualify with that amount since 2007. They were also in a group that featured the four-times winners Bayern Munich, a renascent Napoli and a Villarreal team that finished just a couple of places behind Barcelona and Real Madrid in La Liga last season.
But United have no mitigating factors. Basel have qualified for the Champions League’s second stage only once before and achieved little else in Europe apart from reaching the final of another Uefa creation, the Intertoto Cup, in 2002. The days are gone when Benfica counted as a genuine force and Ferguson cheerfully admitted a few weeks ago he had never heard of Otelul Galati. United did at least beat the Romanians.
Football being such a reflex industry, what we have to guard against here is the classic knee-jerk analysis and remember the end-of-an-empire headlines when United turned another simple-looking Champions League group into a similar ordeal in 2005. Since then, United have won four more league titles, a couple of League Cups and been to three Champions League finals, so think carefully before being tempted to dismiss the club’s powers of recovery.
Yet, equally, it is not something that can be passed off as a fluke, a blip, one of those unexplainable things. This has been coming and the real shame was that Roy Keane, bristling with indignation in his television role, restricted his criticisms to the players. Others could easily have been brought into the equation given the financial restrictions that are in place at Old Trafford and the policy of omertà behind the scenes when it comes to the Glazer family.
The truth they do not want you to know at Old Trafford is that in the past five years United’s net spend on transfers is a mere £56.9m. Or, to put it another way, less than Aston Villa, with £68.2m, Sunderland’s £62.7m and Stoke City’s £61.2m. Manchester City have spent £437.1m, Chelsea £144.9m, Liverpool £84m and Tottenham Hotspur £76m.
Many will point out the £50m transfer splurge on Phil Jones, Ashley Young and David de Gea as evidence that the Glazers are not as frugal as portrayed. But even this is not as straightforward as it seems. Ferguson has said himself that the new arrivals were funded because of the considerable savings made from releasing Paul Scholes, Gary Neville, Edwin van der Sar and Owen Hargreaves, each of whom earned around £4m a year. United also made around £10m by selling John O’Shea, Wes Brown and Gabriel Obertan, along with a couple of reserve players, Corry Evans and Joe Dudgeon.
Ferguson wanted to sign at least one category-A midfielder, but the club decided Wesley Sneijder of Internazionale was out of their reach. Samir Nasri was offered more to go to City, where they already had David Silva and Yaya Touré. Luka Modric wanted to leave Tottenham but United left the bidding to Chelsea and, since then, is it really a surprise Ferguson’s team look so conspicuously short in midfield? Anderson is too erratic. Michael Carrick is an elegant frustration. Ryan Giggs is 38. Tom Cleverley introduced some thrust and vibrancy at the start of the season but the expectation placed on him surpasses the reality.
Then you go through the rest of the team and it becomes apparent there are other issues, too. Rio Ferdinand has been in decline for longer than he will want to remember. Patrice Evra has also lost form. Nemanja Vidic remains the best at what he does in the business but has now snapped his knee ligaments. At least Phil Jones and Chris Smalling have shown they are capable replacements but Jonny Evans is not even close to becoming the player that had been touted. Likewise, nobody should be particularly confident that Federico Macheda, Darron Gibson and Mame Biram Diouf will ever reach the necessary grade. Wayne Rooney, with nine goals in his first five league matches, has not added to that total since 18 September. Michael Owen has not started a league match since October last year. Dimitar Berbatov has somehow managed to win last season’s Golden Boot while losing the trust of his manager. As for the Da Silva twins, their injuries don’t come in threes but 33s.
Ferguson felt it necessary to issue a public apology after the Carling Cup quarter-final defeat against Crystal Palace last week, but what United’s supporters would really like is an honest, detailed account about what is really happening behind the scenes, why the club have neglected the midfield issue and what happens next. But it will not happen. Ferguson, never slow to criticise previous regimes about not providing him with greater funds, will not have a bad word said against the Glazers and his press conferences have become such tense, joyless events that nobody should expect him to open up at Carrington on Friday morning.
There are rules in place – complex rules whereby difficult questions are not allowed and anybody who pushes the boundaries finds their invite revoked. Tancredi Palmeri, CNN’s Italian correspondent, asked Ferguson in his pre-match conference in Basel on Tuesday whether, after leading 2-0, he had made any mistakes in the 3-3 draw against the Swiss side in September. Palmeri was shocked by the reaction, Ferguson staring at him like “ice” while “the press room broke into an ‘ooooh’.”
But Ferguson has clearly made mistakes, swapping his players too regularly, tinkering to the point where the team have lost their rhythm. They have not scored more than once in their past seven league games while, at City, Roberto Mancini’s team have accumulated 48 in their first 14 league fixtures. That’s more than City managed in total in six of their previous 10 top-flight campaigns. In fact, they overtook the 29 that Stuart Pearce’s team scored in 2006-07 in only their ninth game.
Ferguson talked last week of Newcastle’s success having a direct impact on the bad vibes at Sunderland this season but it is also happening on his own doorstep. From United’s perspective, City are turning into a monster, and this is still only the early stage of what they are about to become through Middle Eastern riches. The two teams meet in the third round of the FA Cup on 8 January. City have already won the first derby of the season in what will always be remembered as “the 6-1”. If United lose again, there is the potential for some seriously grumpy matches at Old Trafford after the turn of the year.
Ferguson, 70 later this month, is talking about staying for another three or four years before finally giving in to retirement. Then, perhaps, we might get another book and the chance to discover whether there are any grievances about the Glazers that he does not want to share while under their employment. Until then, many at Old Trafford could be forgiven for wondering whether two families with no background in football whatsoever, one from Abu Dhabi and one from Florida, are combining to deny him the happy ending he probably deserves.
Yourstruly, Daniel Taylor (Guardian)