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Manchester United must spend for Ferguson to retire on top

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Edwin Van der Sar will walk off into the sunset. Paul Scholes looks set to join him. Gary Neville, that great Scouse-o-phobe, has already departed. Only the indomitable Ryan Giggs may remain from Fergie’s Fledglings. Fittingly, he will outlast his compatriots as he helped usher them in.

There’s no mistaking the air of rebirth that has surrounded Manchester United since their 2008 Champions’ League triumph in Moscow. Sir Alex Ferguson, though still relying heavily on his ageing marshals, has attempted to usher in a new age at Old Trafford behind academy products and “value” signings: the mysterious Bebe, Darron Gibson, Javier Hernandez and the Da Silva twins lead United’s reinforcements. As in war, there are questions if the new meat is ready for the grinder. Hernandez has been an unqualified success in his first year, Chris Smalling has shown signs of becoming a top-class defender while on the flip-side Bebe’s profile apparently remains higher than his talent level.

As this is Van der Sar’s last season and it’s looking increasingly likely that Grand Old Man Scholes will join him, there seem to be many opportunities awaiting the Red Imps. Considering it’s certain Tomasz Kuszczak will leave United at season’s end and others seem set to follow him out the door, if only for the sake of squad depth there will be significant turnover in the red half of Manchester this summer.  Unless Tom Cleverley is the second coming of Ryan Giggs, Ferguson must part with the pounds to make sure he ends his reign as he should: on top of the League.

Sir Alex’s reticence to spend big since the departure of The Varnished One has been attributed often to his failure to find “value” in the market. Even considering this, he spent an alleged 25 million last summer on Chicharito, Bebe and Smalling. By buying young, he couldn’t (or elected not to) take part in either the Mesut Ozil or Rafael Van der Vaart sweepstakes, two cut-price moves which could have helped United immeasurably not just this year, but in future seasons. Both could fill the position in which Man Utd are popularly thought to need the most help: an heir to Scholes (Editor’s Note: To be fair, Ozil is on the record as having preferred a move to Spain / Real Madrid than England. VDV still boggles the mind though).

A similar minimum sum will have to be spent this offseason – if only to replenish what squad depth appears to be exiting Old Trafford, stage right, this summer. Indeed, there’s reason to think that filling the hole between United’s posts will cost that much itself. The Imps will be abetted by the return of Federico Macheda and Tom Cleverley from loan, which should further reinforce reputed problem areas, but question marks still remain over that pair’s ability to consistently impact the Premiership and Champions’ League. The greatest question mark remains now who Ferguson will select to inherit Edwin Van der Sar’s mantle as the Next Great United Keeper – Atletico’s David De Gea, Schalke’s Manuel Neuer (who is more or less certain to go to Bayern Munich) and Ajax’s Maarten Stekelenburg or another, less-touted suspect.

Just as with Arsene Wenger, it would be foolish to assume Ferguson would simply walk away from three years of building for the future. He is nothing if not sure of himself and has been very complimentary of both Smalling and Chicharito. But Sir Alex Ferguson is also nothing if not pragmatic and if he feels that certain players need “moving on”, his recent statements suggest he’s still willing to do so in order to ensure United’s continued strength.

The guess is here that after – probably – winning his nineteenth top-flight title, it would gall the Scot to let the club fall down the standings behind the hated Citizens, Blues, Gunners and Reds. Even guessing United lose only Van der Sar, Scholes and two other squad members – say Owen and Hargreaves – then purchases will have to be made to replenish the squad depth, no matter if the replacement comes from within (Gibson? Cleverley? Lindegaard? Anderson?) or outside (Steven Defour? Douglas Costa? Marek Hamsik?).

Sir Alex Ferguson’s too proud and competitive a man to not go out while at – or very near – the top. And if he wants to lead United to championship number twenty or beyond, then he’ll have to balance development with his chequebook. 2011 promises to be one of the more interesting summer breaks in recent history at Old Trafford.

For more analysis and opinions, shoot across to Matthew Wood‘s blog, Balanced Sports.

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