With Paul Scholes gone from Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur's Modric is both elegant replacement and the first part of a much-needed world-class midfield...
In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne’s first outing as a masked vigilante sees him visit Sergeant James Gordon to notify him of an imminent crusader arriving in Gotham City. He’s suited up, albeit with a balaclava, yet the stealthy visit compels Gordon to chase him across Gotham Police’s rooftop, and Wayne escapes via an audacious jump that nevertheless leaves him in a lot of pain. He’s without his cape – and his cowl. He is incomplete.
You can’t do without the essentials, and while Mr Wayne returned to Lucius Fox to claim his Ministry of Defence- inspired electrostatic flocking cape to ensure smoother landings, Manchester United are being somewhat naïve in addressing similar priorities.
Their promptness in the transfer market has been commendable, from the near-conclusion of Edwin van der Sar’s replacement David de Gea, to the swift poaching of Phil Jones from under Liverpool and Arsenal’s noses. Ashley Young too is a done deal, yet his looming arrival demonstrates a growing trend at Old Trafford even with over two months of the transfer window left to increase expenditure. France Football on Thursday announced that Manchester United have bid for Lens’ Raphael Varane – a defender – while Udinese’s Alexis Sánchez is currently the trinket in a five-pronged auction. But Sánchez, like Young, is a winger, and anyone who has watched Manchester United play in the last two-and-a-half years will know that it is their midfield that is in need of a facelift, not a makeover.
If Chelsea’s insulting bid of £22m for Tottenham Hotspur’s Luka Modric won’t prompt United to join another auction, then expect Sir Alex Ferguson to unveil Young and Jones at the summer signings press conference as ‘midfielders’. Minus the irony. Paul Scholes has retired, Owen Hargreaves has been released and Darron Gibson is leaving for Wearside, while the triumvirate of Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick and Anderson is skilfully complementary yet frequently unreliable and prone to regression. Ryan Giggs too comes into the equation having emerged as the de facto playmaker United have too often relied on the last couple of seasons, but it is hard to foresee him extending his contract beyond the 2011/12 season.
He has only scored 12 goals in three seasons with Tottenham Hotspur but his creativity is more potent, and at 25 he is an elegant heir to Scholes.
Modric however is a tailor-made replacement for Scholes. A diminutive visionary who embodies the aesthetic beauty football can occasionally treat its audience, he is more robust than his waifish frame suggests and deceptively quick when probing defensive rearguards. He has only scored 12 goals in three seasons with Tottenham Hotspur but his creativity is more potent, and at 25 he is an elegant heir to Scholes.
Yet United have history with Tottenham Hotspur's’ expert-in-extortion chairman Daniel Levy, who has generated £49.35m from the inflated sales of Michael Carrick and Dimitar Berbatov, while now more than ever United have to consider the Glazernomics reprisals from spending big, which makes the willingness to fritter £27m on another winger all the more mystifying.
Since Hargreaves began toiling in a tunnel with no light on the horizon almost three years ago, Ferguson has spent £42.65m over the course of two summers on six players. Three have been successes (Antonio Valencia, Chris Smalling and Javier Hernández) and three have been failures (Michael Owen, Gabriel Obertan and Bébé), yet what irks many United supporters is that not one of the six was a midfielder. “There’s no value in the market” has been the line-towing mantra of Ferguson, who then inexplicably spent £7.4m on Bébé, who he had never seen play, whilst Rafael van der Vaart headed for White Hart Lane for £8m and Ibrahim Afellay arrived at Barcelona for £2.5m.
As Ferguson magnanimously strode on to the Wembley turf and warmly embraced Pep Guardiola after the Champions League final, he couldn’t be upset at the outcome because the reality was that Barcelona were better and United’s squad was not equipped to topple them. Simultaneously he was accepting a challenge of rebuilding the squad and strengthening it to a level where they could compete with the Catalans – especially in midfield where all of Barça’s goals stemmed from.
Young is a superfluous signing and a carbon copy of a superior winger United already own in Nani.
Yet United’s love affair with wingers goes back to the era of Matt’s Busby Babes David Pegg and Kenny Morgans, and since then John Aston Jr, George Best, Willie Morgan, Steve Coppell, Gordon Hill, Giggs, Andrei Kanchelskis, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo have become idols of the Stretford End to the extent that some have compelled males to visit the barbers for a copycat hairstyle. Playing with wingers is essential to United preserving their identity, but Ferguson is surely not oblivious to the fact that United’s defeats to high-quality opposition in the past couple of seasons has been owed to ineffectual and lightweight midfields.
Young, Jones and de Gea come at a cost of, roughly, £49.5m. De Gea was essential following van der Sar’s departure and Ferguson’s hand was forced in regards to Jones – he wanted to wait another year until signing him – but Young is a superfluous signing and a carbon copy of a superior winger United already own in Nani. Yet maybe Nani is the sacrifice amidst the constant speculation, since should United achieve the coup of snaring Sánchez it bumps the wingers list up to five, with Nani on the edge of the penny slot machine about to be discarded.
Supporters welcome Ferguson’s keenness to groom the 18-year-old Youth Cup-winning midfield trio of Ryan Tunnicliffe, Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison for midfield berths, but relying on them alone is as risky as it is unfair. Ferguson is an admirer of Modric, so he should test the waters with a bid, yet he still requires a second midfielder to provide the potential steel to Modric or AN Other’s silk because United’s midfield can get easily bullied and overran.
Ostensibly United have a transfer pot £170m to spend, and their willingness to fritter it on someone as unnecessary as Young would suggest that, despite the Club being hundreds of millions in debt, yet Ferguson will spend half of that at most, with the emphasis also on sales. He has brushed off the dust and sharpened his ruthless axe to hack away at the deadwood, signalled by his willingness to sell Wes Brown, John O’Shea and Gibson to Sunderland and relinquishing the laughable Bébé on loan to Besiktas. There’s a whiff of revolution as he aims to prepare his last great side, but much hinges on whether he is willing to enter another auction for Modric who, although more essential than Sánchez, will cost more. In the pre-Glazer era summer of 2004 he was rapid in responding to Newcastle United’s bid for Wayne Rooney because he had already identified the Croxteth man as a future talisman for United.
And to vanquish Barcelona, you need a world-class midfield, and United, as they have known to their cost in two Champions League finals against Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets, do not possess such personnel. They cannot also base their main point of attack on the wings whilst relying on Wayne Rooney to conjure up magic at will either, as was demonstrated on 28 May. Scholes’ exit from the playing staff must surely herald the signing of at least one midfielder, yet if Ferguson has inherited Chronic Wengeritis (ie. stubbornness) he is either confident of overseeing youngsters making a similar impact to their 1995/96 forefathers, or he is so detached from prerequisites in modern football that he should retire. And unlike Mr Wayne, he doesn’t have that bottomless pit of cash he once had.
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