The hidden price of success
If everything goes well for Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United will win their 19th league title in May. This title could be the most important since the first Premiership triumph in 1993. That win had such influence on Ferguson and United that it became impossible to separate the two. With the titles that followed, one fed off the other.
No. 19 is vital, as United would overtake Liverpool's record tally, but it's also important for the long-term problems it would mask. Some of the problems United have are inevitable - every club has to replace players - but some are of Ferguson's own making, and some exacerbated by his own arrogance. For the good of the club, they shouldn't win the Premier League this year.
Writing off Ferguson is a ridiculous enterprise. Many did so when Jose Mourinho temporarily usurped him, and when he sold Andrei Kanchelskis, Mark Hughes and Paul Ince. To his credit, what followed was more success. Nobody could claim Ferguson will not win even more titles, but if he stays on it risks the club's future. His relationship with Manchester United is already internecine.
The longer Ferguson stays, the more combative he becomes with the fans. His position as manager is his to relinquish, betrayed by his belligerence over supporters' justifiable concerns with the club's owners. Of course, the Glazers are not minded to get rid. He's defended the board without question, openly questioning a financial plan both miserly in the market and risky in the City. Many people would claim that this is part of his job. A fair point, but a unique legacy is close to being ruined every time he classlessly takes a pop at ticket holders. Some would argue that, more important than his job, his duty was to stop a debt-ridden buyout. Many now want Ferguson out, not just because he bows to the Glazers, but because of his vanity. It's the reason he won't retire, allowing problems such as interest payments, to roll up until they become intractable.
Ferguson's first and second periods of triumph took in the transition from 1993 to 1999, from the pioneers of the Premiership to those of the Champions League. At all times, United played with verve and aggression. Then Ferguson brought a change of character, from gusto to guile, perfected with the squad of 2007-08. With it, he won a league and Champions League double remaining largely faithful, if not always to playing attacking football, then at least to winning games.
The theme of United's play this season is cowardice. Ferguson's tactical conservatism has taken over utterly. Last week, he packed the midfield. He shifted Wayne Rooney to the wing, something rarely done since selling Cristiano Ronaldo and losing Carlos Tevez, something he only did in the past against the Big Four or in Europe. As some have noted, in the past he moved Rooney to accommodate Ronaldo; now he's doing it to make room for Darron Gibson. All to stifle Blackpool: the English Barcelona.
A league title would be exploited disingenuously to justify the wrong decisions. The reason United are top of the league, despite being limited away and unimaginative at home, is because of the exceptional poverty of performance elsewhere. Arsenal are football self-parody, reduced to chatting up the Carling Cup despite claiming they didn't fancy her for the best part of decade. Chelsea have bought Fernando Torres without a plan to go with their purchase. Manchester City and Tottenham, understandably, aren't ready to challenge. Things won't always be this easy. Chelsea are renewing, Manchester City will be more consistent, and maybe Arsenal will finally embrace consistent greatness.
In this context, title 19 will cause problems for United. They would deserve credit for being the most consistent team, with the character to overcome deficits, but that doesn't vindicate Ferguson's tactics. Indeed, it seems that in the first half of games, United have had two opponents: the team they're playing and Ferguson's chalkboard whims. They cannot afford to go into 2011-12 with the same mindset.
The lack of competition superficially backs up Ferguson's recent spendthrift behaviour. The Glazers, like any chairmen, will be happy to hear their manager say that he doesn't see the worth in spending money. The 'no value' theory isn't total rot. Darren Bent cost £24 million, James Milner a little more, and Andy Carroll came in at £35 million. This is plainly madness, but 'no value' is not an unimpeachable refrain. It uses others' failures to justify underinvestment when there's dissenting evidence at hand. Patrice Evra, Ji-Sung Park, Nemanja Vidic and Rafael, and possibly Chris Smalling, Javier Hernandez and Fabio, show there are players available at sensible prices who can play at the highest level.
This does not account for the other United purchases - Anderson, Nani, Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney all came for sizeable fees. Ferguson has been happy to pay over the odds in the past when necessary. Underinvestment in the team is therefore a huge risk. Having defended the board to the hilt, denying financial troubles and decrying high transfer fees, Ferguson will be in an awkward position. In the next two years, he has to groom effective replacements for Edwin van der Sar, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs. He has to come up with a player to replace Owen Hargreaves. On top of that, he has to identify solutions to the future exits of Michael Carrick, Evra and Ferdinand. On top of that, he'll need to do it on a budget.
Unless they start next season with a new manager - who would likely be given funds anyway, in order to attract a replacement of sufficient quality - Manchester United could find themselves in a better position should they fail this season. Pressure would be on United and Ferguson to spend money rather than decry the price of players, which sounds incredible if the £80 million from Ronaldo really is available. The fans could not be palmed off with the league title in the short term, and the weaknesses of the squad could not be hidden so effectively. Of course, Ferguson has the track record of being the best manager to carry out such a job, but there are serious doubts given his recent failings on and off the pitch, most worrying his displays of hubris.
The reality of failure is what Manchester United need this season.