Thursday 30 March 2017

Ferguson will pay price for a lack of quality control

Alex Ferguson has gambled on his team this season and their rivals could benefit, writes Dion Fanning

Manchester United could be enduring their latest crisis from the top of the Premier League today. A victory at Loftus Road at noon will allow United some time at the top but how long depends on what Arsenal do at Manchester City.

It is no surprise that an Alex Ferguson side could be at the top of the league at Christmas. What is surprising is that this Manchester United side could be looking down on everyone.

Last Friday, Ferguson laughed off suggestions that Paul Scholes was being asked to come out of retirement. These suggestions had been made to the player, who is now coaching at the club, by his old team-mates.

For several years, United were dependent on Scholes even though they knew he was fading. Their failure to imagine a world without Scholes was understandable when the glimpses of while he was still around were so distressing.

At Wembley last May, Manchester United exhausted themselves chasing Barcelona around as their midfield of Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs tried but failed to cope. Most sides in history would spend their time chasing Barcelona around; this season United have found they can't even stop Basel.

Scholes made a late appearance in the Champions League final but that defeat was seen as the moment United would have to think again if they were to dominate in Europe. Ferguson suggested Barcelona were at the height of their powers, part of a cycle which would soon correct itself. Three days after United revealed that they are the side who are declining, Pep Guardiola's side demonstrated in Madrid that the dip hasn't happened just yet.

United, meanwhile, are trying to overcome short-term and long-term problems. The sad news of Darren Fletcher's chronic illness is a desperate worry for the player who had developed into a leader on the field. For United, his absence now leaves their midfield bare.

Last month, Ferguson name-checked Anderson and Tom Cleverley as players that would have made a difference to Manchester United had they been fit. "Anderson and Cleverley have been injured and those two in particular have tremendous potential."

In that moment, the promise of Cleverley diminished. If Cleverley's absence is the reason Manchester United have been knocked out of the Champions League, then their problems are greater than imagined. If Anderson is the reason, they are doomed.

Cleverley made a promising start to the season before injury but United's dependence on a player who is three years older than Jack Wilshere but had played no games for United compared to Wilshere's 35 for Arsenal before this season suggests desperation. Of course players develop at different rates and Arsenal's emphasis on youth probably allowed Wilshere to make more appearances but Cleverley's absence is not the reason for United's failure.

Ferguson has also fallen back on a version of his old reliable that there was no value in the market by stating that there was no Roy Keane or Bryan Robson out there for Manchester United. He managed to see some value in buying Ashley Young, even with the nonsensical premium that is attached to English players.

Ferguson knew he had to improve his midfield as he knew he would be without Scholes and, because of his illness, Fletcher's availability couldn't be guaranteed. Wesley Sneijder and Luka Modric were eager to leave their clubs and while Manchester United eventually pulled out of a deal for Sneijder, it is a mystery why they didn't pursue Modric.

Perhaps Ferguson felt that after another title and the humiliation at Wembley, United needed to rethink. They now had 19 titles and with Manchester City spending, they didn't need to waste money and lose the title anyway.

The Glazers would certainly not have seen any economic justification for the purchase of a 27-year-old and the Champions League exit, while costly, wouldn't have altered their thinking and still wouldn't have been as costly as the Sneijder deal. Young and Phil Jones fitted in with their philosophy in signing players and it is the philosophy broadly shared by Ferguson.

Ferguson believes in youth but at Loftus Road today, he will turn again to Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick. There is an idea that Carrick is under-rated, United's version of Sergio Busquets. In fact, he is almost perfectly rated. When given time and space, he can move the ball around in a way that creates the illusion of purpose but rarely, even on those occasions, is he devastating.

The most creative midfielder on the field today will be QPR's Alejandro Faurlin but despite their problems in midfield and the loss of Nemanja Vidic, United know what victory will bring.

They have dropped only two points since they were torn apart by City at Old Trafford. Ferguson claimed that the side's naivety in chasing the game resulted in a scoreline that seemed to herald a new era. The inference to take was that Ferguson was passive on the sideline, merely a spectator as his players lost control of themselves. Ferguson would probably try and change the menu in the corporate boxes if he didn't like the food they were serving, so the idea that he couldn't control his team was outlandish.

Yet it fed into the idea that this was a result that had nothing to do with the gap between the two sides but instead was just a demonstration of United's commitment to attacking football, even if this commitment was foolhardy.

It disappeared straight away -- United won their next four matches 1-0 before drawing 1-1 with Newcastle. Against Wolves last week United showed more attacking purpose but it was City's result at Stamford Bridge which offered them hope. The five-point gap has now been cut to two and if United win today they will feel they have an easier run of games than City over Christmas and can exert more pressure.

For a team which has failed so spectacularly in Europe and in the Manchester derby, it seems improbable that they enter the important stage of the season with everything to play for.

The Europa League draw was kind, as it created a glamour to their tie that many at Old Trafford feared would be missing.

Harry Redknapp believes Alex Ferguson will play his kids when the knockout stages begin. United might then discover that there's only one thing more embarrassing than being forced into the Europa League and that's being knocked out of it.

Ajax have, in Christian Eriksen, a young midfielder United were linked with before the clubs were drawn together. He is another who could remind United of what they are missing.

They might yet avoid the meeting. The suggestion that Swiss clubs might be kicked out of Europe if Sion continue to appeal their exclusion from the Europa League has encouraged some hope

that United will be reprieved and allowed back in the Champions League.

Again there is a strange and unlikely passivity about the idea of an elemental force like Ferguson triumphing through a bureaucratic decision.

It may not even be the best thing for Manchester United. They have gambled on a squad which isn't good enough and there has to be consequences. If Manchester City recover their flow, they will win the league. Ferguson knocked one bitter rival off its perch. Right now, he doesn't have the players to take on another.

QPR v Manchester United,

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