Saturday 21 April 2018

Resources and patience are wearing thin at Old Trafford

This season will test Alex Ferguson's ability to compete on a tightened budget, writes Dion Fanning

Dion Fanning

Manchester United will find out at lunchtime today the extent of their troubles. It is one thing for their Carling Cup side -- and the newly uxorious and distraught Wayne Rooney -- to struggle to beat Glasgow Rangers. Things will be more serious if they cannot beat a doomed Liverpool team.

The side Alex Ferguson selected last Tuesday night might have been worth five times more than their opponents, but much of Manchester United's wealth, like the respective values of the sides, is on paper or in debt.

It has been a perplexing start to the season at Manchester United. The signing of Bebe has been questioned and investigated. The fitness of Rio Ferdinand will be studied. And Wayne Rooney will be microscopically examined. Beyond these headlines, the question of the Glazers' ownership hangs over everything.

United's purchases in the transfer market in the summer demonstrate once more that Ferguson is operating in a different world to the one he used to dominate. United are in reduced circumstances. Last weekend's injury-time fall at Goodison suggested they are a changed team, even though it looked so familiar.

This was the side that lost the league by one point last season. This was the team that, with seven games to go last season, was four points clear at the top of the table. But the team that was four points clear could turn to Wayne Rooney. The team that lost the lead in the title race last season and the team that has given away leads at Fulham and Everton couldn't.

Last season United had similar vulnerabilities but they could turn to Rooney. United will look to Rooney again today to solve their problems but he can't solve all of them. The fact that United need to turn to one player says a lot about the world's most famous club. United has been pared down to the minimum by the Glazers' need to manage the club's £700m debt.

There are plenty of signs that things are not right that go beyond some bad defending in the final minutes. Bebe made an appearance for Manchester United's reserves on Thursday night and received mixed reports. Ferguson has complained about an agenda from those who have questioned the transfer and the player's ability to play for United but there is so much that is strange about the purchase.

The story is already familiar. Ferguson bought a player he had never seen play for £7.5m. Weeks before he signed for United, Bebe joined Guimaraes on a free transfer so they made a quick profit when they sold to United. In a world in which few players go unnoticed, Bebe had been available earlier in the year for €125,000.

Of course, it could be that players at that price range don't register with Manchester United. Ferguson also has a habit of paying over the odds for players. He could have bought Owen Hargreaves for £5m a year before he paid £17m for him.

But those were the good days when United's summer purchases wouldn't consist of Chris Smalling and Chicarito.

"Watch this space," David Gill said in April when Chicarito's signing was announced. United fans did watch the space and then saw it filled by Bebe. So they are entitled to ask questions about the transfer and, more importantly, about the debt.

The Glazers are cutting costs across their struggling empire and the waiting list for season tickets has disappeared at Old Trafford. This season, they didn't sell out.

David Gill, with some justification, can point to the recession as a contributing factor but there is also the continued success of the green and gold protest against the Glazers.

"The Glazers do not appear to have the money from anywhere else to pay the debts at United," Andy Green, a financial analyst and United supporter told The Guardian last week. "The NFL salary figures show the Glazers happy to invest far less in players than their competitors, and that has worrying implications for United."

Ferguson still insists he has money to spend but there is plenty of evidence that the team needs investment. Ferguson says there is little value in the transfer market and then spends £7m on Bebe.

Rooney will return today. He will be abused by the travelling Liverpool fans but he is used to that. He has become a shrunken figure in the past few months, diminished and sullen. Some assumed that playing for England would do that to you but now it looks like a deeper problem.

Ferguson is among those managers who is said to like to see his players settled, even if it just makes them unsettled.

Why do footballers get married? What's the point? Why do their managers still think it's a good idea?

If the idea once was that the players would have the support of a family and the love of a good woman, it now seems old-fashioned. If a player once needed to get married for practical reasons, it is now more practical for them to be free.

There was always something cynical about managers' desire for players to get married so they knew where they were. Now everybody knows where they are and the married players, or at least those who aren't faithful, ensure chaos in their lives.

If players didn't get married, it would no longer be a story, something managers can reflect on when they try and work out how to control their players' personal lives to the advantage of the team. Ferguson has removed one aspect of chaos from United's side by making Nemanja Vidic captain. Ferdinand's fitness remains an issue despite his return against Rangers. There has been a lot of talk about Vidic's struggles against Fernando Torres but it was Ferdinand he humiliated at Anfield last year.

United need a replacement for Ferdinand and they must hope that Smalling is up to it while Jonny Evans struggles.

Torres is unlikely to trouble them today. If he had any doubts that he needs to leave Anfield, then the last week has probably removed them. His form is not Liverpool's main problem. Their debt, their manager and their owners are the real worries. Torres will be alone again today as Roy Hodgson's team retreats as has become their passive style. He will have the occasional company of Steven Gerrard but the captain is a busted flush. United have nothing to fear. Ferguson will hope that Rooney is re-ignited by his old enemy. His options are limited despite the impressive start Dimitar Berbatov has made.

Michael Owen has begun to ask questions about his playing time. Owen now has the look of a well-fed young executive. He could be holidaying on the Hamptons, jogging in Martha's Vineyard instead of warming up on the touchline. He looks sated. Gerard Houllier is said to be interested in working with him again which is not necessarily the news to make him feel alive again.

United's troubles won't end with victory today. Briefly, and up until this point last season, Liverpool looked like they could trouble Ferguson. Now that time is at an end. United may follow them down the road to penury. Chelsea, despite their easy opening matches, are threatening to stretch ahead.

Ferguson continues to praise the Glazers. Meanwhile, he is taking a "defiant stance" against the BBC. He will not pay the Premier League fine as he refuses to talk to them. Even if he did, they are unlikely to ask the questions that need answering.

Manchester Utd v Liverpool,

Sky Sports 1, 1.30

Sunday Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport