Thursday, September 03, 2009

United have lost the X-factor; Is Fergie guilty of resting on his laurels?

Going off early season form isn't always a reliable indicator for what may lie ahead and Manchester United are usually, but not always, slow starters, however, following the loss of Ronaldo and Tevez this summer the champions have looked very ordinary. United were very lucky against Arsenal last weekend, they won convincingly against a poor Wigan team the weekend before that and of course they deservedly lost against Burnley and only just managed a win on the opening day of the new season against Birmingham.

Despite not playing that well the results thus far have been okay, aside from the farce at Turf Moor that is, but many United fans have concerns about the current squad and Ferguson's baffling starting selections.

Following the loss of Ronaldo everyone has been asking who will score the goals. Ferguson's answer to the goal-scoring question was simple "United will play differently". The United manager went on to say that Berbatov's role would change; he would become the focal point of the attack. It wasn't exactly a bold solution and it was one which left many fans deeply unimpressed, because the idea that United would plunder more goals as a result of what after all was a minor reshuffle was never going to work.

It actually came as no surprise that the Bulgarian striker was axed for the Arsenal game last weekend as the manager opted to flood the midfield with a negative 451 formation, it was a disappointing decision but one that was entirely predictable.

If United were going to continue where they left off last season and go on to secure an unprecedented fourth Premier League title in a row and make up for the loss of Ronaldo the manager needed to be bold in the transfer market. The champions needed an out and out striker, someone who could lead the line and guarantee 20 goals. By his own admission Ferguson declined the opportunity to sign Adebayor, a decision which is looking more bizarre by the week because the former Arsenal star has notched in every game thus far.

In the Champions League final, Barcelona took full advantage of some obvious weaknesses in United's engine room and so surgery is required in that department too. Supporters and pundits alike were expecting Ferguson to spend the £80m from the sale of Ronaldo, but the manager has bemused many when opting to sign injury-prone Michael Owen and unproven Atonio Valencia.

The net result of this summer's turmoil has left United looking short of ideas in midfield and light on consistent goal-scorers. Wayne Rooney is an exceptional player, but if the manager is going to rely on him too much there is a serious danger of player burn-out. Rooney has done well thus far in front goal, but it doesn't alter the fact that the team has definitely lost its X-factor.

Questions are being asked about the club's massive debts, heaped onto United by the Glazer family following their unwelcome takeover. David Conn in The Guardian has highlighted the huge interest payments of £263m since 2005 and yet the club have yet to pay hedge fund debts which are rolling up at a staggering rate of over 14% a year. There is a suspicion among the fans that Fergie's lack of movement in the transfer market this summer could be down to financial pressures.

While the Scot has been making modest signings this summer, Manchester City have been busily acquiring players from rival clubs. Ferguson has suggested the market is over-inflated and that is partly down to City. Despite this and without breaking any records, among many others the City manager signed Gareth Barry and Adebayor - both look like solid signings. In contrast to Ferguson, Hughes has bought well and early.

Given the various problems faced by Ferguson, it isn't unfair to ask if privately he has conceded that the club will have to settle for second-best this season, because even with the danger of making what could turn out to be foolish predictions United do not have the look of champions. If United go on to have a poor season you can expect more questions about the manager's own position and I for one fully expect that scenario to fold unfold in the weeks ahead.

If there is a hope it is that the current squad pulls together and that Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic remain injury free because a solid defence will always provide a platform to build upon. Owen Hargreaves has been named in the United's Champions League squad, that news will have been greeted with a few raised eyebrows given his injury situation. There's no doubting Hargreaves has been missed but you do wonder if this latest comeback attempt will be his last, but it is welcome news nonetheless.

The transfer window has slammed shut and Ferguson has been left talking about unproven new signings like Gabriel Obertan, who will be back in action soon following problems with his back. The United manager has also been talking about Mame Biram Diouf. The Senegalese youngster is currently on-loan playing for Norwegian club Molde, but there are no guarantees about his future as there are work permit issues to address, though it's expected he will arrive in January along with Adem Ljajic who is also out on loan at Partizan Belgrade.

The next two league games against Spurs (a) and City (h) will tell us a lot about the current Manchester United, they failed to rise to the occasion against Arsenal, but truth be told the team that started wasn't helped by the manager with his negative tactics. United and Ferguson need to raise their game and quickly.

Finally, United have been named the world's "most valuable sports club" by Forbes Magazine. Their total value is put at £1.17billion. I don't know how Forbes arrived at such a conclusion, the club's massive debts cannot have been taken into account, which is somewhat bizarre.

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