The January dilemma to be tackled by Manchester United
Dec 11, 2011
When the phone call came in from Italy, Sir Alex Ferguson's response was quick and unequivocal.
It made no difference that Manchester United had just been eliminated from the Champions League before Christmas for the first time in six years, or that Manchester City had opened up a painful Premier League lead; he still would not be buying Wesley Sneijder.
Inter Milan have an incentive of their own - Sneijder is richly paid and eager to move elsewhere. Yet their hope was that they might exploit an enforced urgency at Old Trafford.
They knew Ferguson had spent much of the summer transfer window looking for a player with the creativity to replace Paul Scholes in the centre of his midfield.
The Scot considered Luka Modric before Chelsea began bidding and Tottenham Hotspur's chairman vowed not to sell the Croatian playmaker.
Talks were held with Sneijder to see if a compromise was possible on wages that would have seriously unbalanced the club's pay structure.
The Dutchman refused to budge, so Ferguson moved on to other targets. Alexis Sanchez was cheaper and younger, but there turned out to be too much competition from Barcelona.
Samir Nasri said he was prepared to leave Arsenal for Old Trafford only for Manchester City to bluster in with an unmatchable offer and change the Frenchman's mind. Angered by the behaviour of player and club, Ferguson halted his search and concentrated attentions on returning youth.
So impressive was Tom Cleverley's pre-season that United's manager entrusted the centre of midfield to a 22 year old who had spent the previous campaign on loan at Wigan Athletic. With Ashley Young, Phil Jones and Danny Welbeck also installed in the first team, this remodelled United started with a flourish of victories; their new boys lauded as the future of England.
Then the problems began.
First, Cleverley succumbed to injury and points were unnecessarily lost. Next, Nemanja Vidic fell out badly with Ferguson ahead of a baleful home derby with City. Vidic watched from the stands, United were sucked into a counter-attacking evisceration, and the tone of the season changed.
The Serb was soon restored to central defence, but in the background United were seeking end-of-season buyers for him. On Wednesday night, Vidic's campaign finished early with a triple knee ligament injury that will require at least nine months rehabilitation and may now preclude that sale.
For now, Ferguson faces some hard decisions over buys. He is instinctively cautious about winter transfer window shopping and in recent seasons has attempted to spend as early in the summer as possible.
"It is not a consistent route for us to buy in January simply because of all the disadvantages," says Ferguson, who signed Vidic and Patrice Evra in the aftermath of United's last early European exit, yet did not see the best of them for months.
Saturday the Scot applied traditional remedy. With the squad shuffled and instructed "to get a taste for goals again", they fed on a Wolverhampton Wanderers side.
Nani and Wayne Rooney shared four goals - the England striker scoring from open play for the first time since his red card for England against Montenegro in October -and netting more than a single goal for the first time in eight league outings.
After a week in which many questions have been asked, suddenly, the champions have plenty of answers.