I’m going to start with two immutable truths that will guide my analysis.
1. English players are overrated, especially by the English press.
2. Manchester United’s debt is far more crippling than David Gill will have you believe.
Stipulations: Wayne Rooney wants to leave Manchester United. He says he wants to leave because United aren’t showing ambition anymore. I can accept that reasoning, although Sir Alex did spend £7 million on Bebé (which is basically the same as burning it, IMO) so there must be some money to spend. Furthermore, United are tremendously in debt, despite what David Gill says about the actual money in the bank (approximately £165 million). At the same time, I don’t believe Sir Alex wants Rooney to go, despite his notoriously hard heart. I think he has a soft spot for Rooney, which may or may not be affecting his judgment.
Which brings us to the salient questions:
1. Why didn’t Sir Alex sell Rooney in August, after Rooney informed the board that he would not sign a new contract on 14 August?
The short, simple answer is that Sir Alex thought that Rooney would change his mind. That’s a reasonable assumption, because people change their minds all the time. In particular, Ferguson was relying on Rooney’s affection for the club and for the manager (they have had, apparently, a good relationship since Rooney arrived). Ferguson probably thought he could make a couple of moves to convince Rooney of United’s ambitions (i.e. to compete for the Premiership and Champions League titles). But he proved unable to sign anyone he targeted, save Bebé and, more importantly, Javier Hernández. Yet neither of those players are world-class, and neither is Chris Smalling. So if the summer signings aren’t going to convince Rooney to stay, what else can Ferguson do? He could hope for a good start to the season, or that Rooney changed his mind and signed a new contract, neither of which happened.
The fact remains that Rooney was seemingly intent on leaving and Ferguson had two weeks to sell him, and he didn’t. I have to add this to the list of Ferguson’s questionable summer decisions.
2. Wayne Rooney called United unambitious. Is that true?
No, it’s not true. United under Ferguson still wants to win the Premiership and the Champions League. The club still sees itself as one of the world’s elites and still sees itself competing for players like Mesut Özil and others. The real problem is the finances. United are crippled by the debt taken on by the Glazers to buy the team. At first, this wasn’t a problem (at least on the field) as United went on a long run of success. But now, like Barcelona, United’s debt is becoming a major problem and affecting things on the pitch. It was the debt, not a lack of ambition, that prevented Ferguson from spending in the summer (his questionable decisions are a topic for elsewhere).
3. Will Rooney be sold in January?
Highly unlikely, mostly because he is cup-tied, but also because teams rarely add such important players in the winter (except in Football Manager). That said, Ferguson would be foolish to turn down a monster offer.
4. Who does United have coming through the system?
Admittedly, I don’t know every prospect, but the only player who could conceivably step in right away is Tom Cleverley. And he’s a midfielder. So that doesn’t help. Gabriel Obertan is a winger and, at a big club, a part-time player. Hernández can start and play in every game, but he’s not a traditional striker. And Federico Macheda appears to have talent, but isn’t close to being near Rooney’s level. Danny Welbeck and Darron Gibson are eminently expendable.
5. Who will replace Rooney?
If the debt is as crippling as I think it is, there will not be a large purchase. But politics will almost force United to spend a chunk of change on at least a couple of replacement players. The easiest thing to do is take a combination of money and players back in exchange for Rooney. I’m thinking, in particular, of Real Madrid, which could offer Karim Benzema, Mesut Özil, and about £40 million. Edin Dzeko would work, but Wolfsburg don’t want to sell him, while others suggest Sergio Agüero from Atlético Madrid (the former would be nice, but the latter isn’t a straight-up replacement for Rooney). In the end, the replacement will depend on the fee United receives, which depends on the contract situation. That is, it becomes more difficult to get a lot of money for him next summer when he has only 12 months left on his contract.
Which brings us back to the first question regarding why Ferguson didn’t sell him in the summer. In the end, that may be his biggest mistake.