There is no better judge than Sir Alex Ferguson when it comes to weighing up what is needed to hit top gear in the second half of the season. With 12 Premier League titles under his belt, he has seen just about every possible twist and turn – and he has built his reputation on an unmatched understanding of his squad’s capabilities.
As Ferguson reviews his options, there will be a temptation to pursue the world class central midfielder (or two) that fans are urging him to invest in. Transfer funds are available and it is clear that Manchester United cannot take the next step on all fronts without significant upgrades in that position. However, as former captain Gary Neville was quick to point out last week, do not expect Ferguson to rush into a purchase when the transfer window opens in January.
The decision to postpone the hunt for a long-term solution in central midfield – which might involve signing two new faces – has been made easier by the recent form of Michael Carrick and Phil Jones, who have raised their game at the perfect time. At Queens Park Rangers earlier in the month, the pair were outstanding, with Carrick shielding the back four and rarely wasting a pass while Jones was tireless in his work-rate and driving runs.
Jones, who has been sorely missed by former club Blackburn, has been particularly sensational this season and, though centre back is his favoured position, has emerged as a very complete player – he tackles well, is strong in the air, passes accurately, has plenty of pace, times his runs impressively and never seems to tire.
Though Anderson and Tom Cleverley remain on the treatment table, in addition to Darren Fletcher’s enforced absence due to a debilitating illness, it has become increasingly apparent that United can stay in the title race with their current personnel and push City all the way. The evergreen Ryan Giggs is showing no signs of slowing down and slotted in seamlessly in the 5-0 win at Fulham. Ji-Sung Park or even Paul Pogba provide Ferguson with further options as well as Wayne Rooney, who has already dropped back into a midfield role during this campaign.
Had United reached the knockout round of the Champions League, this would be a different discussion – and there would be a case for finding a player eligible for European football, where the Red Devils’ lack of a world class creative midfield presence was most keenly felt.
But that is not the reality at Old Trafford. Instead, Ferguson may well look at his squad and feel that, with United already out of the Champions League and the League Cup, he can save his transfer funds until the summer. After all, would a player like Wesley Sneijder turn his back on Champions League football this season to move to Old Trafford? It is unlikely, given that he could just wait until the summer.
Ferguson is well aware of the perils associated with being a buyer in this mid-season window. “We don’t have a scatter-gun approach to signing players,” he explained. “It’s not easy to buy players for Manchester United, particularly in January, and I don’t see anyone, really, who can make us a better team from the players who are possibly available.
“I could choose two or three players that I’d like to have at this club, but they’re not available, so there’s no point going there.”
Benfica’s Nicolas Gaitan is one such player that Ferguson is believed to be keen on – but United have so far denied reaching an agreement with the Portuguese giants and a move in January is unlikely. Gaitan however, would be just the upgrade that the champions need but, again, it makes more sense to bring a new playmaker into the squad during the summer, allowing him time to adjust to new surroundings. With this in mind, taking a more patient approach seems to be United’s best move.
The Red Devils’ form to date over the Christmas period has been flawless, dismissing many of the question marks that lingered after their shock Champions League exit. And among the side’s best performers have been Jones, Carrick and Giggs in central midfield. Sterner tests await the champions, but the past few weeks might well have convinced Ferguson that, where central midfield is concerned, he can keep his chequebook shut next month.