In 1789 Benjamin Franklin famously said that “nothing is certain but death and taxes.” When applying this sentiment to Premier League football, many would describe Sir Alex Ferguson’s unerring ability to discover a raw diamond as equally inevitable. The Manchester United manager, incredibly in his 25th year at the club, is on course to achieve the second ‘treble’ of his Old Trafford career. Although his side have been accused of lacking the ‘fantasy’ of previous Manchester United teams, Ferguson’s pragmatic approach to player acquisition during the last few transfer windows appears to be paying dividends this season.
Whilst rivals Manchester City and Chelsea have spent big on the likes of Joleon Lescott, Edin Dzeko and Fernando Torres over the course of the last two seasons, Ferguson has instead invested in relatively unproven youth. However, some of these acquisitions, most notably Javier Hernandez and Chris Smalling, are justifying the Scotsman’s frugal approach to squad-reinforcement.
Twenty-two-year-old Hernandez, a £6m signing from Mexican club Chivas, has seamlessly adapted to English football. The forward is statistically the Premier League’s most clinical player, having bagged nine league goals from just 13 shots on target. He has unsurprisingly drawn comparisons with Old Trafford legend and infamous ‘supersub’ Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, having scored on six occasions after coming on as a substitute.
Smalling, a man who was playing non-league football less than three years ago, has admirably deputised for the side in the absence of England captain Rio Ferdinand. The former Fulham man was signed from the Craven Cottage club for £7m in January 2010 (before completing his move to Old Trafford six months later) and has shown himself to be a cool and composed defender. Prior to Manchester United’s recent 2-1 reverse at Stamford Bridge, Smalling’s five Premier League starts had seen the side concede just four goals.
On the other hand, some critics have pointed to the signings of Bebe and Gabriel Obertan as proof that Ferguson is losing his eye for talent. Then Bordeaux manager Laurent Blanc initially expressed surprise at his former manager’s move for Obertan, and the winger’s displays since arriving at Old Trafford in the summer of 2009 appear to vindicate Blanc’s reservations. Obertan has made a meagre 14 league appearances over the course of the last two seasons, and has failed to show any of the form which saw him awarded Man of the Match in the final of the 2009 Toulon Tournament. His failure to establish himself as a first-team player in the absence of Antonio Valencia is a damning indictment on the Frenchman, with Ferguson instead preferring to re-position central midfielders such as Darren Fletcher and Darron Gibson.
The decision to sign Bebe looks even more baffling. The 20-year-old was signed for £7.4m last summer, an astoundingly high fee when taking into account the fact he was available for free just five weeks before moving from Vitoria Guimaraes to Manchester United. Despite scoring in a Carling Cup win over Wolverhampton Wanderers and in a Champions League victory against Turkish side Bursaspor, Bebe has looked woefully out of depth in a red shirt.
Notwithstanding inauspicious starts to their Manchester United careers, Bebe and Obertan may point to the current first-team regulars that benefitted under the tutelage and guidance of Ferguson. Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic and Nani all arrived at Old Trafford as relative unknowns, and each one endured a tough start to life in English football. However, Evra, Vidic and Nani have all flourished in the Premier League; indeed each member of the trio is widely considered to be the best in the league in their respective position.
If Ferguson’s most recent recruits can follow the examples of the three mentioned above, his deserved reputation as one of European football’s most prolific talent-spotters will surely continue.
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