As United look to replace the old guard – ‘to buy or not to buy?’

There are a multitude of reasons why Sir Alex Ferguson has managed to sustain success at Manchester United over the last twenty years. The impressive dynastic era of dominance that he has managed to build has seen many players fly in and out of the Old Trafford doors, with the likes of Eric Cantona, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo just some of the talismanic characters that have enthralled Red Devils fans in the past.

The continued presences of veteran one-club men Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville and Paul Scholes are a heart-warmingly timely reminder that, in a time where loyalty is at its least prevalent within football, allegiance to the badge is still existent in some quarters within the modern game. Each of the esteemed trio has enjoyed a glorious career at Manchester United, with their recent one-year contract extensions testament to the fact that Sir Alex Ferguson sees the retention of the old guard as crucial to the short-term success of his side.

However, Ferguson will have realised that Giggs (36), Neville and Scholes (both 35) do not have time on their side. It is unlikely that all three will remain at Old Trafford beyond the end of next season, and Ferguson will be desperately looking to replace the academy-bred triumvirate with players possessing enough quality to wear the Manchester United shirt. Several players within the current United squad have been earmarked to replace the trio, but will Ferguson seek to promote from within this group or look outside for solutions?

Gary Neville

Prior to gaining notoriety as Ferguson’s childish little b*tch, accustomed to taunting rivals’ fans and growing ill-advised pencil moustaches, Gary Neville was actually a right-back of some distinction. Although debilitated by age and injury over the last three seasons, Gary Neville’s re-emergence last season at times provoked memories of the foraging full-back he was at his peak, leading his manager to go as far as tipping him for a place in England’s squad this summer (thankfully Capello had the decency to leave him out).

Unlike the left-back position, which indisputably belongs to flying Frenchman Patrice Evra, no one player has really staked a solid claim for the right-back berth, with Wes Brown, John O’Shea and Rafael all having impressed and unimpressed at various times. This indecision has placed question marks over the future of Manchester United’s right-back berth.

Rafael

Arriving from Brazilian outfit Fluminense with twin-brother Fabio in January 2008, the tousled defender is the man most likely to make the right-back berth his own at Old Trafford over the next ten years. Still only 19, the Brazilian has already notched up 44 first-team appearances for the Red Devils, impressing the Old Trafford faithful with marauding displays down the right-hand flank.

At times Rafael’s performances have also demonstrated naivety and brashness. However, these flaws should be ironed out over time as the Brazilian gains experience, and providing Ferguson doesn’t look to buy a short-term fix for the right-back slot, it seems likely that Rafael will be the man to succeed Gary Neville in the long run.

Micah Richards

If one were to believe the media, it would appear that Sir Alex Ferguson has doubts over the long-term ability of Rafael to succeed Gary Neville. Persistent rumours over the course of the last three seasons have linked the Scotsman with a cross-city move for Manchester City defender Micah Richards. Undoubtedly the hottest English prospect of 2006, Richards’ progress at Eastlands appears to have stalled of late, due to loss of form and the influx of defensive talent following the input of Abu Dhabi’s billions.

Ferguson, no stranger to polishing a rough diamond, is said to be a long-term admirer of the 21-year-old, and would relish the opportunity to poach the defender from his Manchester rivals. Richards has also operated at centre-back before, thus putting himself forth as a more versatile option to the Brazilian Rafael. Given Manchester City’s anticipated summer outlay, it remains to be seen whether the Leeds-born defender will be a prominent part of Roberto Mancini’s plans for next season. Should he become available for transfer, I would not be surprised to see to Sir Alex make a move for the 21-year-old.

Ryan Giggs

What more can be said about Ryan Giggs? The most-decorated player in English history, the only player to have scored in every Premier League season, a player with a longevity of career that most can only dream of. Although spending a large chunk of his career embodying the phrase ‘flying winger’, the Welsh wizard has not let his advancing years slow him down, with Ferguson choosing to deploy Giggs in a more central role to make up for his lack of pace. Whilst Ferguson’s preference for an interchangeable 4-3-3/4-5-1 formation during the ‘Ronaldo-years’ diminished his need for ‘wingers’ per se, with the Scotsman utilising more flexible ‘forward’ players, the strong form of Nani and Antonio Valencia in the second half of 2009/10 may suggest a reversion to a more traditional tactical approach.

With Giggs set to turn 38 next year, replacing the man who filled the left-wing berth in the most celebrated midfield quartet in Premier League history will surely be a most pressing urge for Sir Alex.

Nani

Despite failing to win a fourth successive Premier League crown, Sir Alex Ferguson will surely be able to draw positives from the 2009/10 season. Aside from Wayne Rooney’s conversion to goalscoring supremo, the Manchester United boss will have been immensely pleased by the performances of Nani in the second-half of the season. Having seen his preceding two seasons plagued by woefully inconsistent form and bouts of petulance, the Portuguese winger’s newly found determination and maturity was a major contributory factor to United’s attacking threat in the second half of the season.

Displaying a more prominent team ethic and adding ‘end product’ to his infuriatingly irritating ‘one-trick-pony’ persona, the 23-year-old finally appears to be justifying Manchester United’s expensive outlay upon him. However, it remains to be seen whether his form of the last six months was a mere ‘flash in the pan’, or evidence of the tricky winger finally settling down. Nani was rewarded for his performances with a new contract, suggesting that Sir Alex Ferguson believes his form is indicative of the latter proposition.

David Silva

It wouldn’t be a summer at Old Trafford without a big-money signing waltzing into Manchester. One such player linked with United during the last 12 months has been Spanish international David Silva. The 24-year-old, who rose to prominence on these shores after a blistering strike against Chelsea during a Champions League clash in 2007, recently issued a thinly veiled come-and-get-me-plea to Sir Alex Ferguson, stating that, “When you hear a club like Manchester United is interested in you it is an honour. I am very aware of the Premier League, and in recent years it has been the stand-out league in the world. If it came calling, especially if it was a club like Manchester United, it would be very hard to resist.”

Whilst Silva is not a touchline hugger in the vein of the Ryan Giggs of yore, a United midfield that has been stifled by a lack of creativity would certainly be improved by the addition of the Spaniard. With Silva’s club Valencia notoriously strapped for cash, it is hard to foresee them turning down a substantial bid for the player should Sir Alex put one forward. Silva is a versatile operator, who can perform in a number of attacking roles. Having come close to joining Liverpool last summer, Ferguson would relish the opportunity to flex his financial muscle and rub it in the noses of his rivals from the other side of the M62.

Paul Scholes

“My toughest opponent? Scholes of Manchester. He is the complete midfielder. Scholes is undoubtedly the greatest midfielder of his generation”, said 3-time FIFA World Player of the Year winner Zinedine Zidane.”For me, it’s Paul Scholes. He’ll do ridiculous things in training like say: ‘You see that tree over there?’ – it’ll be 40 yards away – ‘I’m going to hit it.’ And he’ll do it. Everyone at the club considers him the best” stated current England captain Rio Ferdinand.

A five-minute Google search of Paul Scholes yields a wealth of quotes similar to the ones above. For a player so infamously media-shy, it is so refreshing to hear him lauded by his peers. Derided as ‘past-it’ countless times over the last few seasons, time and time again Scholes has quietly gone about his job, proving critics wrong with his reliably assured performances in the middle of United’s midfield. Rivalled only by Barcelona maestro Xavi in terms of range of passing and vision, a series of England managers have cursed the diminutive midfielder’s retirement from the international stage. Pretty soon, Sir Alex may be joining this rank of managers, with the end in sight for the nine-time Premier League winner.

The trite performances of Michael Carrick, albeit in a more withdrawn role than that of Scholes, suggest that former Spurs man is not adequately equipped to succeed Scholes in the long run. Although Anderson was heralded as such upon his arrival at Old Trafford in 2007, the Brazilian has yet to show any form to suggest that he will be able to do so either. It is arguable that the replacement of Scholes is a more urgent need than replacing either of Scholes’ long-term team-mates, but who will Sir Alex opt for in order to do so?

Anderson

Arriving in Manchester at the same time as the previously-maligned Nani, Anderson was earmarked as the heir to Paul Scholes, but has done very little to suggest that this will be the case. Signed from Porto for an estimated £18m, the dreadlocked Brazilian has failed to regularly exhibit the creative and goalscoring threat expected of him upon arrival. A paltry return of 1 goal in 99 competitive appearances for the Old Trafford side would allude to the fact that he doesn’t possess Scholes’ eye for goal, and his inability to control games would suggest that he lacks the vision and speed of thought to match Scholes too.

Although currently out on the sidelines with cruciate knee ligament damage, Anderson was reported to have invoked the ire of his manager earlier this season after he flew home to Brazil without consent, landing himself a fine of £80,000 in the process. Ferguson is notoriously unforgiving with disobedient players, and it is unsure whether the Brazilian will be welcomed back into the Manchester United fold with open arms upon his recovery from injury.

Stephen Ireland

Whilst prising Richards away from Eastlands would provide Sir Alex with much satisfaction, the acquisition of talented playmaker Stephen Ireland would represent a greater coup for the Scottish manager. It is a sad state of affairs when an unskilled workhorse becomes the focal point of a Manchester United midfield, but the increasing importance of Darren Fletcher would suggest that this is the case at Old Trafford. Whilst Fletcher is rightly praised for his determination and grit, he evidently lacks the nous and guile to unlock defences.

Ireland on the other hand, is an immensely creative midfielder. Scorer of 13 goals in the 2008/09 season, the 23-year-old clearly has the technique and skill absent from Manchester United’s central midfield. The Irishman has recently expressed his uncertainty over his Eastlands future, stating that, “When I have played, I haven’t played in my position and it’s been a difficult and frustrating season for me. I think there’s a question mark over next year for me and I don’t know what will happen, but it’s out of my hands.” Ferguson is thought to be at the head of the queue for Ireland’s signature, with the Irishman rumoured to be receptive to a move across town.

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