Sir Alex Ferguson facing his ultimate test this summer

It is easy to jump on the bandwagon that has characterised the 2009/10 Premiership campaign by writing off arguably the greatest manager in history, but it could be suggested that this summer provides Sir Alex Ferguson with his biggest challenge as Manchester United manager.  Threatened with the imminent rise of big-spending Manchester City and a Chelsea side almost certain to heavily invest, along with the European dominance of a rampant Barcelona, Ferguson must surely use the close-season as an opportunity to overhaul his ageing, unbalanced squad whilst making difficult decisions over the futures of certain major stars.

It is befitting of the mayhem of this season that Ferguson’s side could still emerge double-winners (albeit via the less prestigious route of the Carling Cup), but any success in the league would simply mask the cracks that continue to appear in every big game in which United appear. Fundamental lack of spark in midfield, not really evident since the days of Keane and Scholes’ telepathic partnership, along with limited variation in attack, weaknesses in goal and injury problems across the board have stretched Manchester United’s limited resources, and it is prime time for Ferguson to loosen the purse strings and invest some of the money available from the Ronaldo transfer.

With the arrival of Chris Smalling, central defence seems adeptly covered. Ferguson seems to view Jonny Evans as the eventual successor to Rio Ferdinand, and his shakiness at times shouldn’t detract from his exceptional composure and maturity for someone so young. Assuming Ferguson keeps Nemanja Vidic – likely given his reluctance to once again sell to a major European rival – four centre-backs is perfectly adequate for a long campaign. However, it is in goal that decision-time must be reached – particularly regarding Ben Foster. Van Der Sar’s decision to remain for another year has merely delayed the issue, and if Foster is deemed below-par, a move for Igor Akinfeev of CSKA Moscow must surely be considered.

Central midfield provides the most frustrating scenario for United fans, with the injury to Owen Hargreaves, the infuriating ineptitude of Michael Carrick and the inconsistency of Paul Scholes leaving Darren Fletcher to man the fort alone. Anderson may yet come good, but Ferguson needs to decide on his best position (once he returns from injury) and give him a run. It is apparent that United cannot continue to rely on the revival of Hargreaves, whilst Scholes should be limited to a supporting role. His experience is perfect for particular games, but he will come up short when faced with the likes of Cambiasso, Xavi and Xabi Alonso. Surely a move for Daniele De Rossi, Rafael Van Der Vaart or Wilson Palacios when each was available would have proved both value for money, and tonic to an increasing headache? All three would have been available for less than £25m (indeed, Palacios ultimately went to Tottenham for shy of £15m) and would have provided very different, but thoroughly adept, partners to Fletcher.

Up-front, the problems are paramount, despite the electrifying form of Wayne Rooney this term. Frequent paper-talk of David Villa’s arrival seems to miss the point – when Rooney has proved so successful in a central role, how would Villa fit into Ferguson’s 4-3-3 formation? Perhaps his ultimate aim is to shift Rooney back out wide, but quite how the player would take to that is anyone’s guess. It is equally debatable whether the outstanding Villa provides value for money. Whilst his guarantee of goals is surely unquestionable, the sell-back-value and longevity of a player approaching 29 and costing £30m is a more pressing point. Why not invest in a more flexible, youthful player with an exciting future? Before he became a fixture in their 11, Madrid’s Gonzalo Higuain would have been a perfect fit, but his re-emergence at the Bernabeu has rendered that impossible. Luis Suarez at Ajax or Thomas Muller at Bayern Munich appear more realistic, though risky, options and both would suit Ferguson’s increasingly fluid tactics.

Ferguson’s recent striking decisions have been somewhat odd. His decision to spend nearly £12m on Javier Hernandez particularly so, especially given the Scotsman’s admission that his signing came earlier than desired. United are now in possession of an injury-prone Michael Owen, an unproven Mame Diouf and an even more unproven Hernandez as back-up to the much-maligned Dimitar Berbatov and Rooney. From the limited available footage, Hernandez provides an uncanny similarity to Giuseppe Rossi, a striker who has carved out an excellent reputation for himself in La Liga and with the Italian national team, despite being deemed not good enough for United. Ferguson needs to be more decisive in his striking department, with the current roster resembling a selection of nearly-men – all capable, but not quite up to the required standard.

It is decision-time for Ferguson, as the long-term futures of Brown, Giggs, Neville, Berbatov, Carrick and Foster all seriously debatable. Nani is yet to prove himself over an entire campaign, whilst Owen Hargreaves remains a perplexing problem. These issues would be irrespective were Manchester United able to call upon the strength-in-depth they are famous for. At the moment, however, their problems look increasingly exposed.

Written By James Aldridge