Ferguson's latest revival act
It has become all too easy to overlook the fact that Manchester United missed out on a 20th league title last season by virtue of goal difference. As in 2009-10, when Chelsea finished first by a solitary point, the eventual champions provided gloss to their superiority through the often emphatic nature of their victories. That the lavishly assembled Manchester City squad finished first only after the most dramatic domestic turnaround seen since 1989 is a testament to remarkable management and a phenomenal winning mentality at Old Trafford.
Unlike Manchester City, United have already strengthened this summer, with the signing of Shinji Kagawa a justifiable cause for optimism. A talented and creative midfielder who developed a taste for silverware during his time with Borussia Dortmund, he could become a major force at Old Trafford. Nick Powell, a young midfielder signed from Crewe, arrives to continue of a policy of recognising and developing potential.
Yet there is a feeling that further signings are needed. Eden Hazard and Lucas Moura have opted for other destinations this summer and, allied to the failure to sign Mesut Ozil in 2010 and Wesley Sneijder in 2011, fans may be forgiven for believing Manchester United now lack financial clout. The Glazers' takeover has resulted in estimated losses of £550 million to service debt over the last seven years and, despite Sir Alex Ferguson's loyal defence of the owners, the green-and-gold ranks again appear to be growing.
Supporter groups have reacted with anger to the news of the IPO, which will be used in attempt to drive down the debt, though it did finally lead to an overdue admission in official documents submitted in application to the New York Stock Exchange: "Our indebtedness could adversely affect our financial health and competitive position." That the debt has drained transfer funds is a source of huge frustration; the message that the club is seeking "value" in the market has been repeated incessantly, but a club that Forbes deems the most valuable in the sporting world now seems to have great difficulty competing for marquee signings.
Ferguson, though, has always maintained he has been given all the backing he has requested in the market, and certainly the club seems intent on making a statement before the close of the transfer window, having been unusually public in the pursuit of Robin van Persie. That signing would stand apart in the club's recent dealings: partly because United have not paid a fee for an outfield player over the age of 27 since Henning Berg in 1997, but also because many believe other areas should be the priority.
Ferguson has indicated that he believes conventional hard-tackling midfielders to be anachronistic at the elite level - "It's about anticipation and reading the game," he said recently - but the interest in Hazard and Lucas suggests he would like to improve his creative options. While Kagawa represents a significant coup in that regard, there is justification for further investment in the central midfield area. Paul Scholes' return from retirement proved instrumental in raising performances in the second half of last season but, at 37, he will have to be managed carefully. Ryan Giggs, too, is in the winter of his career. Tom Cleverley shows promise but, while Ferguson labelled him "probably the best midfield player in Britain, potentially", it remains unclear whether he will live to the billing. Anderson's hunger appears all too literal. Michael Carrick, in the absence of a true holding midfielder, has seen his creative brief restricted by expediency.
The left-back position, given Patrice Evra's deterioration in form, would also appear to be a more obvious area of weakness than the attack. It may even be argued that another centre-back should be signed, given that Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling have all had notable injury problems. Ferguson has revealed that he is considering deploying Carrick as cover if required.
There are improvements to be made, but it is all too easy to overemphasise weakness on the back of the first season without a major trophy since 2004-05. Serious questions had been raised over the management and playing staff after that last barren campaign, but the doubts swiftly gave way to a new era of dominance. As Sir Alex Ferguson noted in 2010, when Wayne Rooney had sought to leave the club: "I had a player once who said to me that Rooney and Ronaldo weren't good enough and he was not prepared to wait until they were good enough. That's the trouble with potential. People don't identify potential. They're very poor at it. I've identified all my life the potential in young people. I know potential. I know how to develop and have faith in it, and young people surprise you when given the opportunity. That's what this club is all about."
Manchester United's recent signings have tended to put the emphasis on youth, and with that comes the promise of improvement. While Manchester City will enter the new season as favourites, they would do well to remember the lessons of the 2010-11 season, when Chelsea were tipped to sweep all before them: United, having signed only Javier Hernandez, Smalling and Bebe, finished nine points clear at the top of the table and reached the final of the Champions League for the third time in four years. In times of adversity, Sir Alex Ferguson thrives.
"For us it's still a challenge and we're good at challenges," he said after last season's title was snatched away. "Experiences of a good type enthuse people but, when they have a bad one, it brings a sense of determination in you."