By Simon Glanville
When you think of Manchester United, love them or hate them, you think of success.
The Red Devils have a won a joint-record 18 English league titles, four League Cups, a record 11 FA Cups and three European Cups.
Their manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, is the most successful manager in the club’s history, having won 26 major honours since taking over in 1986. His side have dominated English football for decades, but the signs are that all is not happy at Old Trafford.
The recent stories about Wayne Rooney and his alleged fall-out with Ferguson may be dominating the headlines, but that is only one of many problems that Sir Alex is currently facing.
We may only be eight games into the new Premier League season, but already Manchester United trail league leaders Chelsea by five points. United are still to win on the road in the league, despite getting themselves into winning positions on more than one occasion. They were cruising to a comfortable win at Goodison Park heading into injury time, but by the full-time whistle Ferguson’s men were deflated after surrendering two goals after the ninety minute mark, leaving them with a solitary point when three seemed a certainty moments earlier.
Even at Old Trafford, newly-promoted West Brom fought back from two goals down to earn a draw at the weekend. This is not the Manchester United of old.
The defence is a big worry. Rio Ferdinand’s much-discussed injury problems have seen him miss a lot of football over the last 18 months, and question marks still hang over a number of the United back guard.
Jonny Evans has filled in for Ferdinand on many occasions but has yet to convince he is the answer, while Chris Smalling hasn’t made much of an impression since joining from Fulham in a substantial deal.
In goal, there are strong suggestions that this could be veteran Edwin van der Sar’s final season before he hangs up his boots, and with Ben Foster sold to Birmingham, the vulnerable Tomasz Kuszczak may be next in line.
While conceding 11 goals from their first eight matches is hardly a travesty, it is a matter of concern for Ferguson and one that needs addressing if United are to make a serious title challenge this year.
A lack of money is also a major issue for the Scot. The club’s huge debts have prevented Ferguson from competing with the big spenders in recent seasons. While neighbours Manchester City spent well over £100m this summer, Ferguson had to be content with adding the inexperienced duo of Smalling and Mexican Javier Hernandez for a fraction of City’s outlay.
Even the £80m received for the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo in the summer of 2009 has yet to be invested back into the team. Rooney compensated for that loss by having an outstanding season in the last campaign, but Ferguson can’t even rely on him at the moment.
The out-of-form striker has reportedly decided to not sign a new deal at Old Trafford, and with his contract only running to 2012, huge question marks hang over his future at the club.
While United fans maybe taking joy from the current plight of arch-rivals Liverpool, the rapid decline of their neighbours should act as a warning to them that no club is too big to get into trouble.
Another issue for Ferguson is the ageing Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes. While Neville is more of a bit-part player these days, the latter of the two are still performing brilliantly for the club, but they can’t go on for ever. Ferguson may not have the money to go out and buy world-class alternatives and a number of his younger players still have a long way to go if they are to step up to the mark.
One thing is for sure, you’d be stupid to write Manchester United off. Under Ferguson, they have often come back from seemingly impossible positions to win matches and more importantly, titles.
Ferguson will not want to depart until his club have regained their status as England’s top club. With an unhappy star striker, money problems and what appears to a lack of strength in depth at his disposal, this could be Sir Alex’s biggest test yet.