Manchester United snatch early lead over rivals City in race to spend

Manchester is seeing most of the transfer action as Ferguson shows who's boss, writes Tim Rich

The moment Manchester City qualified for the Champions League was the moment the Tottenham manager, Harry Redknapp, knew he could no longer compete. "I know some people in the right positions at Manchester City and they have players signed already that will blow your brains out," he remarked. That was two months ago.

Gaël Clichy is a fine if slightly error-prone left back but he is not the kind of signing that would make Redknapp's chairman, Daniel Levy, reach for a revolver and a bottle of whisky. But there is something remarkable about Clichy's transfer from Arsenal. At £7m he will be the cheapest footballer to sign for City since the oil money from Abu Dhabi started flowing in. Meanwhile, five miles away, Manchester United have embarked on what, in real terms, is their most expansive summer in the transfer market for a decade.

Ten years ago, the requirements at Old Trafford were roughly what they are now. The Premier League had been won for a third successive time but European dominance remained out of reach for a team that, in Roy Keane's words, obsessed about Bentleys and Rolex watches rather than winning.

Juan Sebastian Veron and Ruud van Nistelrooy were bought for £47m to spearhead a side that seemed designed for the European Cup final in Glasgow in what was due to be Sir Alex Ferguson's farewell season. Again they failed, beaten in the semi-final by Bayer Leverkusen. It would be five years before they came as close.

In the sombre afterglow of the rout at Wembley in this year's Champions' League final, Ferguson declared himself "ready to meet the challenge of Barcelona", the team but for whom United might have equalled Liverpool's English record of five European Cups. The arrival of Wesley Sneijder, the focal point of the Internazionale side that did beat Barcelona, in the 2010 semi-finals, would be a statement of that intent, as are the unsubstantiated reports that United are prepared to pay the kind of wages that eased Yaya Touré's journey from Barcelona to City. However, the Dutchman has been talking about the city of Milan in the kind of language that might have been scripted by the Italian tourist board. Arsenal's Samir Nasri appears far more approachable.

So far Ferguson has spent £50m in continuing what he has been doing for the past two years – securing the future. The comparisons between Ferguson and Sir Matt Busby will go on but the Manchester United that Ferguson leaves behind should be in far better shape than the squabbling, ageing team that Busby bequeathed Wilf McGuinness.

As United report for pre-season training at Carrington this week, it is possible to see the team Ferguson's successor will inherit. David De Gea in goal, the Da Silva twins at full-back, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones in central defence. A midfield of Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young, maybe Nasri, maybe Sneijder; Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez in attack. It may not be Barcelona but it will be balanced, aggressive and above all, young. Not one of these players, in defiance of United and Ferguson's great traditions, is home grown.

Even before the 2010-11 season ended, Ferguson had announced what was to prove the summer signing of the year. Like Hernandez, De Gea did well at school and comes from a football family, although his dad played in the Spanish Third Division rather than in internationals for Mexico.

At 19, Jones has been described by Gary Neville as someone who might captain Manchester United and who will be a presence at Old Trafford for a decade or more. Young is one of those favourite Ferguson projects – an unfulfilled talent. The prices for each have been steep but Ferguson has long argued that the £80m dividend from Cristiano Ronaldo's transfer to Real Madrid had been ring-fenced, rather than sucked into the quagmire of the Glazer debt, and would one day be spent.

If Manchester City are more cautious it is because, although it may not seem like value in the checkout queues of the Asda that stands opposite Eastlands, the £130m Roberto Mancini spent last summer was mostly invested very well. With the FA Cup and a Champions' League place secured, City are marginally ahead of schedule. There is not the same need to make statements of intent that the arrival of Robinho and the £100m bid for Kaka represented. The requirement now is to grow a club that when it was taken over had a turnover a third the size of Manchester United's. Now it is half as big.

Last summer they would have paid what Mark Hughes called "the Manchester City premium" for Alexis Sanchez. However, Clichy will not be the last arrival at Eastlands. No brains have been blown out but the trigger is still cocked.

Manchester transfer targets

Wesley Sneijder: Continually linked with United, he would be the ideal replacement for Paul Scholes. Chances of signing: 3/5

Samir Nasri: "We are not going to sell him to Manchester United, that's for sure," said Arsène Wenger, although a fast-expiring contract and Nasri's desire to leave suggest otherwise. 4/5 United; 3/5 City

Alessio Cerci: An Italy Under-21 winger from Fiorentina – will be cheaper and keener to come than Alexis Sanchez. 3/5 City

Stefan Savic: A formidable defender for Partizan Belgrade, he would be cheaper than Gary Cahill. 4/5 City

Neymar: With financial fair play on the horizon, City will be very cautious, post-Robinho. 2/5 City