Muddled summer exposes United engine-room

"It's all a bit of a muddle," Sir Alex Ferguson stated in Philadelphia several days ago when asked whether he thought Juan Sebastian Veron would be starting a third Premiership season at Old Trafford.

Rarely has the Manchester United manager been more right. Superbly though they have performed on the field in the United States, brushing aside Celtic, Juventus and Barcelona, away from it the English champions have appeared a picture of disorganisation.

As late as last Wednesday, Ferguson was blankly denying claims by Veron's agent, Fernando Hidalgo, that a deal with Chelsea was all but done. Either he was laying a smokescreen or the United board, led by the chief executive, Peter Kenyon, have sold the player against his wishes. Neither explanation is especially edifying.

This has not been a good summer for Kenyon. His misjudgement of Paris St-Germain's president, Francis Graille, led him to believe that Ronaldinho would still come to Old Trafford even though United would not match Barcelona's bid of £21m.

So convinced was Ferguson that the Brazilian would sign that he made no serious bid for Damien Duff or Harry Kewell, players who could have injected the flair missing from a side without Veron or David Beckham, the club's two most naturally-gifted passers of the ball. Ferguson thought the former was the best he had ever worked with.

Nevertheless, it is unlikely Manchester United will rush to replace either. "I won't be bringing anyone else into the midfield," Ferguson said at the weekend. "We're getting a proven player in Kleberson and one I think could develop into someone truly versatile."

The need at Old Trafford is for a full-back to fill in for Gary Neville and Wes Brown, both of whom are recovering from long-term injuries; hence the interest in Ajax's Hatem Trabelsi.

Ferguson's continuing pursuit of West Ham's Jermain Defoe is partially motivated by the realisation that should he stick with his insistence that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer starts on the right, there is little striking support for Ruud van Nistelrooy. Diego Forlan is too unreliable and David Bellion unproven, having struggled to command a place in Sunderland's starting line-up.

Eric Djemba-Djemba, signed from Nantes, is another holding player, designed to act as cover for Roy Keane, who has yet to recover fully from the hip operation he underwent last September. Keane, with typical, searing honesty, considered that "my performances last season were nowhere near acceptable. The manager recognised that and brought new faces in."

Keane will be 32 when the Community Shield kicks off in Cardiff on Sunday and may no longer be able to dictate the rhythm of Champions' League matches as he did when almost single-handedly forcing United into the European Cup final by a selfless display in the semi-final with Juventus.

Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs will probably provide the fulcrum of a United midfield, reshaped by Ferguson's desire to be rid of Beckham and the board's reluctance to turn down Chelsea's cash.

At times last season, Giggs was hugely indifferent, actually booed off at Old Trafford, but at times he was irresistible, especially while driving through the centre. And while Veron seems like a lost hero at Old Trafford - three quarters of those who responded to a Manchester Evening News poll yesterday thought United were weaker after the events of the summer - perhaps they should recall Jermaine Jenas' opinion of Scholes.

Delivered in the wake of Newcastle's 6-2 mauling at St James' Park in April, a victory that provided the impetus for United's eventual snatching-back of the title, Jenas remarked: "He was untouchable, awesome, I couldn't get near him."

Were it Scholes rather than Veron who had gone, there might be real reason for doubt at Old Trafford this morning.

OLD DOGS, NEW TRICKS HOW UNITED'S MIDFIELD MEASURES UP

NICKY BUTT

Returned from last summer's World Cup as one of English football's commanding midfielders but injuries meant the strides taken in Japan could not be built upon. Consistently good in the Premiership but hardly a man to terrorise defences in the Champions' League.

ERIC DJEMBA-DJEMBA

The Cameroon international was identified as "one for the future" when signed from Nantes for £3.5m. He was known in France as "the little Cantona", which he bolstered with some rough tackling. But Cantona failed to alter the course of many European games and it is unlikely this Eric will succeed either.

QUINTON FORTUNE

A broken leg last season, something United attempted to deny had happened, meant the South African was unable to make any real impact. In any case, Fortune is too much of a squad player and too prone to injury to be considered able to step up at the highest level.

RYAN GIGGS

If in May you had to choose a midfielder to leave Old Trafford, it would have been Giggs, who had long been courted by Internazionale. He was frequently devastating when played through the centre, a role which may be developed with Veron gone. Giggs' superlative display in United's defeat of Juventus in Turin proved he can still mix it with the best.

ROY KEANE

Before and after a debilitating hip operation, the great Irishman has been used as a makeshift centre-half and holding player in front of the back four. The decision on when and how to replace him will be a heavy one and Ferguson has already earmarked him for coaching duties this season.

KLEBERSON

Assuming his application for a work permit is successful, he should be United's most important signing of the summer. He is more creative than Djemba-Djemba and more willing to make a tackle than Veron but since he will be coming directly from a full Brazilian season, fatigue may be his main enemy. South Americans rarely settle quickly.

PAUL SCHOLES

When United's shape was altered to accommodate Veron, nobody suffered more. According to Ferguson's then assistant, Jim Ryan, Scholes did not understand how to adapt to his role behind Van Nistelrooy. But he later became a principal driving force behind United's Premiership triumph.

OLE GUNNAR SOLSKJAER

"The team picks itself. Solskjaer will play on the right, as he did in all the big matches last season." Thus did Ferguson dismiss the impact of David Beckham's departure. The Norwegian provided the pace Beckham could not, and while his delivery of crosses was not as inspired, it was perfectly acceptable.

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