There is no sense of panic at Old Trafford in the aftermath of the 1-0 defeat to Everton on Wednesday night which leaves Manchester United five points adrift of a Champions League spot. The Glazer family are understood to feel that they have big enough pockets to take the £15m financial hit that absence from the elite European competition would bring. If football were only about numbers, that kind of damage would allow United to exist with impunity outside of the continental elite for several years.
The disinclination to submit to the worry some supporters feel about how their side is falling will extend to the outlook in next month’s transfer window. Athletic Bilbao’s Ander Herrera is still on the list of prospective signings but David Moyes’s struggle to create a capable midfield is highly unlikely to drive him into meeting the Basque club’s £30.5m asking price. United and the Spanish are around £4.5m apart.
Nor is there any expectation at United that the Everton chairman, Bill Kenwright, will create an environment conducive to the signing of Leighton Baines. The reason why United’s chief executive, Ed Woodward, tried to tie up Baines and Marouane Fellaini in one deal in the summer was the view that Everton would take the Fellaini money and declare no need to release the defender. There is no likelihood that the price will be right for Baines next month.
The pragmatism, which means Woodward will not consider plunging into the market to add a stop-gap midfielder who will tide United over until May, cannot disguise the alien landscape which the club find themselves in and the precipice which lies beyond it. A top-four finish is United’s target now and failure to hit it will shatter their plans when the spending starts in earnest this summer.
Serious spending is what United want it to be. They are highly likely to double their previous record transfer outlay on a single player, which at £30.5m for Dimitar Berbatov looks rather old school for a club with pretensions to be a global force. The summer’s late attempt to prise Gareth Bale out of Real Madrid’s clutches revealed a commitment to shell out money on one of the top players in the world. The prospect of bringing Cristiano Ronaldo back to United still remains a genuine aspiration.
Their commercial expansion continues in myriad ways as the club seeks to marry elite business and elite football. The MUTV coverage from Old Trafford on Wednesday night had former ITV presenter Jim Rosenthal as host, part of an upgrading of that operation, as well as United’s website and social media faculties, under the new head of media, David Sternberg.
But the footballing area of the strategy will be shattered if United cannot offer Champions League football next season. The club who won the tournament five years ago will instead find themselves involved in the kind of struggle to secure world-class players that has beset Liverpool – and the battle to keep talent that Spurs lost when Bale cleared off for Madrid.
United and their pockets are big enough to hold players to contracts, as Liverpool did when Luis Suarez yearned for a better quality of football in the summer. But they may find the likes of Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and David de Gea remaining against their will.
Van Persie’s desire to stay after the departure of the man who last year signed him, Sir Alex Ferguson, is subject to increasingly intense scrutiny. The striker, who missed the Everton match because of a “sort-of groin injury” according to Moyes afterwards, has received an apology from Ferguson for not keeping to the promise he made to him to stay around for three years. But there is a sense that he may feel short-changed. Van Persie has not played for a month.
Ryan Giggs said, with some justification yesterday, that United felt the sting of misfortune about the way Wednesday night had unfolded. It was certainly nothing like their worst performance of the season. The 10 to 20 per cent component that Ferguson added, of course, was to generate wins from games like United’s last three, in which they have taken just two points. They looked a beaten side when Bryan Oviedo scored Everton’s winner but there were four minutes of time and five minutes added time to run: an eternity in the footballing world of Ferguson.
United’s purchases next month are likely to be an opportunistic response to situations which arise. The successful pieces of winter business by United in the past have tended to be unknowns (Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra), players from clubs not in the Champions League (Louis Saha at Fulham) or inspired loans (Henrik Larsson). So the champions will move by stealth, anticipating victories from a December programme which looks more elementary on paper and some of the points accumulation which Moyes has only once briefly found, with the three Premier League wins over Stoke, Fulham and Arsenal that took United into November.
If United fall outside of the Champions League, the Glazers may press on regardless and sanction heavy summer investment to restore the club’s position. Or they may decide against it. Their innate secrecy makes predictions difficult. The one certainty is that behind the exterior calm, United are a club waiting and hoping, desperate to move towards the fourth spot which once counted for nothing and now means everything.