Jim White

United signings a sign of new austerity

Jim White

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Sir Alex Ferguson with signings Shinji Kagawa and Nick Powell

Sir Alex Ferguson staged a press conference yesterday to introduce to the world his two new summer signings for Manchester United.

Shinji Kagawa and Nick Powell were afforded all the hullabaloo of grand new arrivals. And both represent prudent purchases.

For £17 million, Kagawa will bring goals from midfield, an ability to ghost into the penalty area with clockwork timing, a sharpness and resilience that belies his stature. He was loved in Dortmund, and they know a player.

Powell, Ferguson hinted, is likely to be used in a deeper role, his job to start rather than finish attacks.

At 18, the boy is some prospect. Those who saw him play for Crewe last season marked him as a mature head on already substantial shoulders. And that goal he scored in the League Two play-off final against Cheltenham demonstrates he is more than comfortable with the ball at his feet. The lad can play a bit.

Two good signings then. Astutely delivered, just what a team suffering from a deficit of creativity in midfield could use.

Proof, it may turn out, that Ferguson is right with his steadfast determination to seek out value in the market wherever it may lurk.

Even so, United fans may be forgiven if they don't hang out the bunting. Sure, the two newbies represent decent summer acquisitions. But as signals as to where the club now stands they are much more descriptive.

Whatever United fans now tell each other about how they have never bought the title in the way City did last season, the Ferguson approach to team building was always traditionally to mix home grown potential with marquee signings.

This is a manager who has regularly broken the transfer record. Right back to the time of Gary Pallister and Roy Keane's signing, he was happy to smash existing ceilings in order to bring in the best.

Ten seasons ago he paid a record £28 million to bring Juan Sebastian Veron to the club. His reasoning at the time was that, if United were to compete with the best in Europe, they needed the very best players. Whatever the cost.

Value was not a buzz word then. What mattered then was doing whatever it took to acquire the top talent. Never mind that he had Keane, Beckham, Butt, Giggs and Scholes on his books, Veron was necessary as much to signal his intent as he was to play the game.

As it turned out, the Argentine was a damp squib, a disappointment in every way. And clearly he had an effect on Ferguson's thinking. Because a decade on he does not talk about buying in the very best or using the transfer market to send out signals about his seriousness to rivals. Now he buys in value and hopes they will deliver something down the line.

Indeed, he is unlikely ever again to spend anything close to what he spent on Veron, never mind break the record now that the cost of acquiring the very best has inflated way beyond the £50 million mark.

Of course, that must be the reason. Experience must have changed his mind. It can't be that his employers simply do not have the money to give him could it?

It can't be that, despite presiding over huge increases of income, such is the gaping maw of debt they have foisted on to the club, the Glazers simply don't have the spare readies to finance any big buys, can it?

This at a time when the squad is in urgent need of an injection of quality to provide proper competition to the operation down the road, a club which, let us not forget, has no such issues of reckless debt preventing its investment.

No, surely it is a philosophical change.

In fact, the truth is, United's summer purchases tell a stark story of where the club now stands. Ferguson may wish to dress them up how he likes, but these are not the buys of an outfit with serious intent of playing catch up; whatever it takes is no longer part of the corporate message.

The days when United bestrode the football world during the close season transfer market are no more. City and Chelsea now do that, spending sums Ferguson can only dream of being handed.

Even the notoriously parsimonious Arsene Wenger has so far this summer forked out more on recruits than the Scotsman. United have not threatened the record books since Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov were recruited. In football terms, that was a lifetime ago.

Ferguson, meanwhile, is having to find new ways to address the gap opening up between him and the ever more voluble neighbours. He might find them.

Maybe Kagawa and Powell will be the catalysts that transform last season's squad into one which can better City's ever expanding array of superstars. Maybe value seeking will provide him with the most satisfactory title of his glittering career.

But if they do, it will mark the most profound change in his team-building philosophy.

This is the man who once shopped at Harrod's, then obliged to patronise the Co-op. And all because the boss squandered the budget on the world's most inexcusable mortgage.

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