Reduced to hoping that Manchester City suffer a Devon Loch-like collapse in their pursuit of the title, it cannot have escaped Sir Alex Ferguson’s attentions that the man who has edged them to glory has the gallop of a thoroughbred.
Yaya Touré was at his rampaging best against Newcastle United on Sunday and Ferguson would have been forgiven for harbouring a mixture of envy and frustration.
No single player can be deemed to have been the difference in this gripping championship battle, but Touré perhaps best epitomises why a power shift across Manchester appears not only imminent but also long lasting.
He is a £24-million midfielder who earns £250 000 a week and, as he showed at St James’s Park, can all but decide big games. Old Trafford has no one who comes close in comparison.
Indeed, it is telling that, having stepped out of retirement in January, Paul Scholes is likely to finish the season not only as United’s highest-scoring central midfielder he has four goals in 20 appearances – but also their most impressive. Some feat for a player who made his United debut before many of his teammates had left primary school.
Lack of class
Any analysis of United’s comparative lack of class in central midfield must take into account the mitigating circumstances, most notably Darren Fletcher’s absence since December with ulcerative colitis, and the foot injury that interrupted Tom Cleverley’s impressive progress four matches into the new campaign. But they tell only a small part of a wider story.
Because, whereas City have spent £80-million on central midfielders since January 2009, bringing in Touré, Nigel de Jong, Gareth Barry and James Milner, their more illustrious neighbours have not parted with a single penny for an equivalent player.
Welcome, the cynics would say, to the effects of “Glazernomics”, the top-down rerouting of United’s enormous wealth that has meant the club made a smaller net spend over the past five years than Sunderland, Stoke City and Aston Villa. Ferguson has not once criticised the club’s American owners since their take-over seven years ago, but privately the Scot must be cursing a regime that ultimately required him to ask a 37-year-old to come out of retirement to improve a key area of his squad.
Put simply, Scholes returned because Wesley Sneijder and Luka Modric proved out of reach.
Ferguson has, of course, spent big since the Glazers came in. The team that started against Swansea City on Sunday cost only £1-million less to put together than the one sent out by Roberto Mancini against Newcastle United earlier in the day (£165.1-million compared with £166.1-million).
Success and failure
But it has been evident for some time that the centre of United’s team has needed bolstering and, having spent big on three players in that area – Michael Carrick (£18.6-million), Owen Hargreaves (£17-million) and Anderson (£27-million) – within a 12-month period up to July 2007, Ferguson would clearly have addressed the situation if it had been within his powers to do so.
The 70-year-old may well reflect on that with some angst should City go on to clinch their first championship since 1968. United may end up losing out on goal difference alone, having, as things stand, conceded just six more goals than their “noisy neighbours” and, in Wayne Rooney, having a player who has scored more goals in the Premier League this season than anyone else bar Robin van Persie.
In other words, the margin between success and failure will be small, one that could have been bridged had Ferguson been able to sign Sneijder, Modric or another high-end midfielder last summer. Even someone who could have provided cover for Fletcher, Cleverley and, when he was injured, Carrick could have made the difference, given, for example, that four of the five defeats United suffered in all competitions at Old Trafford this season came when Carrick was absent from the team.
Across town, City can revel in the midfielders they have splashed out on in recent seasons and Touré in particular, given his devastating displays this season. Nine goals in 41 appearances only begin to tell the story of how the 28-year-old has contributed to the club’s rise.
“Nothing he does surprises me because big players do important things at vital times,” said Joleon Lescott. “When you get players like that you also believe in yourself.” – © Guardian News & Media 2012