September 16, 2011

Sir Alex Ferguson made his annual retirement denial last week. We got the automated response: "I have absolutely no idea [who my replacement will be]. First of all, I'm not retiring." It might have been rude to shout into his face about it, but four months ago that would have been a far more reassuring thing for Manchester United fans to hear than it is now, when their squad seems to need so little help.

Back in May, the prevailing wind was that United were on call to Ferguson's managerial genius. The idea simply: his squad, lacking him, had no right to both a Champions League final and a league win. But if that was harsh on Nemanja Vidic and a few others, it is, at least, unlikely that it will come up in sophistical new-media discussion again.

Six games in this time around and United's players look as if they need only bother with training so they can clock on. Face time with the manager, with this lot? Last season's fetish. That well practiced, pragmatic rigidity which earned so many close wins has become instead the dynamism of the Tom Cleverely-Anderson Axis in midfield. Fluidity is the watchword these days -- the kind which refuses to be training ground fodder. We got the gist of it in the Charity Shield equalizer against Manchester City. In the space of 12 yards, six passes deconstructed the very notion of a City defense. Nani scored. Two each, as Tommy Cooper would say, just like that. At such speed, it's got to be sheer ability, hasn't it?

The reliance on Ferguson's natural feel for rotation has been displaced too. With two more of the '92 crew and Edwin Van Der Saar left for history, Ferguson's job has become an exercise in picking the precocious tyke with his hand highest. A summer of money-throwing, plus the healthy realization of some academy talent have coincided. Now, the idea that this squad is deeper than anything Ferguson has managed before is worth thinking on at least. Phil Jones, Ashley Young and David De Gea have joined the dash for the first 11 as have Cleverley and Danny Wellbeck. Van Der Saar was the sole starter to offer goodbye tears.

Deepest or not, this squad, this season, doesn't take a genius to manage. Team sheets and substitutions have become demonstrations in affluence. City got wind first. Two goals down in the Shield Showdown, Ferguson brought on Jones, Cleverley and Johnny Evans. None of them are ready for DVD homages, but United scored three without anything coming back in the next 45 minutes and has not bothered looking over its shoulders since.

The squad oozes versatility. Injuries to Patrice Evra and Rafael before the opening day fumble against West Bromwich Albion became simply a chance for Chris Smalling and Fabio to steal some game time. We can assume Rio Ferdinand and captain Vidic went off in an act of sheer indulgence; it meant nothing but minutes for Evans and Jones to prove themselves further. A final victory, it was new signing Young who caused the winner -- United showing off a fresh game-changer on top of Nani, Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez from last season.

Pick a player, pick a game. Against Tottenham it was a Cleverely assist and a Wellbeck header which snapped the tension. Against Arsenal, Young again threw in a stand out performance -- three assists, two goals. Finally, against Bolton, a Rooney hat trick was very nearly second to Jones' performance at right back. The squad, five wins from six, has been impenetrable. There are three or four right answers to every question, often from the same player: Smalling, Evans and Jones have played, by the last count, everywhere.

Nothing genuinely bizarre has happened. The revelation: United has spent cash on bringing in players (though perhaps saved on wages, on the quiet) without cashing in on stars. Under normal, Glazer-owned summer circumstances, arrivals, even those from within, would have forced departures -- but the big names have sat tight. Dimitar Berbatov and Nani were expected to be waved off, but weren't. Even of those who did leave, Wes Brown and John O'Shea only opened sentimental holes, while there was never any certain point at which Gabriel Obertan arrived.

As much as Ferguson was praised last season, once was obviously enough. Even wily, relentless Ferguson didn't have another campaign's worth of miracles and suspicious amounts of time added on up his sleeve. Or if he did, he didn't fancy relying on them again. Like a soldier who has just finished a 24-hour shift on the front line, the call for reinforcements must have gone upstairs. For once, the generals have taken the time to listen. It means that Ferguson has been allowed to replace himself with his players.

The work isn't done because it never is. The exact kind of personnel injection suggests that in all likelihood this is more of an early-season sabbatical than a slip into retirement for the only Premier League manager who will turn 70 this year. Money has been put into youth, which is paying out now, but cheap inexperience may cost more later. Already, 20-year old goalkeeper David De Gea's contempt for the hard low shot has inspired the only real graft for the manager in the opening weeks: post match defenses of the player have punctuated the otherwise flawless start. Confidence battles with the press this early could be a sign of things to come.

Only the battle for prestige places will give a proper answer as to how much cold, hard management Ferguson will have to do this time. But he must, at least, be having more fun this September than last -- his job to date has come down to watching his team score more than anyone else in the league.

Ethan Dean-Richards is a freelance soccer writer who co-edits the Surreal Football website.

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