For a club that has always championed the policy of youth development, the signing of Robin van Persie last summer may have raised a few eyebrows at Manchester United. Of course, the assumption could be made that he would score goals, but I have to admit that I had some doubts about whether the former Arsenal striker was at the age to justify a £24 million transfer fee, the same price that Chelsea paid for a 26-year-old Didier Drogba, who was at the time about to enter the best form years of his career.
Van Persie was 29 when he signed for United, and was having the most consistent period of his time with Arsenal, which resulted in him being crowned the Premier League’s top scorer for 2011-12. However, those who believed that Alex Ferguson was letting the statistics cloud his judgement have been shown differently by the masterstroke that was buying Robin van Persie.
In only 26 appearances for United, the Holland international has netted 20 times and is already being described by Roberto Mancini, the Manchester City manager, as the “difference between us [City and United in the table]." He has, so to speak, defied his years.
Since the January transfer window opened, several players have been linked with United, including Wilfred Zaha, but the rumour causing the biggest stir is the one regarding the next step for Frank Lampard. There is always a media storm over who United might sign with each passing transfer window, and another player who has been speculatively linked with Old Trafford is Ashley Cole.
I could lecture you on the plethora of reasons why neither Lampard or Cole is very likely to relocate to Manchester—loyalty to Chelsea (at least in Frank’s case) and the temptations of the USA or even China make strong cases—but a statement by Alex Ferguson earlier today has saved me the trouble. Without a doubt, Lampard and Cole are both players that would bolster United’s squad, but with them being aged 34 and 32 respectively, it would go against United’s tradition of promoting youth from within and wouldn’t really solve anything given that the players they would replace (Scholes and Evra) are 38 and 31 respectively.
Not surprisingly, my theory became concrete when Ferguson essentially ruled out any potential moves this morning. The Scot has long expressed scorn for the January window, but forays into the winter market have occasionally come good, with players such as Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Andy Cole all arriving midseason.
It can be argued that bringing in Lampard would do the younger players such as Tom Cleverly and Nick Powell some good, as they will be training with and learning from a prolific and experienced midfielder. But surely anything that Frank knows, Paul Scholes will know better. Ferguson has shown that age alone is not enough to discourage him from landing a player he wants with the signing of van Persie, so why not a punt on Lampard?
For me, the major difference between van Persie and the Chelsea player is the amount of playing time each has had over the years. Van Persie may only be five years younger than Lampard, but has made 387 less career appearances; even at age 29, the Dutchman has years left in his legs, an ironic consequence of so many months out with injuries. As a man who many regard as the sage of British football, it is almost certain that Sir Alex will have taken these stats into account when bidding for van Persie.
Ashley Cole is two years younger than Lampard, but United already have a left-back, albeit a 31-year-old who can seemingly play sixty games a season in Patrice Evra, while young on-loan Fabio da Silva will be another option come his return in the summer. When you add recently purchased Alexander Buttner to the mix, it appears that as far as the left-back position is concerned, Ferguson is well-covered and would only enter the market if he became dissatisfied with his current crop.
When United signed Robin van Persie, the manager stated that the Dutchman was a similar buy to Eric Cantona, not in terms of style or positioning, but as a mature professional. As evidenced by his time in England (just ask any Crystal Palace fan), Cantona may have not always acted in the most mature or professional way, but his experience spoke for itself.
On more than one occasion, the country held its breath as King Eric would calmly lob the keeper, when most strikers in that situation would’ve hit row Z. It is that mentality that Ferguson was looking for and found in van Persie—a player who can lead from the front and provide valuable goals for the team, all the while handing out tips and tricks to the kids in training. The kind of role model that Wayne Rooney could be if he was a bit more in control of his game.
Lampard could easily fill that role in midfield, but why, when United have Scholes? Ashley Cole is not the right type of person to act as an example, but Leighton Baines could, and even his talents are being resisted by a manager who has proven over and over that his often scrutinized methods work.
With Sir Alex putting himself out of the running for Cole and Lampard, other clubs will be on high alert. But how many times has the United boss told the media that there is “no value," only to renege on his promise within a few weeks? We will only know who has gone where, when, as they say, "The deal is done." And even then it could still collapse.