Sir Alex hints that January signings are unlikely, or does he?

Sir

During his weekly pre-match press conference on Friday, Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson suggested that signings are unlikely for the upcoming January transfer window. This is a topic that typically moves to the forefront at this stage of the season and it perhaps will even more this time around because of United's surprising early exit from the UEFA Champions League. Until this past Wednesday, the Red had not failed to reach the knockout stages of the competition since the 2005-06 season. When asked at the press conference as to whether his side's dismissal from Europe's grandest competition would force him into transfer market, here is how the United boss responded:

"It is very difficult to buy players in January. You don't just want to buy any player simply because it gives you another player. If you are going to buy, you want to buy someone who can make a difference. We have only had maybe four or five signings in my time here in January: Louis Saha, Andy Cole, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra [and Diego Forlan]. It is not a consistent route for us to buy in January, simply because of all the disadvantages. There are a lot of issues there and there is nothing in my mind at the moment."

Source: ManUtd.com

Interestingly enough, the signings of Vidic and Evra occurred in January 2006, a time when the club experienced similar European disappointment. Quite obviously, the assembled media asked him to address those signings and whether they provide any indication of possible activity in the upcoming transfer window. Here is how Fergie responded:

"At the time [we brought in Evra and Vidic] we were looking to get players in who were important in certain positions. After Denis Irwin retired it was very difficult to get a left-back with quality because everyone looked for left-backs in our industry. Patrice was one we identified. Although he had been playing wing-back for Monaco, he has the qualities attacking-wise that attracted us. Vida is a lad I went to see in Paris three or four years before that, when he played for Yugoslavia against France [November 2002]. They played him as a marker in the game. They played with three centre-backs.I was unable to really get a feel for whether he could play in a back four. There was no evidence in that particular game. He went to Russia and played in a back four there. We knew then he could play in the back four and there wouldn't be a problem. We decided to go for him."

Most media reports in regards to these quotes simply took it as a message that Fergie will not look to be buying in the upcoming transfer window. Because of United's recent history not to buy in January, and perhaps because of the inefficiencies of that market (see: Torres, Fernando; Carroll, Andy), this is a logical assumption. But it is still an assumption. Fergie does not actually say that he definitely won't be buying, he simply says he won't let recent traumatic events force him into panic purchases just for the sake of making purchases. It is moments of adversity like this, particularly at this stage of a season, that often contributes to an inflated market.

Again, I want to stress that I do not think necessarily think that Fergie will go on a spending spree because that is unlikely to be the case. But it is certainly possible that he could make an astute purchase that in his words would be "someone who can make a difference." Last winter, Fergie shared similar sentiments at press conferences but it was later speculated that United tried to unsuccessfully sign a player in January -- the whispers were of either Ashley Young or Phil Jones. United certainly have a few needs.

First of all, the title chase is far from over and if United are able to close the gap even slightly during a relatively favorable fixture list for the remainder of December, then this could potentially provide more motive for reinforcements. In the post-match reaction thread here at TBB after the debacle in Switzerland, reader eyc_9 keenly revealed that United's league form may not be as dire as it appears to some. Admittedly, the form is debatable but the results are tangible. Here is United's league record and standing after 14 matches from the past 6 seasons, including this one:

’11 – 10-3-1, 31 GF/ 13 GA, +18 GD, 33 pts, finish ???
’10 – 7-7-0, 28/15, +13, 28 (1st)
’09 – 10-1-3, 30/13, +17, 31 (2nd)
’08 – 8-4-2, 26/10, +16, 28 (1st)
’07 – 9-3-2, 23/7, +16, 30 (1st)
’06 – 11-2-1, 30/7, +23, 35 (1st)

Manchester City have simply been in tremendous form in league. In fact, this shows that United's 33 points has only been topped just once in the past 6 seasons at this stage of the season. Every single one of those seasons resulted in a league title, except for 2009-10 season when Chelsea finished a single point clear of United.

I'm with Fergie -- I'm strongly against purchasing a player just for the sake of purchasing a player and especially so in a January market that has been historically inefficient. But this team has some needs.

The club is unlikely to make purchases for a goalkeeper, wingers, or strikers. However, with the season ending injury to Vidic and with Rio Ferdinand's recent vulnerability to injury, another defender could be useful. The likes of Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling, and Jones provide fine cover at center-back but with the required use of the latter two at right-back, due to the incredibly frequent injuries to Rafael and Fabio, more depth may be needed. Versatility helps in providing cover throughout the entire back four but with seven regular first-team defenders on the roster (Evra as well), and with three of them extremely injury prone, another defender may need to be purchased.

The other obvious area of the pitch to address, whether it is this January or in the summer, is in the center of the park. Michael Carrick is the club's best central-midfielder but he is certainly a polarizing figure. Ryan Giggs has done very well to extend his career by providing driving runs from the middle, rather than his usual mazy runs from the left flank, but he is 38-years-old. Tom Cleverley has been impressive in his few matches this season but asking him to become an automatic and reliable first-choice central-midfielder for a title-contending side is a lot to ask at this stage in his career. Anderson is simply erratic, Darren Fletcher has dipped in form the past two seasons, and Paul Pogba is unlikely to be ready to meaningfully contribute this season.

I'm not advocating a £40 million January purchase of a Wesley Sneijder but bargains can be had. I'd support a financially responsible move -- similar to the recent transfers for Scott Parker, Gokhan Inler, Nuri Sahin, Arturo Vidal, Andrea Pirlo, etc -- but who knows how much United actually have to spend. Roma's Daniele De Rossi would be a great fit but if City is worried about his wages, then the United brass certainly would be too. Point being, a clever signing could satisfy Fergie's (very reasonable) stubbornness to only make a difference-making signing at a responsible price.

I honestly do not expect United to spend in the January transfer window and if the bookies are taking bets for this, that is the smart bet (Disclaimer: this is not actual betting advice). But hopefully the words Fergie spoke at his press-conference yesterday holds true -- don't purchase a player just to purchase a player in an unforgiving January market but certainly do your due diligence in searching for an impact player (defender or central-midfielder is on my Christmas list) at a price that is affordable.

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