By Greg Stobart
Sir Alex Ferguson has never been a short-term thinker. Time and again, he has built and recycled the Manchester United squad to maintain the club’s dominance in English football, his mind always two steps ahead.
As Sir Alex edges closer to retirement – he is expected to step down in the next two years – the Scot is increasingly focused on his Old Trafford legacy and ensuring the transition is as smooth as possible.
Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho are the Scot’s preferred replacements but the 70-year-old’s priority right now is to provide a squad for his successor that is at, or approaching, its peak.
The wheels are firmly in motion, with the average age of United’s first-team squad in the low- to mid-20s, even taking into account the presence of players on the verge of retirement like Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs.
The latest young star on Sir Alex’s radar is Crystal Palace winger Wilfried Zaha, the standout star of the Championship so far this season who is in line to make his England debut against Sweden on Wednesday night.
The 20-year-old is attracting interest from United’s rivals – Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham – but as exclusively revealed by Goal.com on Wednesday, Sir Alex is ready to sanction a £10 million-plus move as he looks to freshen up his squad next summer.
Zaha is considered the perfect long-term investment for the 19-time English champions, especially with Ryan Giggs likely to retire at the end of the campaign and Nani expected to be sold as he enters the last year of his contract.
Blackpool midfielder Thomas Ince is another player admired by Sir Alex who could add steel and energy in central midfield – undoubtedly the weak point in the squad – who will not fully flourish for several years.
It is a train of thought that Sir Alex has been pursuing for a while now with the signings of the likes of David de Gea, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Nick Powell – all players who could stay at Old Trafford for the next decade.
They will form the core of the ‘next’ United squad alongside other young players and academy products, from Chicharito to Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley.
Sir Alex, however, does not dive in to buying youngsters, preferring to take his time by scouting players for months and considering every aspect of a potential deal – and sometimes it costs him.
Maybe Sir Alex’s reluctance to sign certain rising stars in the past will persuade him to go the extra mile to make sure Zaha is not starring for a rival next term.
For example, he will no doubt regret the decision not to challenge Arsenal for the signing of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from Southampton for £12m in August 2011. The winger is now worth nearly twice that amount and Arsenal Wenger is the manager reaping the rewards.
Theo Walcott was another who passed Ferguson by, while Gareth Bale was considered a ‘nailed on’ signing before Tottenham lured him to White Hart Lane with the promise of regular first-team opportunities. The Welsh flyer is now worth many times the £5m Spurs paid, reminding Sir Alex he does not always make the correct call.
But after 26 years as United boss, he still knows better almost anyone. That is why he is ready to enter a bidding war to land Zaha and establish a squad brimming with potential for the next man in charge, whoever that might be.
Follow Greg Stobart on