Manchester United: In search of an identity

Scattergun approach to transfer market undermines club’s traditions

 

Manchester United have announced the signing Romelu Lukaku for £75m from Everton. The Red Devils now hold the top three positions for transfer fees paid by an English club, including the world record — Paul Pogba (£89m from Juventus), Lukaku, and Angel di Maria (£59.7m from Real Madrid).

This marks a stark change in the club’s transfer policy. In the summer of 2012, Sir Alex Ferguson pulled out of a deal to sign Brazilian winger Lucas Moura because he refused to meet Sao Paulo’s €45m valuation of the player. Instead, he signed Robin van Persie for £24m from Arsenal and the Dutchman fired United to their 20th league title.

Sir Alex announced his retirement in 2013. And since then, United’s transfer business has been turned on its head by the club hierarchy. David Moyes was greeted with the token signing of Marouane Fellaini as the club’s repeated attempts to bring an expensive marquee player failed. They went after Cesc Fabregas, Robert Lewandowski, Cristiano Ronaldo, and even blew Real Madrid out of the with a reported £100m bid for Gareth Bale. None of those players came.

While United fans would shudder at the thought, even Sir Alex was responsible for the mess the club was in. He left the club with an ageing squad, an academy in need of a complete overhaul, a faltering scouting network, and, most importantly, an incompetent successor.

While the first three were more down to the owners’ unwillingness to shell out big bucks, blame for the last completely falls with Sir Alex as he handpicked David Moyes as the man to succeed him.

Moyes proved to be an expensive failure and lost his job before the end of the season after it was confirmed that United would miss out on qualifying for the UEFA Champions League. In came Louis van Gaal, coinciding with the club owners loosening the purse strings, afraid that failure on the pitch would translate into loss of revenue off it.

When Louis van Gaal, a manager with a proven pedigree of promoting academy talents, was hired, it was expected that he would steady the ship. But his reign was marked by a general lack of direction. Despite a gaping hole in midfield, only Ander Herrera was bought in 2014 for an anchorman role. Instead of strengthening at the back, he signed di Maria. The loan signing of Radamel Falcao was another curious decision. For man who wanted to play possession football, signing an out-and-out target man made no sense.

The following season was stabler as the Dutchman realised he needed midfield backup and brought in Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger. Then he splashed £36m on an untested teenager in Anthony Martial. While he did promote from the academy, it was more due to necessity than choice.

It was humiliating for the manager of a club with the pedigree of Manchester United, and the board, that their two best players that season were a 19-year-old last-minute panic buy (Martial), and an 18-year-old academy graduate (Marcus Rashford) who was picked in the side because the former was injured.

United can never be accused of being stingy in the transfer market. They paid the British record fee for Roy Keane (£3.75m from Nottingham Forest in 1993), made Rio Ferdinand the world’s most expensive defender in 2002, paying Leeds United £30m for the England man, and signed the two most expensive teenagers in history at that time, paying Sporting Lisbon £12.24m for Cristiano Ronaldo in 2003 before shelling out £27m for Wayne Rooney the following summer. The club have a rich history of promoting players from within to complement the expensive purchases. Sir Alex used the academy to good effect with the Fergie’s Fledglings, Sir Matt Busby did it with the Busby Babes — United have always had an academy graduate in their matchday squad since 1937.

The arrival of Jose Mourinho has restored balance somewhat. Having known for some time that United would turn to him if and when they sacked van Gaal, he had identified the positions that needed strengthening and went about his business without much fuss. He wanted players who could get the club back to its glory days and United’s deep pocket meant Juventus squeezed out £89m for Pogba.

But that deep pocket and willingness to spend has not always turned out positively for United.

Several players have used United’s interest, or press reports about an apparent interest, to either sign improved contracts with their current clubs, or get better terms with a potential new team. Throughout the summer of 2015, Sergio Ramos played United before signing on an improved deal with Real Madrid. Dani Alves did exactly the same at Barcelona. James Rodriguez and Monaco used United’s alleged interest in the player to get top dollar from Real Madrid in 2014 — such instances are abundant and are reflective of the haphazard manner with which the club have begun to go about their transfer business.

Even this summer, the club made a fool of itself in the very public chase for Antoine Griezmann. Fan channels on YouTube had already photoshopped images of the Frenchman in a United shirt, made videos of what to expect from the player at Old Trafford — all before the player himself announced that he would stay at Atletico and signed a new deal.

Gone are the days when the press would hardly get a sniff of a signing before he was paraded at Old Trafford. Pressure from sponsors to gain maximum visibility, including driving a new arrival from the airport to the training ground in their branded cars, have also played its part to create such a dismal scenario.

Mourinho, however, deserves the credit for instilling stability in the club’s transfer policy, handing over a list of targets long before the end of the season so that the board can begin talks early, instead of going gung-ho in panic mode and signing whoever is available.

That still doesn’t excuse spending £75m for a 24-year-old with no UEFA Champions League pedigree. At least Lukaku will get a long time to repay that faith, and the investment.

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