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.

Romelu Lukaku: A £75m gamble

Is the Belgian striker the right man to fire Manchester United to glory?

 

Manchester United splashed £75m on Everton forward Romelu Lukaku after growing frustrated in their chase to sign Alvaro Morata from Real Madrid.

That is a significant outlay on a player who has not yet played for a big club and, at 24, will most certainly be expected to fire on all cylinders as United look to mount a challenge for the Premier League.

Chelsea signed him from Anderlecht for £18m as an 18-year-old in 2011, but except a handful of appearances, he has spent much of his senior career at mid-table also-rans West Bromwich Albion and Everton. These are big clubs, but Manchester United is bigger, perhaps the biggest in the world, and that comes with its own unique pressures.

It’s also interesting that Jose Mourinho, who sanctioned Lukaku’s sale to Everton in 2014 after a successful loan spell the previous year, questioned his attitude.

“He wanted to play for Chelsea, but clearly only as first-choice striker — and at a club of our dimension it’s very difficult to promise a player that status. We want to be inside financial fair play rules, you have to analyse these situations,” the United boss said at that time.

The Belgian has since gone on to score 71 goals in 133 matches for the Merseyside club. At Everton, he played with a lot of freedom than what Mourinho will afford him at Old Trafford. He was the big star there; at United, he is one among a plethora.

While United snapping him up from under Chelsea’ noses was a coup, a report in The Liverpool Echo will make the situation uncomfortable for the player, manager, and the fans. The report says Mourinho insisted on Chelsea not inserting a buy-back clause during Lukaku’s sale, suggesting that he did not believe the Belgian would develop sufficiently, and that such an option would be worthless in the long run. As a result, Chelsea took the £28m that Everton offered instead of selling him for a lower value with a buyout clause.

Lukaku, as a player, lacks the finesse and the class that traditional strikers who have played in the famous red had. He is a flat-track bully and a target man who can be used a battering ram. At Everton and West Brom, he played with freedom. At United, he’ll be expected to break down teams that camp outside their own penalty box. In this respect, Morata would have been a better player, having played for two of Europe’s biggest clubs in Juventus and Real Madrid. Real wanted £79m for him, but United chose to pay £75m for Lukaku.

Reports, however, suggest that the fee could rise even further with £15m in add-ons and a £10m waiver of Wayne Rooney’s transfer fee ahead of his return to his boyhood club. A potential world record fee is a huge show of faith to a player who has no UEFA Champions League experience. As United return to the competition after a year’s absence, Lukaku will need to quickly delivering. Here, too, Morata, who has led the line for Juventus and Real Madrid, would have been the better option.

Even for the national team, bristling with the talents of Eden Hazard, Dries Martens and Yannick Ferreira Carrasco, Lukaku is not seen as the real goal threat despite scoring his fair share of goals (20 goals in 57 caps). That speaks volumes about a player who wants to return United to their days of dominance.

His record against last season’s top six makes grim reading for anyone who thinks £75m plus add-ons represent a transfer coup for Manchester United. Lukaku has scored only 16 times in 57 matches against the sextet. Although he scored in both the matches against Manchester City last season, his impact against the other teams does not offer too much hope, at least for the time being.

The Belgian’s prowess in the air is a positive, especially with United losing the physicality of Zlatan Ibrahimovic that got them a lot of goals last season.

His arrival will also add to Mourinho’s problems of finding an attacking focal point. Lukaku is not someone who will track back and start off moves if things are not going his way. He is more traditional that way and relies on his physicality to bully his way through. That may work sporadically against teams in the Premier League’s bottom half. Time will tell whether he is able to unlock Chelsea, Liverpool or Tottenham with that kind of play.

Lukaku will need to adapt and the test will begin from the first time he pulls on the red shirt, even if it’s in a pre-season tournament in the United States.