Some of Manchester United’s more cynical fans let out a sigh of dismay when Cristiano Ronaldo announced that he was no longer happy at Real Madrid, after accusations of tax fraud unsettled the superstar. Few enjoy the tedium of a summer transfer saga, it creates uncertainly, and United fans have been offered false hope too often in recent years. Some fans cling to the bdlief that Ronaldo will once again grace Old Trafford; plenty felt an anxious twang of déjà vu this week.
After all, David Moyes’ first transfer window was dominated by talk of Ronaldo’s return to Old Trafford. In that same window United reportedly made moves to acquire Thiago Alcântara, Gareth Bale, Cesc Fàbregas and Toni Kroos. Yet, come transfer deadline day on 1 September 2013, United had made just one signing, Marouane Fellaini. Even then, the club botched the move by failing to activate the midfielder’s release clause a month earlier – it would have saved £4 million on the £27.5 million Ed Woodward shelled out.
"Some Manchester United’s more cynical fans let out a sigh of dismay when Cristiano Ronaldo announced that he was no longer happy at Real Madrid."
In more recent times, United’s vice chairman has enjoyed reason to be smug, with the capture of genuine top class talent such as Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Zlatan Ibrahimović and Eric Bailly. Last summer’s acquisitions brought the lot: stardom, potential, flair, arrogance, but, most importantly, quality the team actually required.
Bailly shored up a defence that was lacking in brawn. Ibrahimović brought goals and a sense of arrogance that had been sorely lacking under the toothless, stuttering guidance of Moyes and Louis van Gaal. United’s purchase of Pogba added world-class flair, and Mkhitaryan raised the quality of United’s attacking interchanges, many of which had become blunted and directionless after the soulless possession football that had come before. There were improvements across the team, as should be expected from the extraordinary amount of money offered up by Woodward’s office.
Last summer was an exception, not the norm. United’s aura under David Gill’s leadership, of a shrewd club that bought within its means to maintain a level of brilliance, has diminished. Moyes’ single season was the catalyst – a seventh place Premier League finish highlighted that the squad needed an overhaul to keep up with the country’s top teams.
The reaction has been to throw money at anyone that might be emblematic of success. United has posted a record transfer fee for a teenager, Luke Shaw, and then broken the British transfer record with the purchase of Ángel Di Marίa. Radamel Falcao was also brought in on an extraordinary loan deal to add more fire power up front. Of that trio, only Shaw has remained for more than one year, and even the talented youngster has found it much more difficult than many expected to make himself a regular starter.
Of that same window, it is the less shiny acquisitions that now hold more sway in José Mourinho’s dressing room. Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo and Ander Herrera arrived to muted fanfares. The former pair can reasonably claim to have enjoyed a strong first season under Mourinho, while the Spaniard picked up the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year. In fact, the only Galactico-style player to arrive under Woodward and showcase his immense talent is Anthony Martial. It lasted just a year, with the Frenchman suffering an under-par second season at the club, leading to speculation about his future.
It leaves the conclusion that the relative effectiveness of United’s 2016 summer transfer window was not of Woodward’s doing, but that of Mourinho. Players were not bought for the sake of excitement, but with a clear role in the squad. It gave the team a new dimension.
United’s sixth-place Premier League finish was below the result Mourinho’s side should have achieved, but victory in the EFL Cup and Europa League have put the club back into an elite bracket. The truest success of Mourinho was not extracting the best out of the superstars at the club, but elevating the performances of those squad players who would have been deemed average a year ago. Herrera is the most prominent example, but Antonio Valencia, Jessie Lingard, Sergio Romero, Rojo, and even Matteo Darmian have exhibited their importance to the team. If the past three years have taught any lesson, it is that crowbarring supreme talent into the team for the sake of reflected glory does not lead to success. Winning teams must be crafted with a level of pragmatism that only the very best can muster.
In recent weeks fans have taken to social media to vent frustration at the purportedly “mediocre” players Mourinho wishes to bring in this summer. The acquisition of young Swedish centre back Victor Lindelöf drew little excitement due to his lack of perceived status. Yet, the player’s calmness under pressure and ability to play the ball out from the back offers further quality to one of the tightest defences in last season’s Premier League.
United’s interest in Alvaro Morata – a deal that appeared to be close until Ronaldo threw Real Madrid’s transfer policy into disarray – and the rumoured offer for Ivan Perišić, give an indication of the type of players that Mourinho wants to sign. Neither is the superstar that will alone catapult United to Champions League success, but each is of proven quality and would add diversity to United’s squad. Morata is a goal-scoring number nine, something Mourinho desperately needs after Ibrahimović’s injury and subsequent release. Perišić is a two footed winger who has put up decent goal and assist numbers for an Inter Milan, a side that has otherwise significantly underperformed.
Likewise, Nemanja Matić and Eric Dier have been identified as targets to plug the enforcer-shaped-hole in United’s squad. The reaction to these rumours have again been grumbles of discontent – that squad filler may mean that United will not immediately claim to be the best team in the country. Indeed, a quick temperature check says that Monaco’s Brazilian fullback-turned-holding-midfielder, Fabinho, is the fans’ choice.
Yet, it would surely be short-sighted to rule the signing of Matić or Dier a disappointment. The Serbian destroyer has been integral to Chelsea’s two Premier League titles in the last three years, while Dier has consistently started for a Tottenham Hotpsur side that has amassed more points than any other team over the past two years.
Either way, whether these rumours are real or not, there is a truth to the observation that United does not need more Galactico signings, but something more pragmatic. Mourinho has assessed that his squad is talented enough to do battle with best in England, as evidenced by the Portuguese’s tactical victory over the eventual champions, Chelsea, towards the end of the season. Tweaks are needed, but an overhaul is not.
Fans may clamour for Ronaldo, but the likelihood is that Madrid’s politics will eventually win out and the forward will stay in the Spanish capital. Mourinho’s targets are tailored for his team, and his previous success in the transfer window should offer more than enough credit. Woodward should be wary of chasing unavailable dreams. Ronaldo or not, Mourinho has a plan.