There have been many words written about Manchester United’s strategy in the transfer market in summer; few of them positive. It is little wonder given the club’s propensity for generating farce since the window opened on 20 May. In between there have been 106 days of such amateurish tomfoolery that by the end many supporters’ overwhelming emotion is one of relief. No, not that David Moyes finally captured the Belgian international Marouanne Fellaini, but that vice chairman Ed Woodward can cause embarrassment no longer.
Embarrassed by Thiago Alcântara’s inevitable decision to join Bayern Munch, and humiliated by Cesc Fabregas’ manipulation of United’s interest, Woodward’s dash home from Australia in mid-July has brought little but shame, especially on transfer deadline day. Six weeks of such maladroit bumbling at which it is best to laugh for the tears will otherwise flow.
Summer did not begin well, with United making little secret of the club’s interest in bringing the former Barcelona midfielder Thiago to Old Trafford. But United’s preoccupation with the 22-year-old did little but strengthen the player’s negotiating hand – an entourage including, laughably, Pep Guardiola’s brother securing a €20 million transfer that the player had always sought.
Thiago’s choice brought little need to panic. After all, United has missed out on players before, from Ronaldinho, to Eden Hazard and Michael Ballack. While United’s pull is strong, so is that of Europe’s institutional giants and the nouveau riche now inhabiting the continent.
Yet, United submitted a barely credible bid for Fabregas just 24 hours after his under-study’s arrival in southern Germany. The timing was horrible, although it was a transfer always unlikely following Barcelona’s multi-year pursuit of the midfielder. That United’s offer amounted to barely €26 million brought little but public derision.
Still, the club ploughed on failing to mentally segregate a lock out from the start of transfer negotiations. Barça had no interest in the latter and neither, as it turns out, did the player. Follow-up bids of €30 million and €35 million presumably lie dormant on the spike marked ‘no reply necessary’.
United followed a similar strategy in its pursuit of Leighton Baines, with Everton rejecting first a £12 million offer in June, a follow-up bid of the same figure a month later and two £15 million offers as the window drew in. Woodward’s assumptive close too presumptive, and never closed.
Yet, mid summer took a curious turn of what now seems like inactivity. That final offer for Fabregas came as July drew to a close – a full month before Monday’s Shakespearean farce took place. More than four weeks in which Woodward and United’s army of lawyers, agents and middlemen could activate buy-out clauses in the contracts of midfielders Ander Herrera and Everton’s Fellaini, whatever the legal complexities.
Planning, there has been none of it.
Still, nothing preceding Monday’s virtual dash around Europe prepared supporters for the tsunami of legitimate ridicule generated by United’s efforts to secure Fellaini, together with Herrera, Leighton Baines, Daniele De Rossi, Fábio Coentrão and, as the player revealed, Sami Khedira on deadline day.
Indeed, United’s story that the club tried, and failed, to negotiate Herrera’s €36 million release clause down to the €30 million on offer drowned in the comedy that followed.
Herrera, seemingly convinced the deal was on, told Athletic Bilbao of his intention to leave, while three initially unnamed suits attempted to deposit the fee and papers at Liga de Fútbol Profesional (LFP) headquarters. The men left little more than an hour later citing “bureaucratic difficulties”.
‘Impostors’ briefed United’s communication department as the deal broke down late on Monday night – a claim now believed to be false, the men acting squarely on the Reds’ behalf.
In the fallout it is hard to discern which story is more embarrassing: that United refused to increase an initial bid by just €6 million for one of Europe’s more talented youngsters; or that an institution with annual revenues approaching £350 million is unable to obtain appropriate legal advice in timely fashion.
Either way the stench of rank ineptitude permeates through offices once occupied by David Gill and Sir Alex Ferguson.
Further, as United dallied on securing Fellaini, with other targets clearly a greater priority, the club was suckered into paying £4 million over the Belgian’s release fee. Coincidentally, it seems, this is a figure not far from the additional sum required to capture Herrera this summer.
United would end deadline day, fax machine on overdrive, seeking to acquire Coentrão on loan, Baines at the £15 million sum already rejected, De Rossi also on loan, and Khedira, as the window’s embers died out, for an astonishing €34 million. None succeeded – it has become the pattern of the summer.
But Moyes did secure one major deal in the final hour, Fellaini acquired for a fee totaling more than £11 million in excess of United’s opening bid. Far more, it should be noted, than the market valued the midfielder during two months in which Fellaini’s release clause remained active.
Yet, with Fellaini’s transfer United has secured a central midfielder of international standing for the first time in six years, although the Belgian divides opinion among both fans and pundits.
Strong in the tackle, but far too loose in possession, and frequently ill-disciplined, Fellaini will add muscle to United’s midfield at the expense of subtlety. It may prove to be a frustrating trade-off for those supporters seeking an attacking side in the United tradition - the Belgian is perhaps everything that Arsenal’s £42 million capture Mesut Özil is not, and the contrary.
But in that Moyes remains short – both of stellar quality in a key area and of the numbers he had sought at the summer’s dawn. More to the point, perhaps, is that Fellaini, Fabregas, Alcântara, De Rossi, Herrera and Khedira hold such diverse profiles that there appears no clear understanding of United’s requirements anyway.
Worryingly for the new man, Moyes remains a manager unable, for the time being at least, to stamp his own mark on the team; a man failed by his board and perhaps ultimately by the owners. That others have strengthened considerably can only increase the pressure to deliver in Sir Alex’ wake.
After all, while Woodward’s inexperience in a brutally competitive market has been repeatedly exposed, money nearly always walks the talk. Certainly more than the 40-year-old’s bravado in proclaiming United’s excessive spending power earlier this summer. Bids repeatedly rejected, and competitors roundly irked, paint a picture of a club seeking bargains in a seller’s market.
And when, by contrast, even Arsène Wenger spends lavishly it is fair to conclude that United’s competitors have moved on. The Reds will now move on too. Except, this time, from a humiliating summer.