United’s failure is a belief in the alchemy of youth

August 21, 2014 Tags: , , Reads 23 comments
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In the cold light of Manchester United’s fateful dawn one can still feel the intoxication. Like a Saturday night drunk, stirring on Sunday morning amid the cold pizza and lager cans strewn across the wreckage once called home. Yet, United’s hangover from Cristiano Ronaldo’s wild ride still throbs, blurring clear thought and obfuscating the truth. Like so many drunks United may need to hit rock bottom before redemption calls.

Ronaldo’s was a special kind of addiction though; certainly love at first sight. The speed, turn, tricks and goals – that magical 20 minutes against Bolton Wanderers to the crowing glory in Moscow in 2008. Little wonder that the Stretford End still sings the Portuguese winger’s name, five years since he departed – on his own insistence – for Real Madrid.

In securing an £80 million fee for Ronaldo the winger also had another affect on the club. One far more damaging than enduring loyalty to a player who came to believe that he had outgrown Old Trafford. Indeed, the ‘success’ of securing such riches seemingly convinced the Glazer family, and Sir Alex Ferguson, that the equivalent of football alchemy was available at every turn – that United could invest in young players, make handsome profits in the market and run a successful team. Like some flash of magic, United’s “philosophy” of “youth” – as a recent investor presentation put it –  somehow gave the club a structural advantage over competitors at home and abroad.

For the club of the Busby Babes, Fergie Fledglings and Class of ’92 it is a vision for supporters to follow – millions spent on young players that may come good is always more palatable than millions more on the finished article. Yet, like so many of the Glazer family’s polices this one has turned out to be bunk. Just one with rhetoric that is so easy to sell.

Since Ronaldo’s sale in the summer of 2009 United’s unwritten policy – broken on only a few select occasions – has been to invest in players under 26 who retain a clear resale value. More than 20 players of the ilk have passed through Old Trafford’s doors over the past five years, including Ander Herrera, Marcos Rojo and Luke Shaw this summer.

Yet, during that same period it is arguable that only David de Gea’s stock has risen in Ronaldo-esque proportions. So many have crashed and burned. That is the way of youth and the failure of a policy that routinely gambled on turning lead into gold, callow youth into venerable experience, and a punt into yet more Glazer riches.

United may extract value and talent from Shaw, Herrera and Rojo. Of the three the former Southampton left-back is perhaps best placed to command an outstanding resale fee in the years ahead. He certainly has the talent to flourish at United.

Of other recent signings Marouane Fellaini certainly will not, while the jury remains out on whether Juan Mata, who was 25 on acquisition last January, will finally come good.

Two summers ago United invested more than £28 million in Shinji Kagawa, Nick Powell, Ángelo Henríquez and Alexander Büttner – and then a further £10-15 million in Wilfried Zaha the following winter. Kagawa may command a similar fee now, while Büttner was sold this summer for a small profit. Write off the money spent on Zaha, Powell and Henríquez though. More importantly, none of the quintet has proven to be value-for-money just yet, although there are special circumstances where the Japanese is concerned.

The pattern repeats. Phil Jones may yet come good, although there is little to justify the £17 million paid to Blackburn Rovers three years ago. Chris Smalling has seemingly gone backwards, while Javier Hernández’ career is at a standstill. United could take a profit on the £6.5 million fee paid for the Mexican, but probably only because a rising market tide floats all boats. The Reds certainly did not profit from the eternally embarrassing £7.75 million spent on street footballer turned Premier League punchline, Bebé.

The less said about the £25 million spent on the combined talents of Antonio Valencia, Mame Diouf and Gabriel Obertan, the better. Look further back into the Glazers ownership and there will be few whom view the investment in Nani and Anderson with pride. More than £30 million was invested in a duo that will command almost no resale fee when eachfinally, and permanently, leaves the club.

The failure is not one of trust in youth per se. This is a romantic notion that appeals in an age where superstars command incomprehensible wages and transfer fees routinely run into tens of millions. The error is in the policy’s inherent lack of balance and the concurrent inevitability of squad degradation, no matter short-term successes.

By contrast, over the same 2009 – 2014 period, United’s investment in experience runs to Michael Owen, Anders Lindegaard, Ashley Young and Robin van Persie. So few struck gold, but then the sample is only a handful.

In an era when the causal – although not perfect – relationship between transfer spending, wages and ‘success’ has been noted, United’s belief in an ability to buck the market has proven false. There is no structural advantage at Old Trafford, bar vast pools of revenue.

It is perhaps little surprise that some have called for a change in policy at a time when Louis van Gaal’s squad is dangerously short of domestic rivals. With 10 days to go until the market closes there is little guarantee that even a manager of the Dutchman’s gifts will lead United into next season’s Champions League.

“United need to arrest their decline,” said former Red Paul Scholes, writing in the Independent this week.

“I feel it is time for major change. What do United need? Five players. Not five players with potential. Five experienced players. Five proper players who can hit the ground running and turn around a situation that looks desperate.”

Five players that are unlikely to arrive before the transfer window closes on 1 September. The months ahead will determine whether it is the Glazer’s policy or Scholes that is proven right. One thing is sure: there are so few to follow Ronaldo. One a million? No, one in 80 million. Odds that look poor good either way.


Acquisitions of players under-26 since Ronaldo’s sale

Player – Acquired from – Fee (£ millions) – (age at transfer) 

Luke Shaw – Southampton – £33 (18)
Ander Herrera – Athletic Club – £32 (24)
Marcos Rojo – Sporting Lisbon – £17 (24)
Vanja Milinković-Savić – Vojvodina – free (17)

Juan Mata – Chelsea – £39.5 (25)
Marouane Fellaini – Everton – £28.5 (25)
Guillermo Varela – Peñarol – £1.5 (20)

Shinji Kagawa – Borussia Dortmund – £14 (23)
Wilfried Zaha – Crystal Palace – £10.5 (20)
Nick Powell – Crewe Alexandra – Crewe – £6.5 (18)
Ángelo Henríquez – Club Universidad de Chile – £5 (18)
Alexander Büttner – Vitesse Arnham – £4.5 (23)

David de Gea – Atlético Madrid – £17.50 (20)
Phil Jones – Blackburn Rovers – £17 (19)
Frédéric Veseli – Manchester City – free (18)

Bebé – Vitória Guimarães – £7.75 (20)
Chris Smalling – Fulham – £7 (20)
Javier Hernández – Deportivo Guadalajara – £6.50 (22)

Antonio Valencia – Wigan Athletic – £16.5 (24)
Mame Diouf – Molde – £4 (21)
Gabriel Obertan – Girondins Bordeaux – £3.5 (20)

*all data from Transfermarkt (rounded)


MUFC Fans Forever - August 21, 2014 Reply

football changed, look at City, Chelsea , PSV, Madrid etc… It’s now all big money signings. Soon we will all go back to roots

Edonomics - August 21, 2014 Reply

excellent & insightful.. We’re spending high wages on the wrong players.

Dave Madden - August 21, 2014 Reply

Then say so, play the youths and be damned.

Nilesh Surana - August 22, 2014 Reply

great article

Subterranean Steve - August 22, 2014 Reply

As it stands, United are more likely to end up in Paul Scholes’ wilderness than in the Champions’ League.

Denton Davey - August 22, 2014 Reply

“The Reds certainly did not profit from the eternally embarrassing £7.75 million spent on street footballer turned Premier League punchline, Bebé.”

First, the initial transfer cost was “only” half the amount you quote – the full amount would have been generated only if Bebe had really-and-truly been CR7-redux.

Second, I think that UTD actually made a mistake in selling him this summer. His “apprenticeship” has been rough but let’s not forget that last season – playing for one of the worst teams in the Portuguese league – Bebe was the top-scorer among Portuguese players in that league. From what I saw on highlights, some of his dozen goals were astonishing.

Some guys just “get it” later than others; Bebe had no training and no professional experience but tremendous raw talent, size, speed, and strength, Having endured mockery (and suspicion) for the transfer, UTD should have kept Didier Drogba’s learning curve in view – Didi only made it out of the French 3rd division when he was 24.

Ed - August 22, 2014 Reply

Sorry Denton but that simply isn’t correct. Not only did United pay the full fee (half to Gestifute via Guimares) but up front as well. I detailed in full on these pages at the time. Fortunately we actually had published accounts at the time.

Denton Davey - August 22, 2014 Reply

Sorry; I didn’t know that. Most of the reports I saw – before I happened onto your website – suggested that it was 50% down and the other 50% dependent on performance (which was somewhat similar to the way that the contracts for Anderson and Nani and others had been structured).

Still, I think that Bebe might have been sold too quickly.

Ed - August 22, 2014 Reply

Just one way the deal was ‘dodgy as f*ck’.

Denton Davey - August 22, 2014

How is “Fuck” dodgy – I always understood that fucking was the opposite of dodging. Am I wrong again ?

James Mckeown - August 22, 2014 Reply

Is it a failed idea or was the execution merely poor?
I mean we bought failures but successes were also available at that time.

Roo - August 22, 2014 Reply

Don’t forget we sold Piqué and Pogba!

Subterranean Steve - August 22, 2014 Reply

Good point.

We didn’t even sell them for profit, they just ran away to sunnier climes.

Pique went from being a right back in the mickey -mouse games e.g. versus non -league Exeter in an FA cup tie replay to winning The World Cup and The Euros.

Pogba left because he couldn’t get a game in a team where United had run out of midfielders. Since then he has played in the World Cup Finals and is worth 30 odd squillion at least

The problem is that when United do unearth youthful talent they don’t even recognise it (or perhaps don’t want to recognise it).

Nice one Fergie.

Al - August 22, 2014 Reply

good article

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the real deal - August 22, 2014 Reply

Now Wellbeck is to be sold. He was told this morning by van Gaal that he was not in his plans and that he is free to leave. Hull and Sunderland have already put in bids.

the real deal - August 22, 2014 Reply

Fans are really angry that Wellbeck will be sold. They are protesting this latest news. Wellbeck is of average quality. We need world-class quality players. van Gaal is not afraid to play the academy players. Young striker Wilson has been training all week with the senior squad.

AS Camden - August 22, 2014 Reply

Really excellent article. We have spent really, really poorly. The strategy to not spend at the top end of the market has only resulted in us spending large amounts on potential that has very rarely achieved said potential.

Outside of Van Persie, how many years under Fergie do you have to go back to find a signing who improved the first 11?

Thomas - August 22, 2014 Reply

Good article but Glazers were never willing to match wages that other clubs were paying so SAF decided he was going to try and sign players with potential, a lot havnt worked out but if anyone is to blame its the parasites

the real deal - August 22, 2014 Reply

Well, its great to see that James Wilson will replace Wellbeck, at least that is what van Gaal is saying. Too bad to hear that Herrera is now out injured and will be out for at least two weeks. How is van Gaal training his players? Is he running them to the ground?

Dayus D red - August 23, 2014 Reply

Ed i wonder on whose door step you lay the blame of this policy. Is SAF or the Glazers? Apart from the fact that most of the prices you qoute are inaccurate, e.g (Mata, Shaw, Herrera ), curiously you forgot to mention those talents that SAF allowed to leave prematurely. A retiring Scholes was preferredd to a talent like Pogba. Evans was chosen ahead of Pique and G Rossi was released even when it was ovious RVN was leaving. As the saying goes, the rest is history. Pique is a proud winner of 2CL, 2 European cup, a world cup and 3 la liga titles while our Evans is still struggling for form. Pogba is currently the best youth player in the world and G Rossi is one of the best strikers in Italy. So don’t blame it on policy but the executional of the policy, in this case SAF. Finally don’t you think its too early to write off players like Powell, Varela(who is been courted by R. Madrid and Henrique?. Just hope LVG wouldn’t make the same mistake.

Ed - August 23, 2014 Reply

Dayus – this was a piece about acquisition over the last few years and the policy of buying only players under 26 with a resale value and the premise that the ‘success’ in developing and then profiting from Ronaldo led to this policy. The Glazers instigated it on financial grounds and Ferguson went along with it. I suspect partly due to his ego and partly due to the vast sums of money the Glazers paid him. Prices are all from transfermarkt – so at least its one consistent source. I assume you have a library of Manchester United player contracts at home. No?

Lucas - August 26, 2014 Reply

An excellent article, Ed.

Given the importance Fergie placed on youth, I was surprised he didn’t give a chance for Pogba to prove himself. He has cost us a fortune. How we could do with a Pogba in midfield now!

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