Strange business, the transfer window. Take Manchester United’s executive vice chairman, Ed Woodward, for example. Ostensibly charged with executing the Glazer family’s commercial vision, Woodward has been roundly lambasted for his performance in the transfer market over the past year. Indeed, few executives other than in football are judged – by outside parties at least – so keenly on the purchase of significant, but non-material assets. Yet, it is a spotlight that continues to burn brightly on the Essex-born accountant.
Last summer’s tragicomic omnishambles in the transfer market ended not only with United failing to patch up significant holes in the club’s squad, but with a desperately late, hugely overpriced, deal for Marouane Fellaini. It was a failure in strategy that contributed not only to United’s dismal season in 2013/14, but is set to cost millions more when the Belgian finally moves on at a huge loss.
In the intervening months Woodward has overseen, although not always personally driven, the acquisitions of Juan Mata, Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera. Each should contribute more positively to United’s cause in the post David Moyes era than Fellaini ever has.
The trio represents £100 million invested in new talent that should have done much to allayed fears United is slipping further behind rivals at home and abroad. Not least because further spending is repeatedly promised.
Yet, there is the nagging sense that United’s transfer business under Woodward is anything but strategic; a scattergun approach driven by personal whim, player availability and preferred agents. Mata was acquired without a plan to extract the best out of the Spanish playmaker; Shaw and Herrera with Louis van Gaal’s blessing, but not at his expressed request.
Friday’s breakdown in the long-running behind-the-scenes move for Arsenal captain Thomas Vermaelen is further evidence that all is not quite right with the club’s approach. United believed a deal probable. Arsenal and Barcelona drew a very different conclusion. Not for the first time Woodward was outsmarted by rivals.
It is a challenge that the former JP Morgan banker must fix rapidly, with a week until United kicks off the new season and just 23 days until the window closes for the summer. As it stands the club’s squad is missing an experienced central defender, a high-quality midfielder, and remains lightweight in wide areas. van Gaal may talk about a challenge for the Premier League, but United remains far behind domestic rivals.
Elsewhere, United’s alternate options remain thin, with Germany’s Mats Hummels unwilling to leave Borussia Dortmund without the club’s blessing and United unprepared to meet an asking price commensurate with the player’s status. Neither will the Reds find it easy to prize Mehdia Benatia away from Roma, nor Eliaquim Mangala from Porto, even if the latter is further down the list of priorities.
Meanwhile, in midfield a long-mooted and hugely expensive deal for inspirational Juventus star Arturo Vidal is seemingly no nearer to completion; each party holding out for the best deal and United keen to ensure the player’s fitness is without question, especially with memories of Owen Hargreaves still fresh.
Memphis Depay, Daley Blind and a clutch of Dutchmen may be on the radar, or may not. Take your pick.
Vermaelen was, perhaps, an odd choice for a United centre-half in any case. Experienced, but seemingly past his peak at just 28, the Belgian has suffered for poor form and dubious fitness, leading to just seven starts for Arsenal in the Premier League last season. Vermaelen possesses two qualities van Gaal is seeking though: a left-foot and an enviable range of passing. Yet, also, a notable tendency to lose concentration, wander out of position and gift the opposition chances. The Belgian was probably always a second choice behind Hummels.
Primary candidate or not, failure to bring in the Belgian leaves Woodward under increasing pressure to deliver, even if the 42-year-old remains on a high after securing the most lucrative kit deal in football history. Not least because Adidas’ £75 million annual contract with United also comes with an intriguing clause: a 30 per cent reduction in fees paid should the Reds miss out on the Champions League in consecutive seasons. The Glazers’ business model doesn’t need trophies, but it does require a top-four finish.
van Gaal should boast enough resources to deliver a place in the 2014/15 Champions League although, ceteris paribus, the Dutchman will have to displace one or both of Liverpool or Arsenal to do it. There is some irony in United’s lack of European football being the Dutchman’s ace in the coming season.
Domestically, Manchester City’s strength-in-depth and Chelsea’s smart spending should be too much for United, unless Woodward can pull off three spectacular deals in the next month. The odds against a United Premier League title remain long.
City has spent conservatively this summer, acquiring the defensive midfielder Fernando from Porto, a back-up goalkeeper in Willy Caballero, and Arsenal’s Bacary Sagna on a free transfer. Should the Blues secure Mangala, or another central defender of equal standing, then Manuel Pellegrini’s side will begin the season as favourites to retain the Premier League.
At Stamford Bridge José Mourinho has bought well though, replacing Frank Lampard with Cesc Fabregas to add goals from midfield, and bringing in Diego Costa and Didier Drogba to fill Chelsea’s problem up front. Fillipe Luis is an experienced replacement for Ashley Cole at left-back. Add Thibaut Courtois as challenger to Petr Cech and Chelsea now boasts all the ingredients of a typical Mourinho side. It will be a major surprise if the west London outfit is not a title challenger to the final day next season.
It is fortunate for van Gaal that Liverpool and Arsenal remain short. The Scousers will certainly not easily replace Luis Suarez’ goals; few clubs, United’s included, truly benefit from selling their best player. Meanwhile Alexis Sanchez adds genuine quality to Arsenal’s challenge, but does little to fix the lack of steel in north London. The smart money might be on Liverpool dripping out of the Champions Leagues places, and United challenging Arsenal for third.
Greater progress requires further investment though. Much as supporters want to see youngsters such as Reece James, Tyler Blackett, Michael Keane and James Wilson progress, the club remains short of world-class players in at least two key positions. Bridging that gap is largely down to Woodward. It is time to deliver on all those promises. There are certainly few excuses left.