Transfer season is in full swing, with Louis van Gaal having already signed £30 million Memphis Depay from PSV Eindhoven this summer. The Dutch winger is likely to be the first of four or perhaps five top quality signings in a busy summer that could stretch to another £150 million spree. At least if Van Gaal’s determination to mount a Premier League title challenge next summer matches the Glazer family’s new found willingness to release club cash for transfers.
Certainly, Van Gaal would like to bring in a central defender, right-back, central midfielder and striker this summer. If David de Gea moves to Real Madrid as expected then a replacement goalkeeper will also join the club in the coming months.
With the wishlist already lengthy it is little wonder that media gossip has run deep, with the fourth estate speculating Manchester United bids for more than 20 players. Topping the list are superstar names such as Gareth Bale, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Edison Cavani, together with youngster talents including Harry Kane, Felipe Anderson and Roberto Firmino. But given the choice where would, you, Rant’s readers spend the money?
“When you purchase other players you get another stimulus in the group and you need that. Our selection is out of balance and we have managed to be fourth in the league but we have to manage to be the champions. So it shall be a rough summer I think for a lot of players.” Louis van Gaal
With the season drawing rapidly to a close thoughts turn to the summer transfer market; the nation’s back-pages are filled with little but speculation about just where Van Gaal will spend a reported £150 million summer transfer budget. However, much as was the case last summer, when United sold, released or loaned 15 players, a significant proportion of United’s business will involve the Old Trafford exit. It’ll be a lonely walk for some, including a clutch of big-name players. Rant assesses just who might be having a “rough summer” among Van Gaal’s squad. David de Gea not included.
The Colombian joined with much fanfare on deadline-day last summer, with United paying a £6 million loan fee to Monaco and picking up the tab on Falcao’s £265,000-per-week wages. It has proven to be a huge investment for very little return, with the striker scoring just four goals in 29 appearances across all competitions this season, while spending much of the campaign on the bench. There is no doubting Falcao’s commitment or workrate, but that extra explosive sharpness has, sadly, gone. The cruciate knee injury suffered in January 2014 has fundamentally changed the player for the worse. It is has, in truth, been hard to watch Falcao’s descent from one of the world’s truly élite strikers to a man struggling to make any impact at all. There is no chance United will commit a further £46 million investment on the 29-year-old this summer. Chance of departure: 10/10. Fee if sold: n/a.
The Dane has oft said that he didn’t come to United to ‘pick his nose’, although he might as well since there is little chance that Lindegaard will play for the club again. Signed in January 2011, Lindegaard once challenged a callow David de Gea for the number one jersey at Old Trafford. It was a short-lived spell as Sir Alex Ferguson’s preferred stopper. In the end de Gea’s class told and Lindegaard has spent the entire season in the reserves. Even de Gea’s departure will do little for the Dane’s prospects at Old Trafford. A free transfer awaits. Chance of departure: 10/10. Fee is sold: £ free.
Rafael da Silva
What went wrong for Rafael? A United player since 2008, the diminutive Brazilian was supposed to have matured into an international class full-back by now. There has always been much to admire: pace, natural attacking instincts and genuine tenacity in the tackle. On paper the 24-year-old should offer much in an attacking Van Gaal system. Yet, two factors precipitate Rafael’s probable departure this summer. First, the player’s slow burning path to maturity; Rafael is still liable to defensive mistakes that should now be eradicated from his game. More importantly, he is a player who is so rarely fit. Rafael has only once played more than 30 games in a season. It is simply not enough return to be considered a safe bet in Van Gaal’s evolution. Chance of departure: 9/10. Fee if sold: £5-8 million.
It has not been an easy season for Chichario in Madrid, although a burst of goals towards the end of the campaign has brought the Mexican some cheer. Yet, Hernandez has spent much of the campaign on the bench, just as he did under Moyes last year. Strange that the Scot reportedly refused to use Hernandez as bait to lure Gareth Bale from Tottenham Hotspur in the summer of 2013. Back at Old Trafford Chicho will be granted few opportunities by Van Gaal – a manager who routinely seeks out more rounded strikers. Chance of departure: 9/10. Fee if sold: £8-10 million.
These are strange times indeed if Nani, who has spent the season on loan at Sporting, holds some chance of being recalled to Van Gaal’s squad, albeit a slim one and only because few clubs can afford the player’s extravagant wages. Nani has rarely achieved any consistency through a career that has so often promised much, but delivered only sporadically. Once again the winger has put up good numbers this season at Sporting: 10 goals and two assists. There were also times at United when he was highly productive. Yet, there was never a period when he was reliable. Inexplicably David Moyes pushed for the player to be granted a new five-year, £100,000-per-week, contract last season. He played just 13 times for the Scot. Chance of departure: 8/10. Fee if sold: £8-10 million.
There was a time when one Rant Cast co-host claimed Evans to be “among the top five central defenders in the world.” No, we couldn’t understand it either. Still, everybody is allowed the odd mistake! The trouble with Evans is that it’s almost every game and, at 27, the Northern Irishman is no longer the inexperienced kid returning from a loan spell at Sunderland full of hope. Evans is an ‘honest’ player, in that ridiculous parlance of English football, and there’s no brook with the player’s effort or attitude. Yet, there has always been the nagging feeling that he was never quite good enough to represent United. After a season in which injury, poor form and an unfortunate suspension have hit the player hard a move might well revitalise his career. Chance of departure: 7/10. Fee if sold: £8-10 million.
Robin van Persie
Oh Robin, it was so good. Remember that volley against Aston Villa? How we laughed and cried together. Then something turned sour. You didn’t like Moyes. None of us did. Neither did your hamstring. Or ankle. Or hip. We’ll always have 2013. Van Persie’s £24 million fee may not turn out to be great value – United will recoup only a fraction of the fee should Van Gaal push out his countryman this summer. Yet, it feels like the right time to let him go. The striker has spent too few minutes on the pitch this season and too many in the treatment room. When Van Persie has played a touch of pace and movement has ebbed away; the cruel passage of time. In truth United needs to reinvigorate the attack next season and the Dutchman’s sale makes much sense. Rumours of a move to Italy this summer might extend the player’s career too. Chance of departure: 7/10. Fee if sold: £10-12 million.
Angel di Maria
Remember the excitement? Nearly £60 million spent on a truly world-class star; Europe’s leading assist-maker in 2013/14 and the Man of the Match in Real Madrid’s La Decima Champions League final victory. The season started well for Di Maria too – there were stunning performances to go with that magical goal against Leicester City. It lasted not long enough. The Argentinian’s form wavered and a house break-in seemingly robbed the player of his spirit as well as his possessions. The challenge isn’t physical so much as mental – a level of adaptation to Van Gaal’s ‘philosophy’ as well as English football and culture is required. Noises coming out of Old Trafford in recent weeks point to a second season at United and a renewed sense of effort to extract performances from a player of truly wonderful talent. Chance of departure: 4/10. Fee if sold: £45-50. million.
… and the notable kids
Powell has struggled to adapt to United’s standards despite enjoying a fine loan spell at Wigan Athletic in 2013/14. Deployed as a forward at Crewe Alexandra, Powell’s natural position might be in an attacking midfield role, although the youngster’s use of the ball is not always up to scratch. He is likely to be offered a chance to rebuild elsewhere this summer. Chance of departure: 7/10. Fee if sold: £1-2 million.
There is so much talent in the Belgian’s dancing feet that United has lost a significant attacking force this season in Januzaj’s absence. In part, Van Gaal simply doesn’t trust the youngster yet; in part the player has failed to adapt. Mostly the Januzaj simply didn’t fit in his manager’s system. In the 4-3-3 formation Van Gaal is planning for next season Januzaj might flourish, but with confidence shot a move away on loan may be a sensible path forward for all. Chance of departure: 7/10. Fee if sold: loan.
Blackett enjoyed an unexpected rise to the first team before Christmas, although has rarely featured in the subsequent months. United’s probable purchase of an international-standard experienced central defender in the summer is likely to cut Blackett’s chances further. Another for whom a loan may well be a beneficial move. Chance of departure: 6/10. Fee if sold: loan.
The Irishman’s composure in central defence and determination at full-back may well mean that Van Gaal is reluctant to let McNair leave on loan during the summer, although his chances may be infrequent unless injury continues to strike United’s senior defenders. Chance of departure: 4/10. Fee if sold: loan.
The striker has featured in 16 games – 12 as sub – scoring two goals for Van Gaal’s side this season. It has not quite been the breakthrough campaign many expected for the lightening quick forward. Wilson’s United future depends on whether either of Van Persie of Falcao remains at the club, and where the club chooses to spend on a new forward this summer. A loan away is possible even if Van Gaal was reluctant to sanction it this season. Chance of departure: 4/10. Fee if sold: loan.
Short of a 15 goal swing to Liverpool over the final two games of the campaign Manchester United’s return to Europe’s élite is all but confirmed, with Louis van Gaal’s side set to enter the Champions League at the play-off stage next August. After more than a year away from Europe’s premier competition it is a welcome return, although there is much to improve in the Dutchman’s squad if the Reds are to be competitive against the continent’s best.
Indeed, with a clutch of potentially difficult ties ahead there is still some work to do before Van Gaal’s side is in the Champions League group stage once again. Not least because United’s potential play-off opponents will be drawn from a list that – as it stands – includes Ajax, CSKA Moscow, Valencia, Bayer Leverkusen, Lazio, Besiktas and Sporting Lisbon, among others. No gimmes there, with Champions League format changes potentially making qualification more difficult.
Nor will Van Gaal enjoy significant “preparation time” ahead of the play-off, with the Premier League scheduled to start on 8 August and the European qualifiers set to be completed over two legs in the weeks of 18/19 and 25/26 August. United return from a short summer tour of the USA on 30 July.
The main concern lies elsewhere though: not in the play-off opponent nor the rapid-fire preparation for the new season, but whether Van Gaal will end the summer with a balanced squad ahead of the new campaign. Or whether, as in the past two summers, United’s hierarchy will engage in a desperate last-minute rush for players.
After all, the summer of 2013 left David Moyes’ cupboard barren before the new campaign had even started – in part due to the Scot’s dithering and in part because of Ed Woodward’s transfer market naïvety. It was a summer in which many words were written about United’s transfer market strategy; few of them positive, not least on these pages. The club’s propensity for generating farce bordered on amateurish tomfoolery and the summer ended with the capture of Belgian international Marouane Fellaini as its only prize.
Summer 2013 left United embarrassed by Thiago Alcântara’s inevitable decision to join Bayern Munch and humiliated by Cesc Fabregas’ manipulation of the club’s interest. Woodward’s dash home from Australia in mid-July brought little but ridicule, especially on transfer deadline day where United submitted bids for around half-a-dozen players. It was, in the end, six weeks of maladroit bumbling and not the triumphant return Woodward had sought.
Summer began, laughably, with Pep Guardiola’s brother negotiating the €20 million transfer of Thiago to Bayern Munich. How could it have ended any other way? It continued with United submitting a barely credible bid for Fabregas just 24 hours after his under-study’s arrival in southern Germany. United’s offer for the now Chelsea player amounted to just €26 million.
United followed a similarly bizarre strategy in pursuit of Leighton Baines, with Everton rejecting a £12 million offer in June and a follow-up bid of the same figure a month later. Shakespearean farce ensued with the failed pursuit of Ander Herrera, which eventually involved an army of lawyers, agents, middlemen and “impostors.” The tsunami of ridicule only increased with deadline day bids for Daniele De Rossi, Fábio Coentrão and Sami Khedira, among others.
By contrast last summer is largely remembered for United’s success in spending heavily – Woodward doing the sensible thing and farming out much of the work to preferred agents, including Jorge Mendes. And yet the window still concluded with another last-minute dash around the continent. Herrera was eventually signed on 26 June 2014, Luke Shaw on 27 June and Marcos Rojo signed with 12 days of the summer to go; three players joined in the final week of the window – some two weeks after season had begun. Angel di Maria arrived on 26 August 2014, Daley Blind on 30 August, and Radamel Falcao on 1 September
Not that United’s acquisition of Herrera and Shaw passed without scrutiny, the club having paid a significant premium on each to conclude the deals. Or, to paraphrase former United right-back Gary Neville’s critique of the time, Chelsea secured seasoned internationals Fabregas and Luis Fillipe for around £18 million less than the United pair. In retrospect neither di Maria nor Falcao’s acquisition has proven to be value-for-money.
Still, there were significant mitigating circumstances in United’s scattergun approach over the two summers past. Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, David Gill’s departure and the hiring-and-firing of Moyes, followed by Van Gaal’s arrival, each added to a sense of, if not chaos, then a lack of foresight. It is, of course, an excuse that no longer stacks up.
It is with a touch of surprise, therefore, that United supporters welcomed the signing of Dutch forward Memphis Depay for £25 million last week. The 21-year-old’s capture is an early sign that United’s summer activity may be more tightly planned than in the past. Or at least a touch accelerated.
“I had to handle it otherwise he would have signed for PSG,” admitted Van Gaal on Friday. “When you sign a player you disturb the focus of your present group of players. I don’t want to speak with players before the season has ended – I have also a feeling to my players. But now, because of the close relationship I have with PSV, I could handle it.”
United’s focus will next turn to the weaknesses in the Dutchman’s squad that have left the Reds some 16 points behind Champions Chelsea with two games to go. Whatever David de Gea’s future at the club beyond this summer, Van Gaal will certainly want to build from the back. The Dutchman has little confidence in his options at right-back and an experienced addition in the centre of defence is almost certain. If reports ring true then the club is already in the advanced stages of planning deals for Southampton’s Nathaniel Clyne and Borussia Dortmund captain Mats Hummels.
There are also legitimate questions to be asked of Van Gaal’s options in central midfield, in wide areas and up-front. Indeed, the Dutchman spoke at length last week of the need to draft in a replacement for Michael Carrick, with the Englishman now 34 and injured as often as he has been available this season. In Carrick’s absence neither Blind nor Herrera have excelled in a defensive midfield role.
On the wing di Maria’s failure in his first season in Manchester, together with Adnan Januzaj’s long absence from the team, leaves Van Gaal short on numbers if not quality. Di Maria may yet leave the club in the summer, while the Belgian appears likely to spend next season on loan. Their future will factor into United’s summer spending. And while Ashley Young’s positive campaign earned the England international a new contract, his manager will surely be loathe to enter the new season with the callow Memphis as his only alternative.
Then in forward positions there is little for Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie or Falcao to celebrate as the season draws to a close. Rooney is heading for his worst season, in terms of total goals, since joining the club 11 years ago, while van Persie has scored just 10 in all competitions. Falcao’s four strikes have come at an estimated cost in wages and loan fees of more than £4 million per goal.
It is a strikeforce that on paper at should excel in European competition. The reality of form, age and injury, respectively, point to a very different story.
If that is another substantial summer shopping list then it is probably required if Van Gaal’s team is to make it out of the Champions League group stage next season. It is the minimum requirement.
The summer is likely to feature a complicated series of, ultimately, very expensive negotiations. That is the price to be paid if United is to return to both domestic and European preeminence. With the club seemingly prepared to spend the money the question remains as to how astutely it will be done.
The season is not quite over yet, but the time is nigh for the Manchester United’s squad to be assessed in anticipation of the upcoming transfer window. After all, Louis Van Gaal must have seen enough of his men to draw up a list of summer additions – and the Dutchman has reportedly been handed a healthy transfer budget.
All eyes rest upon David De Gea as far as United’s goalkeepers go. Real Madrid holds much sway for the Spaniard, professionally and personally, but the deal, while very possible, is far from guaranteed this summer. De Gea’s contract runs to summer 2016.
It remains to be seen whether Victor Valdes can regain his Barcelona form but, on paper, the 33-year-old is well suited for Van Gaalian football. When push comes to shove, United may choose to see out the rest of De Gea’s contract while searching for a suitable replacement. Signing Valdes on a free transfer this winter has offered the club a safety net and there should be no post Edwin Van Der Sar-esque crisis should De Gea return home.
In defence a new centre back is essential and the noise surrounding Mats Hummels is gathering a sense of momentum. The market for centre backs offers more options than that for goalkeepers and the arrival of top player in that position is likely.
The situation on the right side of defence is dire though. Antonio Valencia has done a mediocre job this this season and Rafael, the only natural right-back in the squad, has fallen out of favour. United needs a top-class player in the position, especially with European football now likely next season, and a further back-up may also arrive in the summer. Nathaniel Clyne’s transfer has been frequently mooted, while Everton’s Seamus Coleman is also in the discussion. Neither will come cheap.
Surprisingly, given United’s recent history, central midfield looks relatively healthy. Daley Blind and Michael Carrick are dependable holding midfielders, while Juan Mata and Ander Herrera provide some stardust in the middle. Maroune Fellaini has earned begrudging respect and Angel Di Maria might eventually find a place in central midfield should Van Gaal finally settle on a 4-3-3 system. The Argentine excelled in the role at Benfica and Real Madrid.
United could do with a genuine driving force in the centre of the park, such as a pre-injury Kevin Strootman or Juventus’ Paul Pogba. The former is welcome, though might be a significant gamble, while the latter is probably far too costly. United can certainly compete with the current set of midfielders and may very well do so given the priorities in other areas of the pitch.
Van Gaal may well seek to bring in a wide player even if Di Maria stays at the club. Ashley Young has turned himself into a Ji-Sung Park-esque figure and the Dutch manager has an inherent fondness for such players. Mata may continue to be used as a “false winger” – one that uses movement rather than on-the-ball running to do damage – while the situation with Di Maria and Adnan Januzaj needs further observation.
Di Maria, high quality though he is, excels as the supporting cast rather than a bona-fide leading man. United’s squad is short of a genuinely destructive winger, such as Arjen Robben, Cristiano Ronaldo or Marco Reus. None of that trio is likely to arrive, however, and a potential transfer is complicated by United’s situation up front.
No matter how well the rest of season goes for Ramadel Falcao the Colombian’s permanent transfer to Old Trafford seems highly unlikely – if only because the £43 million fee can be better spent. Robin van Persie seems likely to linger around for at least another season, though probably with a less important squad role.
As ever, Wayne Rooney is the chief conundrum. The evidence of the season adds to the belief that Rooney can only be deployed as a number nine. Should Van Gaal persist with a 4-3-3 system then there really is no need for United to spend heavily on another striker, especially with James Wilson in the background.
It has been often said on these pages, but Rooney has neither the technique nor the physique to effectively hold up the ball as a lone striker. The Englishman needs other players to create space and United’s squad lacks the players to provide this ‘verticality.’ It is little surprise that Rooney has suffered a number of poor games up-front – the Liverpool fixture is a case in point.
Van Gaal could solve the problem by bringing in a more complete forward, but selling or benching Rooney may be too complicated both politically and financially. The alternative is to deploy a true box-to-box midfielder or more destructive winger to support Rooney. It would certainly improve United’s lot.
The summary is a wish list costing more than £100 million: a top centre back, right-back and back-up full-back, and a box-to-box midfielder or world-class winger. United will recoup some money by selling off fringe players such as Javier Hernandez. Even then, a transfer kitty of at least £90 million is needed to fill some obvious gaps in the squad.
Ed Woodward has certainly talked the talk in the past, but will he make good on all those promises once again? Perhaps so. Before the start of current season, this column argued that the Glazer family was likely to release funds for heavy spending – which happened to the tune of £125 million net.
That argument still holds true. Only the Glazers know how much they value Champions League football, but they profit as long as they don’t spend more than that valuation. Of course, the Americans might sanction as little possible to maximise profit, but the family has certainly been forced into recent spending. The logical action, then, is to spend a lot. This paradox minimises risk and the Glazers cannot take any chance when United is still swaying. Expect another busy summer.
Identity. It is a topic on many lips in the wake of Manchester United’s spending spree this summer. United unloaded around £150 million on six high-class imports during the window, and yet the deal that generated most copy was Danny Welbeck’s departure to Arsenal. The end of more than 130 years of youthful tradition or the reaffirmation that United remains among the world’s élite?
On the face of it the answer is simple. In a global game United simply swapped Welbeck, an inconsistent academy graduate with 29 goals in 142 games, for a proven class in Radamel Falcao. The price differential says as much: Welbeck cost Arsenal £16 million, Falcao north of £45 million when he signs permanently next summer. There is, after all, no room for sentimentality in the hunt for success.
Yet, United’s is a history replete with the fruits of youth development and Welbeck the leading player in a contemporary academy cohort that is symbolic of more than simply ‘who is best on the pitch.’ Youth, some say, is United’s essence, its soul, the raison d’être. This was consistently Sir Alex Ferguson’s line during his 27-year tenure at Old Trafford.
The player’s sale, amidst United’s conversion to the world’s leading sports marketing platform in a globalised brand economy, says much for the club’s priorities – the maintenance of commercial interests remains just as paramount as success on the pitch. Or in other words, while Falcao represents an upgrade for Louis van Gaal’s team, the Colombian’s profile also serves to feed a commercial entity more voracious for star names than ever.
It is this economic evolution of the club, the game and those that follow it that feels uneasy for many. Perhaps, even, this observation is at the root of criticism from within, even if naked resentment is the fuel from without. Not everybody is comfortable with United’s quickfire conversion for parsimony to plunder.
“Is it better to look at the instant rather than the future?” said former assistant manager Mike Phelan last week. “It is a difficult one because youth is always the future. Maybe this is the start of a new way of doing things at Manchester United and maybe that is the way football is going.”
United reacted strongly to the accusation that youth has taken a back stage, briefing media that 12 academy players are registered in the club’s wider Premier League group. More, indeed, than any other club in England. In James Wilson, Tyler Blackett, Reece James, and Jesse Lingaard, Van Gaal has already demonstrated faith in youngsters this season.
It is a familiar line. The difference between United and the club’s competitors? “Not spending fortunes on proven goods,” said Sir Alex in 2012. “That’s the difference between United and the rest – we can play 18-year-olds because it’s part of our history. It’s like a destiny for us. No other clubs can do that.”
Yet, there are also powerful forces driving the club to a future that is tied not to the academy but global recognition. Indeed, the club’s recent sponsorship deals with Chevrolet and adidas will push United’s annual revenue beyond £500 million in the coming years. Add more than 30 further global and regional sponsors to the roster and the hunger for success may now only be part of United’s culture. Stardom drives United’s commercial needs and, perhaps, future player recruitment too.
It is an observation that has led to the conclusion in some quarters that United will now seek out the most expensive players on the planet. Far cry from the austerity of the first eight years of Glazer ownership when debt bit deep into United’s investment and Ferguson ran his team on a comparative shoestring.
But with commercial revenues on the uptick, and debt interest at circa £20 million per year, executive vice chairman Ed Woodward has many reasons to feel emboldened in the market.
Further cash is seemingly available in January too, with potential recruits said to include Kevin Strootman that will take the club’s annual spend beyond £200 million for the year, including Juan Mata last winter. No longer a burden, so goes the spin, player recruitment is now an investment in United’s brand equity.
In the midst of this discussion it is easy to forget that Welbeck is also a very fine player, not just a local recruit. The Longsight-born striker has never been one to lead the goalscoring charts, perhaps, but those who champion the 23-year-old’s cause point to other qualities beyond goalscoring. Indeed, six goals in as many games last Christmas point to a player capable of scoring more frequent if given the opportunity in a more central role.
“He’s a real threat to defenders and, if Arsenal use him right, he will be very dangerous for them,” said former United defender Rio Ferdinand.
“I cannot believe United let him go, especially to Arsenal. That seems mad to me. Danny has everything to be a top player. English football has yet to see what he can really do because he hasn’t been getting a run of games. At Arsenal, he will be the main man and I have no doubt he will flourish.”
Welbeck’s departure, together with a dozen other players, including Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Ryan Giggs, has come amid the most rapid evolution in United’s playing squad for two decades.
Indeed, Van Gaal’s challenge – to knit together what is effectively a new team – is one that no United manager has faced since Ferguson sold Mark Hughes, Andrei Kanchelskis and Paul Ince in 1995. The following season Ferguson integrated Nicky Butt, David Beckham, Gary Neville and Paul Scholes into the United side to much success.
Yet, in the years before 2005 Ferguson also broke the British transfer record eight times, just has Sir Matt Busby had done for Dennis Law in the wake of the ‘Babes’ destruction at Munich in 1958. Youth and investment – hasn’t the club always played both games? Scrutiny, too, has always followed.
Yet, as the Glazer family’s parsimony cut into the United’s competitiveness from 2005-2013 it was also Ferguson who left a squad in far from “the strongest possible shape.” The Scot stood back in retirement and watched Rome burn. The club, it seems, is now trying to rebuild in a day.
“It is a change of direction for United letting one of their own go,” adds Ferdinand. “Traditionally, this was not their way, adding so many players in a short period of time and having such a radical overhaul. Normally, as with me when I joined in 2002, it was about adding one piece to the jigsaw.
“Some fans still romanticise about their success and the way they brought through so many home-grown players. Unfortunately, you can’t always have that fairytale. Radamel Falcao and Angel Di Maria are world-class players and they have added quality in Anders Herrera, Luke Shaw and Daley Blind, but I do wonder if they will live to regret not keeping Danny.”
That story will play out in the year to come; Welbeck’s performance at Arsenal and Van Gaal’s ability to get the best out of £150 million worth of new talent.
As ever it will not only be United’s success on the line, but the club’s ‘identity’ too. Twas ever thus.
There is little surprise in supporters’ obsession with the transfer market; new faces, new names and the hope of better results to come. In Manchester United’s recent decline this fixation has become all the stronger – a collective yearning that fresh blood will cure many of Old Trafford’s ills. Certainly, United’s summer spending will revitalise a squad that has been grossly mismanaged by Sir Alex Ferguson, David Gill and the Glazers over the past five years. An imbalance remains that Ed Woodward may fill in the days to come. It is, however, sales that will definitively mark the beginning of the Louis van Gaal era.
David Moyes, it was often said, worked not with his own squad but that of Sir Alex. Little surprise, perhaps, that so many turned on the former Everton manager when training, performances and then results did not go to the collective’s liking. So quick to bite the hand that fed them. One year on Van Gaal should face little of the mutinous atmosphere that engulfed Moyes’ time at Old Trafford. Not least because the Dutchman’s distinct gravitas will simply not allow for it. More importantly, though, for the significant squad evolution now underway.
Indeed, in the 72 hours before the transfer window closes, five United first team players could top up the 10 already granted a transfer, released or retired this summer. Yet more would be dumped but for the logistics, and economics, of eliminating high-paid players from United’s payroll.
In the months since Moyes’ sacking last April Rio Ferdinand, Nemnaja Vidić, Patrice Evra, Alexander Büttner, Nani, Federico Macheda, Ángelo Henríquez, Bebé, Ryan Giggs and Wilfried Zaha have left the club. Giggs retired at the age of 40, Henríquez, Nani and Zaha left on loan – with an assumption the trio will never play for United again – and the remaining six departed permanently.
The Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra axis provided over 1,000 games for United; Giggs another millenary again. The absence of that vast experience will certainly be felt. By contrast United will miss nothing of Büttner, Nani, Macheda, Henríquez, Bebé, or Zaha.
Büttner was never of requisite quality – a knowledge that most observers considered true less than 30 minutes into the Dutchman’s United début. Macheda, Henríquez and Bebé each failed to establish themselves at Old Trafford despite, at times, promising contributions, albeit very different in nature. Meanwhile, Nani, and to a lesser extent Zaha, will remain misfits unable to harness talent to more positive effect.
Add Anderson, Anders Lindegaard, Tom Cleverley – and one of Danny Welbeck or Javier Hernández – to the probable departures by Monday evening and the exodus contributes to a sense of chaotic revolution and not planned change at Old Trafford. That the club’s executive vice chairman is desperately putting together deals for Daley Blind, and perhaps a midfielder and defender, in the coming days says much for the lack of control in the post Gill-Ferguson era. There is something ‘just not United’ in the chaos of frantic negotiation, yet a pattern has clearly been set over the past two summers.
Anderson has spent much of the past seven years resembling a character in Waiting for Godot, with United supporters hanging, absurdly, to the notion that the Brazilian’s talent will flourish. It has always been a tragicomedy of the club’s own making. The final twist is likely to be a year-long loan to the continent, with a free transfer following in summer 2015.
Then there is Cleverley and Welbeck – a pair so often the subject of heated supporter debate. While Cleverley’s United career has been on hold for three seasons, Welbeck’s talent and background ensure local-hero loyalty remains. Neither, in truth, has the capacity to drive United to new heights, although far fewer supporters will miss Cleverley than Welbeck. The Longsight-born forward’s record is patchy, but with neither Wayne Rooney nor Robin van Persie guaranteed fitness, the 23-year-old will enjoy plenty of minutes if he stays.
Hernández is another whose career has stalled. Once the subject of serious transfer interest by Real Madrid, United will probably accept a bid of less than £10 million for the Mexican forward. Old Trafford’s top brass would fall over themselves to include the 26-year-old in any prospective deal for Juventus’ midfielder Arturo Vidal.
Meanwhile, Lindegaard has been offered a free transfer with little prospect that the Dane will usurp David de Gea in United’s goal. Ben Amos is set to occupy United’s bench while Lindegaard seeks pastures new.
Then there is the question of those who have outstayed a generous Old Trafford welcome: Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia and Marouane Fellaini. The former pair were complicit in United’s sub-par performance against Burnley on Saturday; in truth neither has played a positive role for United in some time.
The club would certainly take a fee for Young, although two years on the Englishman’s contract and £115,000-per-week in wages remain genuine barriers to moving on a distinctly limited player. Valencia, so long a duff product at Old Trafford, remains if only to cover for Rafael da Silva’s extended periods on the treatment table.
Fellaini’s fee, wages and injury present a similar roadblock; one that means Van Gaal may well have to integrate the Belgian into his squad this season. In each case a significant upgrade is required.
And in truth few of the potential departed will be seriously missed. Not, at least, in the way of greats from the past. United might even significantly benefit from slimming down and rebalancing a squad that consensus now concludes was not left fit for purpose by a retiring Ferguson. It is a damming indictment of the Scot’s succession planning.
Van Gaal, meanwhile, welcomes five new signings this summer: Ander Herrera, Luke Shaw, Marcos Rojo, Angel Di Maria and Daley Blind. Woodward may yet land the experienced central defender and another midfielder Van Gaal seeks before the 1 September deadline. It would take the club’s spending well beyond £150 million this summer.
In this process of renewal Van Gaal is seeking not only to improve his resources but to make this ‘his team’ at rapid speed. There is little doubt the Dutchman will succeed.
In the meantime, Woodward is busy not only buying, but offloading United’s ample dead-wood. That’s in addition to negotiating new arrivals, driving United’s global marketing strategy, and leading a $2.5 billion organisation. Little wonder, perhaps, that the 42-year-old has found the market more than a little challenging over the past two years. Woodward probably needs some help; a director of football to sit between the boardroom and coach – and, most importantly, to so the heavily lifting in a busy transfer market.
Either way United supporters will be watching with intense interest in the coming days – Jim White, Sky Sports News, and all.
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)
These are celebratory times indeed. Not only has Manchester United’s executive vice chairman Ed Woodward closed a deal, some 12 days before the summer transfer window shuts, but in a position where the Reds are desperately short. United’s calamitous showing against Swansea City last weekend served only to highlight just how desperately the club requires new blood in defensive positions. So to the rescue comes Marcos Rojo, Argentina’s World Cup left-back, who will play on the left side of United’s back three this season after Woodward secured a £16 million transfer from Sporting.
Rojo’s signature takes Nani in the other direction, where United will pay the errant Portuguese winger around £5 million to play for the Lisbon-based side this season. Good deal all round, those of a more cynical bent might add. Meanwhile, the Argentinian will compete with Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Tyler Blackett for a place in Louis van Gaal’s side, while offering a useful option at left wing back.
Not that Rojo was anywhere near van Gaal’s first choice this summer, with United mooting deals for Thomas Vermaelen, Mats Hummels and Mehdi Benatia. The former transferred to Barcelona after Woodward spent an entire summer dallying on the deal with Arsenal, while the latter is still mulling over offers from around Europe. Hummels – always van Gaal’s first choice – is unlikely to leave Borussia Dortmund in the current window.
Strange, though, how the club has once again left execution of transfer planning to the very last moment, more than six months after former captain Nemanja Vidić announced his departure for Internazionale. In truth the club has known at least as long that Rio Ferdinand would not secure a new deal at Old Trafford. In aggregate, Rojo serves to highlight another omnishambles of a transfer strategy played out by Woodward and company this summer.
In between Vidić’s January announcement and the Premier League kick off last weekend David Moyes was sacked and van Gaal appointed, with seemingly little continuity in club strategy. True, the Dutchman signed off on more than £55 million worth of acquisitions in Ander Herrera and Luke Shaw, although those deals, instigated by Moyes, remained the sum total of United’s market activity this summer until Rojo’s arrival was announced by United and Sporting on Tuesday.
Not that United’s acquisition of Herrera and Shaw should pass without scrutiny either, the club having paid a significant premium for each. Or, to paraphrase former United right-back Gary Neville, Chelsea secured seasoned internationals Cesc Fabregas and Luis Fillipe for around £18 million less than the United pair.
Elsewhere, the outlook is less positive for Woodward, who is said to be acutely aware of the growing reputation he has gained for being outmanoeuvred in the transfer market. Not least because the former JP Morgan executive has talked such a good game, asking fans to “watch this space” while United “moves in the market” far more aggressively than in previous seasons. Supporters have watched, and waited, with less reward than the club requires.
van Gaal certainly remains an experienced defender short. After all, Rojo has played just three seasons in Europe and must quickly adapt to the rough and tumble of the Premier League. Moreover, the former Estudiantes defender is yet to complete more than 33 games in all competitions during any one campaign. It is likely to be a challenging first few months in England and a very steep learning curve.
Play he must though. After having lost four defenders in the summer – Ferdinand, Vidić, Alexander Büttner, and Patrice Evra – van Gaal has little choice but to risk his new man. Rant suspects few in United’s hierarchy will take responsibility for the abject failure in planning.
Meanwhile, in midfield the ease with which Swansea negotiated United’s triumvirate of Darren Fletcher, Juan Mata and Herrera last Saturday is a significant cause for concern. Mata was largely anonymous, first as United’s creative fulcrum in van Gaal’s 3-4-1-2 system, and then in a more conventional role behind Rooney in a Moyes-esque 4-4-1-1. Herrera was neat, but lacked real influence, while Fletcher, who excelled during the summer tour of the USA, was as rusty as one might expect a man to be after returning from two years out of the game.
United is seemingly no closer to sealing a deal for either Angel di Maria or Arturo Vidal. The former is available, although United’s is not the only game in town, with Paris Saint Germain attempting to construct a deal that circumvents Financial Fair Play regulations. The latter has long been considered by United’s hierarchy despite repeated denials behind the scenes.
The prevailing intelligence is that Woodward must land at least one superstar to bring United’s squad up to top four quality. On the evidence of Saturday’s performance the Reds are further short of Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal in the chase for Champions League places than feared. Failure to qualify for next season’s premier European competition is an option, but one that will cost United tens of millions in lost broadcast, matchday and sponsorship revenues.
More pertinent, however, is quite how the club finds itself in this position once again. After all, this was the summer of supposedly strong investment, with the club having deleveraged over the past four years, and more cash available to the new manager than at any time in recent history. This was the summer when all those regional sponsorship deals, Chevrolet’s millions, and broadcast rights combined to proffer United overwhelming financial muscle.
The £750 million kit manufacturing deal with adidas, announced in July, should have further embolden Woodward’s team. Not so it seems. In fact, not only has the scenario of hyper hyperinvestment failed to materialise, but the club enters the last days of a transfer window desperately chasing players in the most embarrassingly scattergun fashion. Whatever planning went into United’s summer strategy – for want of a better word – it has proven to be wholly inadequate.
The rub comes in May and not August, of course, although it takes not any foresight to predict some of the travails that van Gaal’s side faces in the coming months, no matter the Dutchman’s genius. His squad is light in central defence, central midfield and in wide areas, both of the attacking and defensive variety.
Meanwhile, the Glazer family announced last month it plans to sell another 12 million shares on the New York Stock Exchange, raising almost $200 million in revenue for Malcom Glazer’s six children. Nor will the sale precipitate a change in strategy, with the family retaining more than 80 per cent of the voting power having devised a dual class stock structure on IPO some two years ago.
Neither are the Glazers minded to remove Woodward from the equation – the man who has successfully executed on the Americans’ commercial vision. Woodward, to his core, remains a company man; a Glazer favourite.
It leaves United supporters little confidence that the new manager will hold a full complement of tools come 2 September. Boasting an unbalanced squad, short of world-class talent, and with his stars’ confidence seemingly absent, van Gaal faces one his greatest managerial challenges. Woodward the scorn of many.
Movement of the people. Or, in this case, Manchester United players. By the end of the summer up to 14 first team or fringe players could have left the club as Louis van Gaal and Ed Woodward embark on a major programme of squad restructuring. Whether the flip side of that coin, new signings, arrive before the summer transfer window shuts on 1 September is another question again.
Six United players have already left this summer: Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidić, Patrice Evra, Bebé, Alexander Büttner, and Ángelo Henríquez – the latter initially on loan with a purchase clause inserted – while Ryan Giggs has retired. Indeed, so many players are likely depart Old Trafford before the summer is out that United could, or could have, put out a decent side – one that Rant assumes would comfortably survive in the Premier League.
In a 4-3-3 formation, with room for substitutes…
Ben Amos, England, 24, Goalkeeper
The Macclesfield-born stopper has been with United since he joined the club aged 11 in 2001. Yet, in more than a decade at Old Trafford the England under-21 player has made just seven first team appearances – only one in the Premier League. Loan spells with Peterborough United, Molde, Oldham Athletic, Hull City and Carlisle United have brought 54 further games. With Amos’ contract running out in 2015, United will likely take a fee to move the player on this summer. 7 games, 0 goals
Rafael da Silva, Brazil, 24, Right-Back
The Brazilian was named by the Daily Mail as one of seven players whom van Gaal has earmarked to leave United this summer; perhaps the most surprising possible exit. The right-back has been with United since 2007, although form and injuries have repeatedly hampered the former Fluminense player’s progress. An outstanding campaign in 2012/13 was followed by a disappointing season under David Moyes. 159 games, 5 goals
Rio Ferdinand, England, 35, Central Defender (QPR)
In more than a decade at United Ferdinand secured almost every piece of silverware available, yet there was little other choice for United than to move the defender on this summer. Rather than retire Ferdinand moved to Queens Park Rangers in July – a humbling step down for one of Europe’s finest defenders, albeit one the Londoner has taken with good grace. Ferdinand may not be missed on the pitch, but his leadership certainly will be. 455 games, 8 goals
Nemanja Vidić, Serbia, 32, Central Defender (Internazionale)
Vidić is perhaps the most high-profile ‘victim’ of the Moyes era, with the Serbian rapidly seeking an exit before the full trauma of the Scot’s reign had even set in. It is, says United We Stand’s Andy Mitten, a decision he regrets. In eight years with United Vidić led the club to domestic and European glory – one of the finest defenders to have worn the red shirt. Injuries played a significant part in the Serbian’s reduced role in the period 2011-13 – a time in which Vidić considered leaving United. Yet, 2013/14 saw the defender restored to the side, and one of United’s better performers in a disastrous campaign. 300 games, 21 goals
Patrice Evra, France, 33, Left-Back (Juventus)
There have been few finer representatives of the club in modern times. In eight full seasons with United Evra played more than 40 games in all but one. For a period the Frenchman was probably the finest full-back in Europe; a great attacker, a fine defender, and a major contributor to United’s 2008 Champions League victory. In recent campaigns the defensive side of Evra’s game has suffered – most probably because the player’s stamina subsided as the miles clocked up. His contribution may have waned, but few will doubt his value to United over the years. Sorely missed in the dressing room. 379 games, 10 goals
Anderson, Brazil, 26, Central Midfield
Few players elicit as much debate among supporters as the errant Brazilian. For some, the ‘next Ronaldinho’ is waiting to burst forth, if only opportunities had been granted by Sir Alex in a more attacking role. Yet, Anderson so rarely impressed in any role – a short run of progress ended by another frustrating performance or perennial injury problems. In the end Anderson has more reason to look inward than to bad luck; injuries played their part, but a distinct lack of professionalism was a more important role in the former Gremio star’s downfall. 179 games, 9 goals
Marouane Fellaini, Belgium, 25, Central Midfield
Is there any more calamitous marker for the failed Moyes experiment than the Belgian? Strange player indeed – a midfielder who does not tackle, cannot pass, suffers for a chronic lack of pace, and exhibits a criminally poor first touch. Worse still, a player whose only redeeming feature – his height – is one that is so rarely needed at Old Trafford. United will move the midfielder on unless the trickle of suitors runs totally dry. It will cost millions though – a failure of Moyes’ direction, Woodward’s strategy, and horribly botched succession planning. 21 games, 0 goals
Ryan Giggs, Wales, 40, Winger/Central Midfield (Retired)
The Welshman’s retirement to take up an assistant manager’s post under van Gaal came as little surprise after more than two decades in the United first team. There are few superlatives left for the winger-turned-midfielder-turned-coach, who has won more silverware than any other player in the history of the club. Almost 1,000 games tells the story of Giggs’ longevity, dozens of major trophies that of his success. An outstanding player, a strong voice in the dressing room, and the turncoat who did more than most to undermine Moyes. Giggs won that battle – he now faces a new challenge to succeed in coaching. 963 games, 168 goals
Nani, Portugal, 27, Winger
Frustrating and brilliant, although not in equal measure. Nani has reportedly been earmarked for an exit by van Gaal, much as Sir Alex Ferguson had concluded prior to summer 2013. Inexplicably Moyes pushed for the player to be awarded a new contract, although the club’s executive was also happy to protect the Portuguese winger’s transfer value. Nani’s time at United should have yielded so much more because the former Sporting player has almost every tool available to the modern forward: pace, technique and an eye for goal. Consistency, or the lack thereof, and a distinct inability to read the game have consistently limited Nani’s contribution. 221 games, 41 goals
Javier Hernández, Mexico, 26, Striker
How did it come to this? The sprightly Mexican started life at United so brightly, scoring 20 goals in all competitions. Yet, he has never become a fixture in the United side, making just 15 starts in the Premier League over the past two seasons. Indeed, the striker’s stock has fallen to the point that the club is unlikely to command the stellar transfer fee mooted when Real Madrid considered a bid in summer 2012. With Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck at the club, and James Wilson progressing fast, Chicharito’s career will surely be better served elsewhere. 152 games, 59 goals
Wilfied Zaha, England, 21, Winger
The former Crystal Palace winder has made so little impression that it is tempting to wonder just what went wrong. After all, outstanding performances for the Selhurst Park outfit and – one hopes – adequate due diligence should have left United confident that the £15 million fee was well spent. Technically Zaha offers much: pace, the ability to beat a man, and a goalscoring instinct. Yet, the player’s inability to release the ball often breaks down attacks, even at reserve level, while there has been more than one assertion that the player’s attitude has not always been right. Talented, but a player unlikely to prosper in van Gaal’s prefered 3-4-1-2 formation. 4 games, 0 goals
And on the bench…
Alexander Büttner, Netherlands, 25, Left Back (Dynamo Moscow)
It took all of 30 minutes for the schooled to work out that Büttner had neither the talent nor potential to become a player of United’s normally high standards. The Dutchman was, even by Sir Alex’ erratic transfer record, a very poor choice to challenge Evra for a place in the United side. Surging runs could do little to mask a defensive nous that, with no little irony, served only to underline Evra’s enduring value. That United actually made a profit on Büttner’s sale will bring a smile to Old Trafford’s varied bean counters. 28 games, 2 goals
Bebé, Portugal, 24, Winger/Forward (Benfica)
One of the most mysterious, and possibly dubious, transfers in United’s history. Plucked from amateur football by Vitória de Guimarães, Bebé was flipped for a profit of more than £7 million inside two months and without playing a competitive fixture for the club. Much of revenue was snaffled by ‘super agent’ Jorges Mendes. Adding to the enigma – United hasn’t concluded a deal with Mendes in more than four years since Bebé joined. 7 games, 2 goals
Ángelo Henríquez, Chile, 20, Striker (Dinamo Zagreb)
The young Chilean joined United from Universidad de Chile with high hopes that quick feet and striker’s instinct would blossom at Old Trafford. He is yet to make a competitive appearances for the first team. Loan spells at Wigan Athletic and Real Zaragoza convinced few that the 20-year-old is ready to make it at Old Trafford. 0 games, 0 goals
Will Keane, England, 21, Striker
Outstanding at academy and then reserve level, it was Will and not Michael than most observers assumed would make it into the first team squad of the Keane brothers. Yet, injuries and unfortunate loan spells at Wigan and Queens Park Rangers have served only to hamper the young Englishman’s progress. The Stockport-born striker should make it in the game, but reportedly not at United, with van Gaal offering Keane a passage out of the club this summer. 1 games, 0 goals
Federico Macheda, Italian, 23, Striker (Cardiff City)
It is now five years since Macheda exploded into the consciousness, scoring against Aston Villa to secure victory in a crucial late season Premier League game. It was the high point of the Italian’s career. In the interviewing years injuries and attitude have restricted the striker’s development; disastrous loan spells at Sampdoria, Stuttgart, Doncaster Rovers and Queens Park Rangers did little to dispel the belief that Macheda would never make it at United. 36 games, 5 goals
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.
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.