[dropcap]J[/dropcap]osé Mourinho’s assertion that the £300 million he has spent since taking the Manchester United job in 2016 is “not enough” to compete in the Premier League is easy to mock. After all, he has been afford more investment in less than two full seasons than David Moyes or Louis van Gaal before him. More, indeed, than Sir Alex Ferguson over the Scots final few seasons at United. Yet, in the context of Manchester City’s generation of heavy spending, the Portuguese may well be right, though it hardly explains all United’s ills. How the club spends its money is far more of a challenge to bridging the gap to the rampant Blues.
Mourinho’s comments came after the Reds’ second draw inside a week; two games that once again exposed the frailties present in United’s squad almost five years since Ferguson’s retirement. The Reds were hugely disappointing in dropping points against Leicester City and Burnley, while the recent cup loss to Bristol City opened up yet more questions about the level of progress under Mourinho.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]Mourinho’s assertion that the £300 million he has spent since taking the United job is “not enough” is easy to mock.[/blockquote]
Inside Old Trafford Mourinho enjoys support, as did Moyes and Van Gaal before him. The atmosphere is far from as feted as the one that greeted the Dutchman two years ago when United lost four on the bounce in December. Yet, the doubts remain. Progress has come, with the team 10 points better off than at this stage than last season and Mourinho has also brought home two major trophies in his time at United.
But context, with City running away with the league, is king. United’s ascent is neither fast nor substantial enough for some, especially given that the club employs a manager who is both increasingly moody and and reluctant to ditch his ultra-negative tactics when it comes to the biggest games.
For his part, Mourinho blames the quality of his players and the level of investment sanctioned by the club for any failings. He is not one for introspection, although it is not a message that has received widespread support.
“It is not enough,” Mourinho argued after United’s draw with Burnley. “The price for the big clubs is different from the other clubs. So the big, historical clubs are normally punished in the market for that history. When you speak about big football clubs, you are speaking about the history of the club.”
It is, of course, precisely United’s size and history that attracts an army of sponsors and broadcasters to pour money into the club. Now generating more than £500 million in revenue each season, investment in players and wages has increased substantially since Ferguson’s departure. No longer as hamstrung by the vast debt laid on the club by the Glazer family, United was supposed to have spent its way out of trouble by now.
“One thing is a big club and another thing is a big football team,” adds Mourinho. “They are two different things. We are in the second year of trying to rebuild a football team that is not one of the best teams in the world. Manchester City buy full-backs for the price of strikers.”
Still, since Ferguson left in 2013 United has spent £700 million in the transfer market, a figure that is only City, Paris Saint Germain, Real Madrid and Barcelona have beaten in world football*. It leaves an obvious conclusion: that perhaps it is not United’s level of investment that is the greatest challenge, but the players acquired, the method used, and the managers appointed to get the most out of money spent.
Indeed, after two disastrous appointments in Moyes and Van Gaal – the first horribly out of his depth, the second fundamentally at odds with United’s “history” of attacking football – the club is paying a very heavy price to rebuild. On the pitch Moyes and Van Gaal, together withs executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, recruited 14 senior players at a gross cost of £385 million in transfer fees alone. There are none surviving that era who can be classified as an unequivocal success.
United’s summer of change in 2013 is still felt deeply, both the loss of Ferguson and CEO David Gill, and what came next. There were many words written about United’s transfer strategy in that summer, Moyes’ first in charge, but few of them were positive. The club’s propensity for generating ridicule was impressive, from the time the window opened in late May, to a touch over 100 days later when United over-spent to acquire Marouanne Fellaini.
In between there was a level of amateurish tomfoolery that left supporters’ overwhelmed with relief when the summer came to an end – that Woodward could cause embarrassment no longer. Strung along by Thiago Alcântara’s inevitable decision to join Bayern Munich, and humiliated by Cesc Fabregas’ manipulation of United’s interest, Woodward’s dash home from Australia in mid-July 2013 became the butt of a thousand memes – and heralded six weeks of maladroit bumbling.
United submitted barely credible bids for Fabregas, just after his Barcelona understudy Alcântara’s arrival in southern Germany. The club followed a similar strategy in its pursuit of Everton left-back Leighton Baines, lowballing offers that were quickly rebuffed. Woodward and United’s army of lawyers, agents and middlemen tried and failed to activate a buy-out clause in Ander Herrera’s contract, the Shakespearean farce ending in “imposters” visiting the Spanish FA to wrap up a non-existent deal. And the summer ended with a tsunami of reported bids for, among others, Daniele De Rossi, Fábio Coentrão and, as the player revealed, Sami Khedira. Juan Mata arrived the following January, but by then Moyes’ time was already winding down.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]It is to the agent-led approach that the club has turned. One that brings players through the door, but comes at a heavy price in terms of fees paid.[/blockquote]
Van Gaal stimulated a larger flurry of transfer activity, the Board backing the Dutchman in a fashion that Moyes never enjoyed. Ángel Di María, Luke Shaw, Ander Herrera, Marcos Rojo, Daley Blind and Falcao joined in a spend that totalled more than £160 million in 2014. The strategy changed too, with United ditching Woodward’s direct negotiation, and leveraging ‘super agent’ Jorge Mendes to land Di María, Rojo and Falcao.
Indeed, it is to the agent-led approach that the club has turned since, one that brings players through the door, but at a heavy price in terms of fees paid to Mendes, Mino Raiola, and others.
United’s structure has not evolved though. Where Ferguson’s albeit now outdated network of contacts and scouts was once the envy of many, United has become a pawn in other actors’ games. Down the road at City, the Blues have little compunction in voicing a belief that the club’s transfer policy is superior to United’s. After all, City employs a Director of Football in Txixi Begiristain who is well-connected in Europe and beyond. At Old Trafford, the manager has the final say, and agents take home big fees. Van Gaal and then Mourinho have each tried to shape the squad in their vision, with little connecting the dots between.
The transfer policy has brought little in the way of success. Van Gaal’s second season brought in Anthony Martial, Morgan Schneiderlin, Memphis Depay, Matteo Darmian, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sergio Romero. It says much that only three remain at the club, and only Martial has any legitimate claim on a place in the first team. Even then, the Frenchman’s vast talent is only intermittently employed.
Recruitment has improved under Mourinho, and despite the Portuguese’s protestations, he has been well-backed. The Reds turned once again to Raiola last summer, bringing in Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Eric Bailly and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Romelu Lukaku, Nemanja Matic and Victor Lindelöf have followed. That’s more than £300 million in backing, including potential add-ons and agent fees. There are millions more committed in wages. As of November, United had the third largest wage bill in Europe.
Yet, there’s a strong sense both that Mourinho is not getting the most out of his squad, or that the club enjoys the right structure to guarantee success should yet more millions be released for transfers. After all, for all Mourinho’s gruff moodiness, petulant inability to take responsibility for his own failings, the club probably ranks no better than a C+ for recruitment since Ferguson’s retirement. It’s a damming thought.
*All data sourced from Transfermarkt.co.uk