Mourinho moans but recruitment not money is where United’s problems lie
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.
"Mourinho’s assertion that the £300 million he has spent since taking the United job is “not enough” is easy to mock."
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.
"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."
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.
|Marouane Fellaini||£29m||Trusted by Moyes, Van Gaal and Mourinho, but not the fans. Intermittent success, such as the 2017 Europea League final, but overwhelmingly average. Out of contract in 2018.||4/10|
|Juan Mata||£40m||Moyes' mid-season purchase. Rarely played in his favoured position at #10 or succeeded when afforded the opportunity. The club's most naturally creative player, but his strong goals and assists record has weakened this season.||7/10|
|Falcao||£7m||Spent a disastrous season at Old Trafford having never truly recovered his fitness after suffering an ACL injury at Monaco. Yet, almost 50 goals over the past two seasons represents something of a late renaissance in the player's career.||1/10|
|Daley Blind||£15m||The Dutchman has appeared at left-back, in central defence and in midfield for United without ever commanding a guaranteed first-team spot. Now on the fringes under Mourinho, he is likely to be sold next summer.||5/10|
|Marcos Rojo||£18m||The Argentine has recovered strongly from last season's serious knee injury, but the old inconsistencies remain. Better in the centre of defence than at left-back, but hardly the player to take United back to the top of the Premier League.||6/10|
|Ander Herrera||£32m||Last season's Player of the Year having been transformed from an attacking into more a defence-minded midfielder under Mourinho. Yet, that transition has seemingly come at the cost of the player's attacking instincts. Now more on the sidelines than the pitch.||6/10|
|Luke Shaw||£33m||There have been fleeting moments when Shaw has demonstrated the qualities that encouraged United to pay more than £30 million for the defender. Too often injury, lack of fitness and little of his manager's trust has become a barrier to progress. The club is actively seeking to offload the player.||3/10|
|Ángel Di María||£67m||One calamitous season at Old Trafford. The former Real Madrid winger began life in exciting fashion, but soon lost his confidence and desire. It was no surprise when United took a fee from PSG for the player, despite the large cash loss.||2/10|
|Bastian Schweinsteiger||£8m||Once a great midfield, but came to United well past his peak. A natural leader, good at pointing and an all-round good bloke, but Mourinho quickly decided that the German played no part in his plans.||4/10|
|Matteo Darmian||£16m||A remarkably average player whose mediocre and inconsistent defensive displays only just out-rank his ineffective attacking.||5/10|
|Sergio Romero||£Free||Romero is a strong back-up to David de Gea, although nowhere near as good as some of his supporters like to make out. Considering a move away from Old Trafford given his lack of playing time.||6/10|
|Memphis Depay||£30m||The Dutchman was a talented as it comes when he arrived at Old Trafford, but quickly found that being a small fish in a big pond is an unforgiving existence. Rarely enjoyed as much of the ball as he did in Holland and the numbers suffered as a result. Enjoying a strong second campaign in France.||5/10|
|Morgan Schneiderlin||£31m||Many voiced their doubts over Schneiderlin's quality when he arrived at United for around £30 million. It proved to be prescient about a player whose better work is going forward than the defensive role Van Gaal asked him to play.||5/10|
|Anthony Martial||£54m||The 20-year-old has outrageous talent, albeit it with inconsistent results and performances. Probably better through the middle, but also dangerous cutting in from wide areas. Yet, Mourinho is yet to fully trust the Frenchman and rumours persist that the manager is willing to offload a fan favourite.||7/10|
|Eric Bailly||£34m||It is concerning that Bailly's two seasons at Old Trafford have each been marked by serious injury. The defender has much to offer, but not if he spends most of his time in the treatment room and not on the pitch.||7/10|
|Zlatan Ibrahimovic||£Free||He's a lion, not a man, but after scoring 28 goals last season, Zlatan is struggling to hit the ground running following a serious knee injury. Time is not on his side and the Swede is unlikely to be offered a deal for a third season at United.||8/10|
|Henrikh Mkhitaryan||£37m||The Armenian garnered five assists in the season's early games, but that proved to be a false dawn. Mourinho has never fully trusted the former Borussia Dortmund player and the word-on-the-street is that the club is willing to take a fee for the player.||5/10|
|Paul Pogba||£94m||The club's best player by some distance - an outstanding attacking talent, imposing and confident. The poor press afforded the Frenchman last season had more to do with generating clicks than it did with the truth. Has improved once again this season.||8/10|
|Victor Lindelöf||£31m||Has struggled to adapt to life at United. Not the first, probably not the last young player to suffer that problem. Nerves haven't helped, but there remain serious doubts about whether United has truly recruited a top-class defender or not.||5/10|
|Nemanja Matic||£40m||The Serb has proven to be an astute purchase, offering much-needed quality in the defensive midfield role. There are signs that the heavy schedule is starting to take its toll, but Matic remains a crucial part of Mourinho's plan.||8/10|
|Romelu Lukaku||£76m||The Belgian's 15 goals have not come without criticism. The striker started the season well, but the old suspicion that he does not fare as well against the highest quality opposition has proven well-founded to date. Must also improve on his first touch and all-round game if he is to succeed in leading United to the promised land of national and European glory.||7/10|
*All data sourced from Transfermarkt.co.uk