Players come, players go, Manchester United stay stuck
Barcelona’s 4-0 aggregate win over Manchester United in the quarter-finals of the Champions League left little doubt about the gulf in quality between the two European heavyweights. United, under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, were all but out of the competition within the first 20 minutes of action in Camp Nou. With Barcelona barely breaking sweat in the 3-0 home win, the game was a testament to the fallen standards at a post-Ferguson United.
In his press conference in Barcelona, Solskjaer made no secret of his plans to rebuild the squad this summer. “The next few years are going to be massive to get to the level that Barcelona and other teams are at,” he said. “We’ve got good players to work with and at the moment we’ve done really well to get to the quarters and challenge for top four, but we’ve got a rebuilding job.”
This is not unfamiliar territory for United. After David Moyes’ disastrous 2013-14 season in charge of United, the club went on a buying spree, bringing in Angel di Maria, Radamel Falcao, Ander Herrera, Daley Blind, Luke Shaw, Marcos Rojo, among others, and handing Moyes’ successor Louis van Gaal a competitive squad.
They had also secured the services of Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata in the two transfer windows prior to that. Van Gaal didn’t shy away from large-scale changes in the summer of 2015 either, signing Memphis Depay, Morgan Schneiderlin, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Anthony Martial, Sergio Romero and Matteo Darmian.
United failed to qualify for the Champions League that season and with the arrival of new manager Jose Mourinho, brought in Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Eric Bailly and Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the Portuguese’s first season; and Romelu Lukaku, Victor Lindelof, Nemanja Matic and Alexis Sanchez in the second.
That’s 22 major signings (leaving aside low-key purchases like Diogo Dalot or Lee Grant) in the last five years, with nothing really to show for it.
It has been a recurring, and for the club’s supporter, demoralizing theme at Old Trafford in the years after Ferguson’s retirement. Every underwhelming campaign has been followed by high activity on the transfer market but without much improvement in results. The club has spent close to €900 million in transfer since 2013. By comparison, this has been the quietest season for United post-Ferguson, with Fred being the only major signing.
The failings of this transfer policy can be gauged by the fact that very few of the post-Ferguson signings have managed to make themselves indispensable to the squad. In Tuesday’s second leg against Barcelona, for instance, only four of United’s starting XI—Pogba, Lindelof, Fred and Martial—had moved to the club after Ferguson’s retirement in 2013.
When asked about another summer of rebuilding at United, former Croatia and West Ham manager Slaven Bilic, now a pundit with BT Sport, made a pertinent point. “For six or seven years, Man United are spending money. They needed a centre-back, they spent money on Lindelof, Bailly. To be fair, are (Man City’s) Laporte, Otamendi better players than Lindelof and Bailly? Up front, they have Lukaku, Sanchez, Martial, Rashford. You can’t buy better players than those,” he said.
Bilic’s comments highlight the fact that while United have indeed been reinforcing the squad with quality players since 2013, many of their signings have appeared arbitrary. In 2013, the club spent the summer chasing signatures of Cesc Fabregas and Gareth Bale, as Moyes recently admitted during an appearance in BeIN Sports, only to end up with Fellaini as the sole summer signing.
A year later, the club brought Di Maria from Real Madrid having paid £60 million, an extravagant sum at the time, only to suffer a sizeable loss while selling him to Paris Saint-Germain after a season. Sanchez’s acquisition appears similar in nature, with the club paying the player an unusually high salary once he became available on the market. He is unlikely to stay beyond this season.
The club has been involved in long-drawn negotiations for players, as in the case of Herrera, but there have been failures in securing key transfer targets—Toni Kroos in 2014 and a centre-back last summer.
In contrast, Liverpool waited for prime target Virgil van Dijk after failing to land him in the summer of 2017, signing him in early 2018.
They also reinforced key areas of the squad without being involved in bidding battles for high-cost players. Today’s United seem to be in dire need of a direction and structure when it comes to player recruitment.
Appointing a Director of Football and establishing a recruitment structure could be a start. Unlike in Ferguson’s era, managers across the world are being backed by specialised divisions dealing in transfers. It is perhaps time for United to do away with the old-school structure and follow a route that rivals Man City, Chelsea and Liverpool have taken with varying levels of success.
The club faces a key summer in front of it. In the last few weeks, United have been linked with moves for Borussia Dortmund winger Jadon Sancho, Napoli centre-back Kalidou Kouibaly and Sporting Lisbon midfielder Bruno Fernandes, among others.
They are also expected to let go of a number of players, most notably Sanchez, Mata, Herrera, Rojo, Darmian, and Antonio Valencia.
But unless United free themselves from the trap of an ambiguous transfer strategy, Solskjaer’s ‘rebuilding job’ could turn into another summer of profligate spending.