During Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign as Manchester United manager, he was applauded for his ability to modernise, tweak and overhaul his squad to continue along the winning trail. But since his departure, it could be argued that United have failed to stitch together even one squad fit to compare with any of his best at Old Trafford – with their recruitment strategy at the heart of the problem.
United’s era of dominance ended as soon as the Scot left Carrington for the final time, with the club evidently needing to rebuild from the ground up as Ferguson’s genius was laid bare for all to see. But ever since, United have tried to fast track their way back to the top, with little success.
The Glazers’ arrogance has meant spending big money on players and managers to try and appease fans, but the lack of a coherent structure has led to a club who are stagnating.
The likes of Liverpool, Tottenham and Arsenal have rebuilt, but the Glazers thought they could get away with it and skipped the steps necessary to return to the top.
It all started with David Moyes; from Toni Kroos, Cesc Fàbregas, Leighton Baines and Gareth Bale – United failed to sign any of them, culminating in a £30m move for Everton’s Marouane Fellaini on deadline day. The Belgian was hardly a bad player by any stretch, but not the superstar Moyes had longed for and set the bar for lacklustre United signings.
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That January, Juan Mata became the first player to ever move from Chelsea to Manchester United and has certainly given plenty down the years.
From a variety of positions, the Spaniard has provided 98 goal involvements from 283 appearances at the time of writing – but has played just 65 times since receiving a two-year contract extension in 2019, with only ten of those appearances following another extension last summer.
Many players have hung around like a bad smell at Old Trafford down the years – both pre and post-Fergie – and while Mata is a thoroughly good man and was a brilliant player, bonkers renewals are a huge reason for their current plight. Phil Jones and Andreas Pereira still have a year left, for crying out loud!
While Mata stayed Moyes certainly didn’t, sacked in 2014 and replaced by Louis Van Gaal – a dutch gaffer with a globetrotting CV and trophies from up and down the land. He brought stability, delivered the FA Cup and gave chances to plenty of young players – but one thing continued at United: poor recruitment.
Ander Herrera and Marcos Rojo arrived for a combined £52m but both eventually left for nothing – the latter after agreeing a three-year extension in 2018, and the former after failing to agree terms on a new deal a year after.
They were joined by Luke Shaw whose £34m move made him the most expensive teenager in football history, but persistent injuries mean he has been unable to live up to his early promise.
The big deal that summer (United have typically made one each year) was for Argentine Angel Dí Maria, with Van Gaal fond of skilful match-winners in the final third to make the difference and complement his defensive solidity – but Dí Maria couldn’t provide that spark.
Shifted from position to position, the former Benfica man failed to establish himself in any one role in a largely dysfunctional United side, with his struggles on the pitch being matched by those off it.
He left just a year later for PSG for £56m – just over £11m less than what he had cost the Red Devils in the first place. And it is at this point, I’d like to bring in United’s nearest competitors.
Liverpool and Manchester City have established one of the great Premier League rivalries over the previous half-a-decade, with City proving how important their structure below playing level is, with Liverpool meticulously stitching together a wonderful side over several transfer windows – two things United, simply, haven’t done.
In the 15/16 window, Anthony Martial was the main buy – a staggering £54m on the Monaco forward who arrived to much fanfare, but has ultimately disappointed.
That same summer, City and Liverpool signed Kevin De Bruyne and Roberto Firmino – two players who still play major roles now, while Martial is out on loan and looks set to leave for good this summer. Teams around United built well (not without their own transfer howlers, of course), but with a clear idea and strategy.
Obviously, some players work well in certain systems; there is no guarantee Diogo Jota or Bernando Silva would have delivered the sizable impact they have done in England at any other club – never mind United. But that is where a lack of structure has truly let the club down.
Morgan Schneiderlin, Memphis Depay, Mateo Darmian and Bastien Schweinsteiger made up the rest of their summer mercato for an eye-watering £85.5m, but all flopped and moved on for only £37m.
Van Gaal was duly sacked at the end of 15/16 following the club’s first FA Cup triumph in over a decade and a return to the Champions League. As LVG does, he paved the way and laid the foundations for another coach to come in, with José Mourinho taking the hot seat.
This, naturally, led to a big summer spend, as Mourinho brought in Henrikh Mkyitaryan (more on him later), Eric Bailly and Zlatan Ibrahimović.
Not the strangest summer business by any means, with Mkyitaryan one of Europe’s most sought after playmakers at the time, Bailly an up-and-coming centre back with terrific physical attributes, while Zlatan brought bags of experience and quality.
The Swede moved for free while the other two cost £38m and £34m respectively, but that summer’s big deal still divides football fans to this day.
Paul Pogba made a dramatic return to Manchester United four years after leaving for free, with his homecoming joined by a then-world-record £94.5m fee.
The tag lasted only a year before Neymar’s move to PSG, but it has still hung over the Frenchman ever since he first returned to Carrington and as his contract ticks down, the fact United coughed up such a sum looks even more ridiculous by the day.
Everyone will have their own thoughts on Pogba, but no matter what system, shape, manager or teammates are around him, it just won’t work at Old Trafford.
The fact he is ‘one of the best in the world’ on his day, or ‘naturally gifted’ is wholly irrelevant – he cost nearly £100m, and for that United needed to sign a player who would have the facilities to perform. Pogba, for my money, will add plenty to a very good team, but isn’t the type to drag a team like United through the tough times.
Bailly – like Pogba – remains at United, but has played just 113 games in six years while missing 93 through injury and also appears to be running out of time to make his mark at the club (despite ludicrous contract extensions in 2020 and 2021).
Zlatan was a success though and his goals helped carry Mourinho to a League Cup and Europa League winners medal, but their 2017/18 summer dealings also largely failed to catch the eye.
Victor Lindelöf was brought in for £31.5m – becoming the fourth centre-back in as many years to join for £15m+. He has proved to be generally solid for United if unremarkable but could be utilised by incoming coach Erik Ten Hag.
Romelu Lukaku was that summer’s marquee acquisition; a beast of a centre-forward who thrives on good service, married with the ability to burst off the shoulder of the last defender. But that just didn’t happen enough at United beyond his opening games, as Lukaku’s ‘flat-track bully’ tag returned and as his confidence dropped, the river ran dry.
No doubt he could have done more, but United spent a lot of money, knew what they were getting for that and failed to build around him – much like a certain Frenchman.
Nemanja Matić followed in Mata and Lukaku’s footsteps into United’s former Chelsea club to the tune of £40m – a move labelled as a masterstroke at the time but one which failed to deliver any trophies. The Serb feels again like a player who – given the right structure – would have been a very important cog in a good side, but has just been another piece of a very underwhelming puzzle.
Having said all this, United sat second on New Year’s Day and went on to do what United did so well for many years: sign the best in class. Andy Cole, Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez, Robin van Persie, etc – the list goes on, with Alexis Sánchez becoming the latest name etched onto it.
His deal to join the club saw Mkhitaryan go the other way to Arsenal, meaning the Chilean didn’t demand a ‘transfer fee’, but cost the club over £11m in signing on and agent fees – all while they agreed to pay him a staggering £500,000-per-week, making him the best-paid player these shores had ever known.
That might have been acceptable if he had helped to bridge the gap between United and Manchester City, but that was far from the case. Five goals from 45 games represented the worst form of Sanchez’s career, with his time in Manchester best summarised by the outrageous fact that he set United back £29,000 per touch of the ball.
Meanwhile, Liverpool and Manchester City were signing Virgil Van Dijk and Aymeric Laporte – both of whom have become colossal centre-backs in title-winning sides, all before Sánchez left for nothing. By season’s end, Mourinho finished 2nd but a chasmous 19 points behind Manchester City.
Some felt (including the man himself) that it was a seismic effort considering the large roles players like Chris Smalling, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia played, but really it should have been the minimum expectation following his £350m transfer outlay. Many believed Mourinho’s ship would now set sail for a Premier League assault, but the gaping holes below deck had other ideas.
That summer saw only Fred and Diogo Dalot come in, the former an industrious central midfielder who had impressed for Shakhtar Donetsk in Europe, with the latter an up-and-coming full-back who could play on either flank but one whose age perhaps meant he wouldn’t make an instant impact.
Both still ply their trade at the Theatre of Dreams, with Fred enjoying another quietly good season, but still not one to repay his gargantuan fee.
Dalot was more risk-averse at £19m and despite rocky periods, now appears to be showcasing what he could bring to United. But while he may become a rare success story to come from a litany of poor buys, City and Liverpool continued to strengthen through the additions of Riyad Mahrez, Alisson and Fabinho.
Mourinho was sacked before the year was out and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took the reins, turning United’s fortunes around to earn a chance at the top job.
He attempted to change the culture, buy younger players and begin to build a British core – with his £80m pursuit of Harry Maguire perhaps the most infamous transfer of the post-Fergie era.
At the time, Maguire’s stock was pretty high; he’d enjoyed a fairytale rise from the streets of Sheffield to a World Cup semi-final with England, before enjoying another good season with Leicester after the tournament.
It was all enough to convince OGS to make him the heartbeat of his new-look backline and the most expensive defender in world football – but at that price, he was doomed to fail if others around him went the same way.
The pressure was naively ramped up by the Norwegian as he chose Maguire as his new captain only six months after his arrival.
In reality, Maguire could have played a handy part in a United rebuild as a good and, crucially, available defensive option who could be steadily replaced as the club improved (akin to Joe Gomez perhaps). But the price and newfound responsibility meant he would need to carry more pressure than he could bear.
Despite this, he enjoyed a personally very strong 20/21 as an ever-present at the back, but Maguire’s form has nosedived this season; from fans praying he would be fit for the 2021 Europa League Final, to celebrating his inclusion on the United bench for a recent bout with Arsenal. It’s not over for him, but the road back could be long and treacherous.
Just to the right of Maguire, a different big-money buy has seemingly gotten away with only a fraction of the criticism. Aaron Wan-Bissaka has been muscled out of the team without much of a fight, with Dalot’s potential rebirth coming at the expense of a £45m footballer who, yet again, seemingly fails to suit United.
As a team who will look to dominate possession, AWB offers so little bar his obvious ability in 1vs1 situations – hardly the hallmark of a modern-day full-back who cost fractionally less than João Cancelo, and markedly more than Andy Robertson. Poor coaching hasn’t helped, but ETH will surely prefer Dalot on the right.
Dan James’ £15m arrival signified better thinking for United with a relatively low-risk deal, and while the Welshman proved not to be at the standard required he became the first player signed after SAF to be flipped for a profit by the club when he departed for Leeds – showing again why shopping in a cheaper and younger market often bears more fruit.
They were heavily linked with landing Bruno Fernandes in the summer too, but United baulked at his valuation when the sun shone before a fairly desperate winter saw the club as far down as 12th at one point and in need of a spark – with Solskjaer begrudgingly parting with £56.7m to get it.
Bruno’s impact was instant; fifteen goal involvements from his first fourteen Premier League games and twenty from twenty-two in all competitions was indicative of a player taking to English football like a duck to water – dragging United kicking and screaming to a 3rd place finish.
A further 68 goals and assists from the next 100 games also goes along with that, but more questions have been asked this season, as when Fernandes hasn’t gotten involved in goals, he perhaps hasn’t been all too useful for United.
Despite this, he agreed a new four-year contract at the start of April in a move which appeared to sum up the mismanagement at the club.
With a temporary manager in the dugout, United have gambled that the next gaffer (now confirmed as Erik Ten Hag) will look to utilise Fernandes or that his relatively lacklustre form and petulance will clear up.
At least one if not both of those things are likely to happen, but all these years on, United still don’t appear to be learning many lessons when it comes to contracts.
With Champions League football only decided on the final day, the summer of 2020 certainly wasn’t a time for United to rest on their laurels or become intertwined in any long-running transfer sagas – but that’s exactly what they did.
Jadon Sancho was United’s number one target, but a protracted tug-of-war ended in the club resisting Borussia Dortmund’s £100+ valuation – bringing a strange change of tact.
Instead of going after a backup option, the Red Devils scrapped their plans to sign a winger altogether. How can you be so desperate to add a winger to your squad, push so hard and then give up on the idea entirely? It boggles the mind.
Instead, they acquired Donny Van de Beek from Ajax for £35m – a deal which seemed strange at the time as United already had Bruno and were unlikely to sit the Dutchman any deeper. It resulted in just 27 league appearances at an average of 21 minutes per game, before he joined Everton on loan this January.
Alex Telles and Edison Cavani followed on Deadline Day, the latter six weeks after being made a free agent – leaving many United fans to wonder why a deal to sign the former Napoli man was done so late?
By then, he had already missed the opening games of the season and didn’t make his first league start until December 29th – but his 23-goal involvements during 20/21 certainly proves it was worthwhile, even if his second and final season wasn’t as fruitful.
The former has proved an average deputy at full-back when called upon for around £13m, but isn’t nearly as suited to an Erik Ten Hag system as Luke Shaw (providing he stays fit under the incoming manager).
Facundo Pellistri and later Amad Diallo were signed for the future, costing the Mancunians £7m and £20m respectively (with Diallo’s fee having the potential to rise to closer to £35m).
Both have endured tough loan spells away from Old Trafford this season, but have more than enough time on their side to make an impact – so long as they gain experience through better temporary moves.
That brings us to modern-day United; 50 players had come through the famed Old Trafford doors since Cristiano Ronaldo left them for the final time in 2009, but thirteen years later he returned to spearhead a United side firmly aiming for the league’s summit.
The five-time Ballon d’Or winner has divided opinion since his return, and there is certainly precedent to suggest Ronaldo would have been better suited to being the cherry on top rather than having to perform as every other layer in the cake.
It’s short-term, he brings politics and isn’t suited to the pressing game United want – but he is still an unbelievable goal scorer.
Ten Hag’s options appear to be: try and teach an old dog new tricks which could stifle his impact on games, tell Ronaldo he won’t play every minute of every game and watch the media go into meltdown, or move him on – raising questions about how a clearly beleaguered club can allow such a player to depart.
It’s not easy, and only time will tell how beneficial his return has really been – despite his elite scoring numbers and countless specials since returning.
Along with Ronaldo, they finally landed Jadon Sancho for £76.5m and Raphaël Varane for £36m, with both showing good signs during their maiden campaigns and with the promise of more to come with less chaos erupting around them.
All of this upheaval has resulted in another disappointing season though, and one which feels different to the other post-Fergie letdowns.
They started well and enjoyed a good looking window on paper, but have been humiliated by Watford, Manchester City, Young Boys and Liverpool twice, sacked a club legend as manager and instead of battling it out at the top of the league, find themself marooned down in 6th place.
So much has gone wrong at United but their inability to build a squad has been most prevalent. Following their 4-0 humiliation at the hands of Everton in 2019, Ole claimed, “I’m going to be successful here – there are players who won’t be part of that.”
But five of the players who started in 2019 did so again in 2022, with five of the substitutes also involved in both games while another three of the 4-0 humiliation still lurk on United’s books. The likes of Romelu Lukaku, Jesse Lingard (on loan) and Chris Smalling have all left, but found plenty of form at pastures new.
Spending £30m+ on footballers has become common place – with 15 players matching or surpassing that tag since 2014, with only a couple of them working out.
Ed Woodward (United’s infamous Chief Executive) will depart this season, but the mess he has left at Old Trafford will linger for the foreseeable as they will surely now look to rebuild.
It’s still to be seen how Ten Hag’s side will play, but one imagines they will look to dominate the ball and aggressively move it up the field, with great onus placed on fluidity between the backline and midfield, overlapping runs, quick interchanges around the opposition box and counter-pressing – some themes of his current Ajax side.
This could be good news for the likes of Harry Maguire (assuming the captaincy is also passed on), Luke Shaw, Donny Van de Beek, Jadon Sancho and Fred for example, while it could spell trouble for Aaron Wan-Bissaka, David De Gea and even Cristiano Ronaldo.
It will all come down to whether United have the patience to allow Ten Hag to potentially go a step or two back, with the promise of flying five or six forward.
Since 2013, Manchester United have spent £1.21bn on signings, recouped £370m from sales and watched as nine signings who cost the club north of £300m, walk out the door for nothing (if you include this summer’s likely departures).
These numbers are staggering, with just three major trophies to show for such an unprecedented outlay – meaning that when players leave for nothing following lengthy service (Mata, Pogba, Matić etc), it’s hard to truly justify the prices they paid for them only for them to wind up back where they were during the Moyes era.
Erik Ten Hag has got an incredibly exciting opportunity at the helm of one of the biggest clubs in world football – but it is fast becoming a poison chalice, where time is at a premium and setbacks are par for the course.
By: James Pendleton / @Jpends_
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Popperfoto