Jim White

United’s transfer travails have deep roots

Jim White

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One thing that cannot be denied in the Premier League: Manchester United have spent money in the transfer market. The purchase of the excellent Argentinian defender Marcos Rojo from Sporting Lisbon for £16 million means the club will have forked out £46m this summer on left-backs alone.

The problem the club has is not so much that they are not spending. It is that they have spent poorly. United’s record in the transfer market over the past three or four years is by far the most woeful of any of the clubs with aspirations to win the title.

It has been the financial equivalent of chucking enough mud against the wall and hoping – against all available evidence – that some of it sticks.

Transfer activity is always an inexact science. A player who looks good in someone else’s shirt doesn’t always fit so well into yours. Every club in the leading pack has made errors.

Manchester City with Rodwell and Sinclair. Liverpool with Carroll and Downing. Tottenham with Lamela and Soldano. Arsenal with Podolski. Chelsea with Torres. But with United, the issue is much more stark. While other clubs have failed occasionally, United have only rarely succeeded.


Five years of poor buying have resulted in the position the club now finds itself: urgently requiring major investment if they are to make even the most remotely sustained pursuit of silverware.

It began, the United years of purchasing under-achievement, with the policy adopted by the great Sir Alex Ferguson. He had bought Cristiano Ronaldo for comparatively little and turned him into one of the best two players in the world, a superstar demanding of a world record transfer fee.


This was followed by the double coup of finding Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra lurking in Europe. Ferguson believed it was possible to adopt a similar approach to future recruitment: identify talent early, buy it reasonably cheaply and then school it on the training pitches of Carrington.

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One of these was a successful signing, the other not so much

It was a romantic notion, and one that appealed to the club’s owners, forever anxious to reinforce their bottom line. Buy ‘em cheap and build ‘em up, however, did not prove the most successful ploy.

David De Gea aside, it has resulted in the squad now being furred up with the adequate rather than the sensational. Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, the Da Silva twins, Javier Hernandez, Nani: reasonable players all, but none have turned into the kind of performer required to fill the void left by departing stalwarts like Vidic, Evra, Rio Ferdinand and Ryan Giggs.


Their removal from the squad list this summer has suddenly shown up the paucity of the recruitment drive, leaving a huge gap in the playing resources. And at the same time as the idea of developing young buys has failed to materialise as hoped, United have stepped back from making the kind of marquee signings that are routine in their senior rivals like Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Not to mention Chelsea and Manchester City.

In the decade since Wayne Rooney was bought for a record fee, United only extracted the chequebook to pick up two fully formed, expensive stars in the latter part of the Ferguson era. And while Robin van Persie was an unequivocal success, the failure of Dimitar Berbatov was one of the reasons Ferguson cited for his preference for schooling his own.

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Couple this with a habit of picking up players at significant cost who no-one could mistake for being world class and the reasons for the current thinness of the squad becomes apparent. Ashley Young, Shinji Kagawa, Antonio Valencia: none of them came cheap. But as yet none of them have offered up consistent, trophy-delivering performances.

One of the surprising gaps in a club of United’s scale that David Moyes noted when he took over as manager was the lack of science applied to the transfer system. While Barcelona employ some 18 people in their transfer research department, identifying suitable talent across the globe, United relied on Martin Ferguson, the manager’s brother, to deliver scouting reports from around Europe.

Certainly there was nothing in place to assist Moyes, whose own forays into the market were characterised by the panicky last-minute purchase this time last year of Marouane Fellaini. Though in truth it did not require a fully functioning research department to inform Moyes that Fellaini was not a Manchester United player. A fully functioning pair of eyes should have been sufficient.

So it is that United are now in a position where only swift, shrewd and decisive work in the transfer market can make them properly competitive in the division.

While Madrid have added Toni Kroos and James Rodriguez to a Champions League-winning squad this summer, United, led by their so far hapless chief executive Ed Woodward, have little room left to deliver such match-winning recruitment. And the fact that they have spent £46m on two players in the same position this close season suggests that they have yet to arrive at a coherent direction.

The truth is, for now the chant sung with such relish by Manchester City fans remains as pointed a take on United’s poor judgement in the market as any: “You’ve got Phil Jones, we’ve got Kun Aguero.” It is hard to argue with that.

- Jim White

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