Pitchside Europe

Man United have become the type of club they used to despise


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By November of 2010, after two years in which Alex Ferguson had sent a fair few barbs towards Manchester City about their spending, there seemed to be a shift in the former United manager's attitude. He was no longer speaking dismissively about "kamikaze" expenditure or how the blue half's "biggest triumph" was just getting players to come for the massive cash. He realised circumstances had changed.

"We know the kind of money they're spending," Ferguson said. "They've bought another five or six players in the summer and they'll keep doing that until they win something.

"You know that's going to be the way it is and you have to deal with it as it comes along. They're up there, and you can't wait until tomorrow when there's something there today."

There are now a number of ironies to that statement. Ferguson may have known the way it was going to be, but it's not like his own club dealt with it all that well. United did not change with those circumstances. The consequence is that they have just completed the type of window that was previously the sole preserve of City and Chelsea, and even surpassed them.

The Old Trafford club did not just bring in six players themselves (while still requiring even more). In order to do so, they had to spend more in a single window than any English club in history. The £150m gone out of United this summer exceeds the expenditure of City and Chelsea when they were at their most impatient. It was the activity of a club desperately scrabbling to make up huge ground, as with their neighbours over 2009 and 2010.

By contrast, the two petrodollar clubs have displayed relative prudence, completing the majority of their business quickly and quietly. They've won something, consolidated, and stopped spending quite like they used to.

It is a remarkable inversion, of the type that would have left Ferguson fuming.

It is also something of a lesson in the need for the kind of adaptation and evolution that the Scot himself used to revel in.

As regards the market and effect of it at the top end of the table, all of United's history and established practices counted for nought.

By contrast, they paid the price for the complacency of leaning on those traits - not to mention, of course, the Glazer ownership. It is a remarkably high price, as the transfer fees display.

To a degree, that complacency was understandable and inevitable from Ferguson himself, given he remained a winner right until the end.

It was less forgivable from United as an institution, even if it was an institution so singularly defined by their long-serving manager. Their structure has been shown as out-dated. They operated with none of the slickness in the market of City or Chelsea, whose technical directors facilitated longer-term planning. By contrast, United ultimately had to lean on deals through super-agent Jorge Mendes.

The point is that so much of that was avoidable. United could and should have bought better over the past four years. Despite Ferguson's own statements, the club ended up in the exact kind of situation he feared.

It also displays the normalising effect of cash in football, no matter how obscene or eye-opening it initially appears.

Now, no-one is arguing that clubs like City and Chelsea need more than new cash to establish themselves alongside the most historically successful clubs. Those accusations ring hollow.

It is now those two clubs who set the established practices, at least in terms of the market. The most sobering aspect is that neither Chelsea nor City even have to over-pay anymore. They have the mechanisms in place to get the best deals and do the best business.

The likes of United and Arsenal must catch up, or suffer more panic like at the end of this window.

None of this is defend the obscene levels of cash in elite football, or the manner in which these sides accumulated their money. It is merely the reality.

It is also the new reality for United, and what they must very quickly become adjusted to.

There's certainly no waiting until tomorrow now.

Miguel Delaney@MiguelDelaney

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