Pitchside Europe

Manchester United's identity departed long before Danny Welbeck


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“They have probably lost the way of Manchester United a little bit. Now, rather than produce, it may be the case where they are buying in. Someone like a Danny Welbeck has been part of United's identity and that has been broken. What will happen in the future now, nobody knows but that thread has been broken now."

Mike Phelan’s rather alarmist lament for a dying football identity attracted plenty of attention yesterday. He is no peripheral figure when it comes to the subject of United’s much-vaunted youth policy. Phil Neville succeeded him as United’s No. 23 when the Class of ’92 emerged and Phelan helped some of the leading members of that definitive generation enjoy success in the final years of their career as assistant manager to Sir Alex Ferguson.


His anguish – a romantic, sepia-tinged anguish – is understandable. Selling born-and-bred United fan Welbeck on the same day that the club completed a loan deal for Monaco’s Colombian striker Falcao, who will earn anything up to £346,000-per week depending on which report you read, seems loaded with meaning, and this coming after the same super-agent, Jorge Mendes, negotiated the British record £59.7m arrival of Angel Di Maria at Old Trafford.

But Phelan’s lament is for a Manchester United which no longer exists. The transformation, ostensibly, has been quick, with the club for the first time this summer embracing a ‘galactico’ policy which has seen them target the world’s very best players. But the deeper tectonic movements have been rumbling for some time.

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With a gleaming stadium producing huge matchday income, a list of commercial sponsors breath-taking in both its length and hilarity (Official Snack Partner - Mister Potato) and an existence as a Cayman Islands company listed on the New York Stock Exchange, United are every inch the modern super club, a global corporation.

This structural transformation has been in effect for years, and a new ambitious transfer policy is only the final manifestation of United’s evolution into a modern giant. The club – to borrow a now infamous phrase from Gary Neville – do not stand against the immediacy of modern life. They are apex predators in football’s economic ecosystem, and they now have a recruitment strategy to match that status.


With clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona trading on their own supremacy, summer after summer, to spend huge amounts on world-class players, United could not risk being left further behind. Phelan may have a point in saying United have abandoned the identity, forged by Busby and rebooted by Ferguson, which took them to the very peak of the European game. But the reality is that it could no longer sustain them.

Had the club produced another generation of young players with the diverse and unique abilities of talents such as Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and David Beckham then perhaps this evolution could have been deferred. But they have not. Darren Fletcher and Jonny Evans are the existing youth products who have had most impact on the first team, but their place in it is increasingly tenuous. More is expected of Adnan Januzaj of course.

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In truth, had the Glazers not hamstrung the club with huge interest payments, bank charges and fees which have cost United £700m since their loathed leveraged buyout in 2005, then the American dynasty would surely have sped up the process of purchasing players commensurate with United’s status in world football.


Instead, Cristiano Ronaldo was not sufficiently replaced in 2009 and it has only been in the past 12 months that United have really been shopping at the top of the market. The intervening years saw the quality of the squad deteriorate markedly. Shortcomings were masked by Ferguson’s brilliance as a manager but also allowed to fester by his and the Glazers' failure to make sufficient investment in the squad.

The atrophy of those years and the exacerbating factor of David Moyes’ deeply flawed reign has set United back years compared to the European super clubs who are their natural competition in football’s mega-moneyed elite. Relying on young, local products out of some sense of respect for tradition would only allow that gap to open even further. It simply isn’t an option for a club of United’s size.

Ferguson did not play Giggs, Beckham and Scholes just because they were young, he played them because they provided a means to an end: winning. The same was true of his nurturing of Ronaldo: it was not some pet project; making him the world’s most devastating forward delivered a Premier League and Champions League double in 2008.


Phelan’s take on United’s recent history is a bit misleading. Until the arrival of Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour, United were consistently the biggest spenders in English football, whether the players they signed were English, like Rio Ferdinand, or foreign, like Juan Sebastian Veron. Under Ferguson they never subscribed to the galactico model, but neither were they beholden to their academy.

Indeed, in the case of Paul Pogba, Ferguson even managed to lose one of Europe’s great young talents after preferring to play Rafael and Park Ji-Sung in midfield in a famous 3-2 loss to Blackburn in 2011 and later coaxing Paul Scholes out of retirement to further antagonise the young Frenchman.

The departure of Welbeck has deep resonance for United fans, and Phelan, because he was held to embody the United way, as a local lad made good. The symbolism of swapping a player who has been at United since childhood for one arriving on a hugely-lucrative year’s loan is also too compelling to ignore, speaking as it does to an increasing culture of short-termism at a club which replaced a manager who spent 27 years in charge with one who managed less than one season.

But just as the critical point with Moyes was that he was not up to United’s exacting standards, the most important factor at the club has always been if a player is good enough to improve the United team. With a centre-forward of the calibre of Falcao arriving, Welbeck no longer was.

Even Beckham, the most gilded of United graduates, recognised Van Gaal’s decision to sell Welbeck, though emotionally fraught for many, was laced with pragmatism.


“We always worry about the young talent coming through," he told the BBC. “I'm not a manager and won't be a manager in the near future but to see him leave Manchester United, it's sad. And with Danny being such a young kid and growing up at Manchester United - I think it's a great signing for Arsenal of course - but to see him leave is obviously sad to see. But obviously the manager knows what he is doing, he's doing what he feels best for Manchester United.”

Van Gaal’s work with young players has been extensively documented – from Seedorf and Kluivert at Ajax, via Xavi and Iniesta at Barcelona, to Mueller and Kroos at Bayern Munich – but if the Dutchman succeeding in convincing Borussia Dortmund to sell Matts Hummels in January, there would be few United fans bemoaning the impact on the career of Tyler Blackett.

Quality always comes first, and it always has. Phelan’s lament is directed at a Manchester United which no longer exists, and maybe, in the modern era, never has.

Tom Adams - @tomEurosport

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