Competence returns to Old Trafford as United’s summer sanity pays dividends

If Barcelona and Real Madrid are the biggest names in world football these days, Manchester United can’t be much further down the list. And yet, in the most hyped day in the footballing calendar, the Old Trafford club was conspicuous by its silence.

Transfer deadline day is usually awash with stories from around the Premier League, filling airtime and webpages with gossip and rumour. And when there’s a club as big as United, who are followed by so many fans and, crucially, so many clicks, you’d expect there to be stories. The added extra for United stories is the allure of Jose Mourinho, too: if there’s ever a match made in heaven for creators of content, it’s the Manchester club and their Portuguese coach.

But instead, United got their business done early. No incomings made their way into Carrington for a medical, nor were there any last-minute deals including faulty fax machines. All was fairly quiet.

And unless you’re a newspaper editor, you would surely consider that a good thing. If you’re a Manchester United fan, you’ll consider it a great thing.

Since the departure of Alex Ferguson in 2013, United have exuded everything but competence. The arrival of David Moyes; the bungled capture of Marouane Fellaini, paying more than his release clause; the sacking of Louis van Gaal minutes after he lifted the FA Cup aloft; the countless failed big-name transfers; the list goes on. Even last season’s abysmal league form, coupled with the continuation of the turgid football offered up under Van Gaal, was enough to make United seem poorly run by itself.

This summer has been different, though, and it has smacked of competence, perhaps for the first time since Ferguson’s retirement.

They did their business early, which isn’t necessarily a sign of success at all. They may have made their signings before the deadline, but it doesn’t follow that they were the right signings. They could still turn out to be poor ones, and the accusations of incompetence will raise their heads again. But what it does show is that United identified where they needed to strengthen, they knew what they wanted, and they went out to get it quickly.

And they didn’t get all their targets. A left winger like Ivan Perisic didn’t arrive, for example. And perhaps a back-up striker wouldn’t have gone amiss, perhaps as evidenced by the re-signing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Though he’s hardly a terrible second choice to bring back.

But perhaps most crucially, United did bring all their signings in before the season started. They did it in good time so that the manager and his coaching staff were able to work with them in pre-season, integrating them into the squad and getting them up to full fitness. Again, the whole thing has a competence about it that hasn’t seemed in evidence over the last four years.

Only one team in the Premier League, Manchester City, spent more than United’s £146m this summer, but had they not managed to get their summer business over the line so quickly, then they may well have ended up paying wildly over the odds.

“I think Lukaku on August 31 would have been £150m. Matic would have been £60m or £70m. Neymar changed everything,” Mourinho told The Times. And whether or not the figures would have been correct, the general sentiment is certainly not one most will disagree with.

The clubs who did their business early and before everyone else didn’t just win because they had a better idea of what they wanted when the season finished, or because they brought in their first-choice targets, or even because they managed to get their new players in to enjoy a full pre-season with their new team. They also won the window in a very different sense, because they pre-empted the craziest market so far, paying normal prices before insanity started to reign.

Whether that translates into success on the pitch is impossible to tell, but so far United are the only team with a 100% record in the Premier League, which suggests they’re hitting an enviable early-season form which could well be down to how smoothly their summer went.

It’s unlike United to do things quietly these days, but their under-the-radar approach seems to be paying off.