Manchester United go into the new Premier League season bidding to topple bitter rivals Manchester City and wrestle back control of the title. To my knowledge at least, this current side assembled by manager Sir Alex Ferguson is far removed from the vintages of yesteryear, and you have to really question his transfer record over the last five years.
This isn’t going to be an in-depth analysis of the heavily-criticised and quite rightly vilified ownership of the club by the Glazer family – everyone knows the constraints and leveraged debt that the club have to work with these days, more of a closer look at Ferguson’s transfer choices given the resources at his disposal.
Since 2007-8, the club have spent in the region of £198m on 26 players, while Paul Scholes came out of retirement for a hugely successful second spell during the latter part of last season. The club recouped roughly £151m from the sale of 29 players not including those released by the club. That’s a net spend of £47m, but which was boosted significantly by the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid for £80m in 2009-10, all of which was paid as one huge lump sum up front in what represents an excellent piece of negotiating on the club’s behalf.
They can hardly plead poverty, as the money has clearly been there to spend, perhaps not quite as freely as prior to the Glazer takeover, but their net spend is somewhat distorted by the Cristiano Ronaldo departure. But have the deals been the right ones that the club have needed to compete?
The 2007-8 side was the last genuinely world-class side that Manchester United had; balanced, destructive and tactically aware, they went on to clinch both the Champions League and the Premier League titles, pipping an expensively-assembled Chelsea side to both in the process. That side would walk the league this year.
This also marked the final season during which Owen Hargreaves was a regular and he’s never been properly replaced at the club, and the squad still require a recognised holding man of continental quality a full five years on. Hargreaves’ abilities reached almost mythical status in his long-term absence and there was certainly a point where he was being hugely overrated from an individual perspective by many observers, but that doesn’t take away how important he was to the collective.
Anderson also arrived the same summer as the England midfielder for £17m from Porto and five years on, he’s done little of note at Old Trafford, the odd six-game run of good form aside. Much in the same way as Liverpool fans are mocked for saying ‘next year will be our year’, so are Anderson fans for their continued support of an unfulfilled talent. Seemingly incapable of staying fit for longer than two minutes, he will undoubtedly go down as a flop and it’s somewhat bizarre that more attention isn’t paid to his subsequent lack of success.
Dimitar Berbatov is another that will ultimately go down as something of a failure, and another expensive one at that, moving to the club from Tottenham on transfer deadline day back in 2008-9 for £30.75m, becoming Ferguson’s most expensive purchase ever. In footballing terms, he’s flickered but never like was initially hoped and routinely failed in big games and in Europe as the club slowly but surely slipped from the pinnacle of the European game.
Ashley Young was signed last summer despite the club already having two more than capable wingers at the club in Antonio Valencia and Nani. It seemed like a purchase brought on by sheer indulgence rather than one motivated at addressing the team’s needs. I can’t think of a single United fan that was thrilled by his £17m switch from Aston Villa, and despite a bright start to last season, he faded terribly and he’s far from a fan favourite.
Chris Smalling and Phil Jones were bought over the course of six months for a combined fee of £27m. Long gone has the era of the club producing their own talent, instead they source in expensively the best of what the top flight has to offer. Smalling is an exceptional player already and Jones could potentially one day match his already lofty reputation, but both were bought to stop their rivals having them as opposed to any overriding need for them in the squad at the time.
The departures of Wes Brown and John O’Shea and the injury struggles of Rafael, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic have afforded them more first-team opportunities than they may otherwise have been given. When the squad is at full strength, both would struggle to get in the starting eleven.
Then there is of course Bebe, signed on the recommendation of former assistant Carlos Queiroz, the ludicrous fee of £7.4m paid just a few months after having touted around from a fraction of that means it has to be placed in the annuls of history alongside the sheer lunacy of the £35m forked out for Andy Carroll and £50 paid for Fernando Torres considering the context surroudning the deal. They’d be lucky to get even half that for him now. Gabriel Obertan, Mame Diouf and Manucho will all go down as missteps too.
In the interests of fairness, though, it’s worth pointing out that the club did decent business in securing the signatures of Javier Hernandez, Antonio Valencia, Nani and David De Gea during that period. So far this summer too, the signings of Shinji Kagawa and Nick Powell both bode well for the future.
The problems and imbalances within the squad are bordering on the systemic now – the need for replacements for each of Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville and Owen Hargreaves are still to be sufficiently addressed. The club have lacked a first-choice right back since Wes Brown in 2009 and Scholes coming out of retirement may have been a success in the short-term, but it only served to highlight the club’s continued reliance on a 37 year-old and it’s bordering on the embarrassing now.
The trappings of success has seen them win three league titles, one Champions League and one League Cup in the period since 2007-8, but it’s also seen the squad become nowhere near as strong as in years gone by. Taped together by a mixture of experienced players and youngsters, it folded under the pressure last term without their hugely-missed skipper Vidic marshalling the side from the heart of defence.
Ferguson’s purchases in the last five years have by and large been expensive failures, needless indulgences or panic buys. This summer’s business is a step in the right direction, but the club still lack a driving presence from midfield massively. Winning trophies means you essentially ‘earn’ the benefit of the doubt and until now, they haven’t been closely scrutinised, but the best manager in the top flight’s history needs to stop ignoring the problems before his very eyes otherwise the club’s fans may have to get used to seeing their noisy neighbours pip them to the post.
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