Manchester United, a club that once reigned supreme in the Premier League, have seen their dominance cease to nothingness as their neighbours have grown from strength to strength.
United were a staggering 32 points adrift of Manchester City last campaign, failing to win a single trophy while the Citizens completed a domestic treble. Most concerningly, Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side ranked as the division’s 11th best defence.
In light of said decline, the manner in which United have identified a transfer strategy and begun its implementation has been equally refreshing and commendable. As the signings of Daniel James and Aaron Wan-Bissaka attest, and the potential signings of Harry Maguire, Sean Longstaff and even John McGinn to a lesser degree, United are prioritising promise and determination when seeking prospective transfers.
In the age of heightened and unparalleled inflation in the transfer market – evidenced by United’s decision to spend £50m on a player with a mere total of 42 Premier League appearances – the Red Devils will have to spend big to restructure their squad.
In a side strapped of resolve and clouded by ego, United are rightly seeking the services of tenacious and promising players.
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That said, we’ve been here before, haven’t we?
When United signed then 20-year-old Wilfried Zaha from Crystal Palace in 2013, Sir Alex Ferguson earmarked the Ivorian’s potential as a pivotal factor. Upon signing Zaha, the Manchester United great said, as per the BBC,
“We like to sign players with potential. We develop players and that’s been proven many times. Hopefully the boy enjoys it here.”
It’s incredibly difficult to imagine how the winger enjoyed a measly 167 minutes of football in the iconic red shirt of United. In fairness, Ferguson is entirely absolved from blame as Zaha joined the club after the manager had left the club. That said, he was entirely overlooked by David Moyes – earning his only four appearances for the club under the Scotsman – before joining Cardiff in January 2014 for the remainder of the campaign.
As Zaha said himself at the end of the 2013/14 season, David Moyes’ tendency to favour older, more experienced players, left the winger agitated on the sidelines.
He told the Sun (via ESPN), that the Scotsman didn’t trust him, a factor that Zaha considered valuable in Raheem Sterling’s rise at Liverpool, citing Brendan Rodgers’ faith in the young winger.
“I signed for Sir Alex Ferguson and expected him to be the manager. David Moyes arrived and obviously – in general – he had to play older players.
“For some games I was not even on the bench. That was tough, very frustrating. You need the manager to trust you and that was not the case.
“Raheem Sterling went through a tough period at Liverpool and there was talk of him going out on loan. But Brendan Rodgers trusted him and he was allowed to get that experience and pull through.”
If the skilful wideman was overlooked by Moyes, he was scarcely an afterthought for Van Gaal. The Dutchman dismissed Zaha almost instantly as the winger returned to Palace initially on loan, and then subsequently a permanent deal.
And yet, here we are, as United shift their transfer emphasis on signing propitious players, Zaha is touted with a mega-money move to Arsenal.
As the BBC report, Arsenal have submitted an opening offer of £40M for Wilfried Zaha, but Crystal Palace are seeking a fee of £80M to part ways with their star man. The irony is strikingly apparent: as United continue to pursue their list of promising players, one of their former promising stars could be on the cusp of a hefty move.
This isn’t to suggest that Zaha in his current form, having attained five successive seasons of Premier League football, is of corresponding quality to the 20-year-old that arrived at United. However, his importance to Palace and subsequent asking price is reflective of the player that could have been at United.
Perhaps, had Zaha been given sufficient chances at Old Trafford and surrounded by players and facilities of superior quality, the 26-year-old would be even better than he is today.
If anything, the way United failed to utilise Zaha is symptomatic of the club’s issues in recent seasons. Replacing a man of Ferguson’s esteem, a man revered by all in football, would have been a challenging task for most men.
And, perhaps, in hindsight, the club paid too much respect to his opinions by appointing David Moyes as his successor. Nonetheless, United’s untimely demise – although there is seldom a favourable time to demise – has mostly been of their own making via chronic mismanagement stemming from those in the upper echelons of the club’s hierarchy.
While the Wilfried Zaha ordeal is only a microscopic example of a larger and more concerning picture at United, it exemplifies the misdirection that has seen United slump from title favourites to top-four hopefuls.
It’s also likely to resonate with supporters who have become increasingly disillusioned with the running of the club, be that the ever-growing debt accumulated under the Glazers’ ownership or Ed Woodward’s lack of footballing knowhow.
It would be foolish to infer that United’s troubles would be solved had Zaha stayed with the club, but equally, it’s abundantly clear that the Red Devils require a player of his creativity, excitement and expertise – a player that could have saved them a heap of money.
Moyes failed to nurture a prodigious talent when he was right under his nose, and Zaha’s consequential rise into the £80m bracket provides a haunting lesson for the club in an obscenely inflated modern market.