There’s a theory that if politics is war and economics is politics, then economics is war as well. Perhaps the most obvious example of that is the Cold War, a half-century of proxy skirmishes between the two superpowers created by opposing economic systems – capitalism and communism – but it loosely applies to the world of football too; if war is what happens on the pitch, then economics is what takes place in the transfer market.
There is an inevitable subsequence between the two spheres and plenty of Premier League titles have been settled without a ball being kicked. The old adage goes that a manager is only as good as his signings, but so is a team and to a wider extent, a club too. Not only who clubs recruit but also how they recruit can have an intrinsic impact on their fortunes for generations at a time, as the approach becomes cultural and institutional.
And thus, after dropping Paul Pogba and Alexis Sanchez for an FA Cup quarter-final Manchester United needed to win to have any chance of claiming silverware this season, amid the backdrop of reports claiming Jose Mourinho wants to make four more major signings in yet another summer overhaul at Old Trafford, the Red Devils’ transfer policy must inevitably come under the microscope.
Since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, United have spent over £600million on new signings – that’s roughly £120million per summer – but are yet to mount a serious title challenge, have finished in the top four just once and only found success in secondary tournaments like the League Cup and the Europa League.
Now, Mourinho’s reached a point where his club-record signing and his most recent signing, one of the Premier League’s flagship talents since arriving from Barcelona in 2014, can’t even get into the starting XI for one of United’s most crucial games of the season. Clearly, some part of the recruitment process at the club isn’t working properly.
What’s been so unusual about Mourinho’s signings at United is how individualist the majority of them are, especially for a manager with such a strong emphasis on creating a cohesive defensive unit and who often publicly laments players that struggle for conventional functionality in their respective roles.
Pogba, Sanchez, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Romelu Lukaku all fall into that category, yet they account for over 30% of that aforementioned £600million sum, plus whatever value can be given to the swap deal that brought the Chile international to Old Trafford in January.
Perhaps Mourinho believed he could mould those impressive individual entities around the collective will of the team, and in Lukaku’s case he’ll feel that process has been a successful one. Mourinho’s hardly had a bad word to say about the Belgium international and while his goal tally this season has been largely unspectacular, the former Everton front-man has clearly become much more of a team player under the Portuguese.
Mkhitaryan though just never appeared to buy into that mindset, while even academy product Scott McTominay has proved a more functional option than Pogba in midfield during the last few weeks.
It’s a curious theme, but major signings struggling to perform for United stems back further than Mourinho’s tenure. David Moyes’ only major acquisitions, Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata, have rarely exceeded a rotational role in the squad.
Memphis Depay lasted just 18 months at Old Trafford before being allowed to leave for Lyon where he’s rekindled his prodigious Eredivisie form, and Morgan Schneiderlin suffered a similar fate but has been a shadow of himself at Everton.
Luke Shaw, albeit hindered by injury, couldn’t hold down a spot under Louis van Gaal and is now being kept out of the team by Ashley Young. Anthony Martial is still yet to make himself a true focal point of the starting XI. Then there’s former club-record signing Angel Di Maria, who decided he wanted to leave just six months after his move from Real Madrid.
All in all, ten of United’s 14 most expensive signings since Ferguson’s retirement plus Sanchez have struggled to meet expectations at Old Trafford – the only arguable exceptions being Lukaku, Nemanja Matic, Eric Bailly, Ander Herrera and Victor Lindelof (the jury’s still out). Furthermore, four of them have left the club already and just two,
Lukaku and Matic, have earned such importance under Mourinho that they’ve made more than 20 starts in the Premier League this season. In fact, the last major signing to truly drive the club onto success after arriving is Robin van Persie – Sir Alex Ferguson’s final significant acquisition, made in 2012.
Of course, there are some caveats to consider here, particularly that United have appointed three different managers during that time, two of which – van Gaal and Mourinho – are aligned at largely opposite ends of the spectrum, one sticking to his possession-retaining philosophy to the point of it becoming dogma and the other being arguably the most pragmatic boss at the elite end of the trade. Inevitably, some van Gaal signings haven’t quite fitted in under Mourinho, just as some of Ferguson’s old cronies didn’t make sense under Moyes or the Dutchman.
But to return to the original analogy, if the manager of any given football club is the commander-in-chief, then the chief executive is surely the chancellor of the exchequer, the man tasked with driving the economic side of the club forward and overseeing its dealings in the transfer market.
It’s easily forgotten that United lost David Gill at the end of 2012/13 as well as Ferguson, and there’s an argument to suggest it’s the former the club has missed more since the Scot’s retirement.
There’s a comparison here with David Dein, the mastermind behind much of Arsenal’s transformation under Arsene Wenger. He left in 2007, a year after the Gunners reached the Champions League final and three years on from the Invincibles season; on the pitch and in the transfer market, the north London club just haven’t been the same since.
Even their club-record acquisition Mesut Ozil continues to divide opinion, while few of Arsenal’s signings have lived up to the calibre that Dein brought in – the likes of Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Sol Campbell, Thierry Henry and even van Persie and Cesc Fabregas.
While Ed Woodward’s proved a fantastic asset for United in the commercial sphere, pulling off some incredibly lucrative partnership deals, his approach in the transfer market has been far less focused and far more opportunist. There has been a strange scattergun strategy of United seemingly working to bring in what ever big names are available to them, rather than players who instantly address an obvious need for the team.
Mata and Sanchez are perhaps the clearest examples because they arrived in January; three managers later, United are still no closer to finding a permanent place in the starting XI for the Spaniard, while Sanchez – for all his undoubted quality and versatility in attack – has left Mourinho with three winger-forwards to choose from, all of whom are at their most effective when starting on the left wing.
Signing Sanchez has only limited opportunities for one of United’s most expensive ever signings, Martial, and their most successful youth product in a generation, Marcus Rashford.
Which all begs the question of what United’s recruitment strategy ultimately is, and whether Woodward is the right man to provide that long-view perspective. All the recent managerial upheaval at Old Trafford only adds to the argument that Woodward should be the rudder overlapping these appointments and providing some sort of direction regardless of who is in the dugout.
We’re yet to see anything like that from Woodward, and that lack of overall vision has cost the club an unimaginable sum in the transfer market, one that will only grow bigger this summer.
More crucially though, as economics becomes war, it’s costing United on the pitch too. Moyes, van Gaal and Mourinho have all struggled to get anything near the best out of their most expensive acquisitions and if anything, it’s the more understated players – the likes of Rashford, Young and Antonio Valencia – who have kept the first team going over the last few seasons.
Clearly, United aren’t recruiting in the right way, so before the club commit to another costly transfer window under Mourinho that will likely result in more club-record acquisitions, the whole process needs to be reviewed with a long-term strategy finally formed.