It was widely reported last week that Louis Van Gaal is set to be granted a further £150m to help rebuild Manchester United in the post-Ferguson era. If that money is eventually spent on top of what of the Premier League club have already outlayed in the past two years, their overall spending will exceed £350m.
The sheer size of that figure has naturally drawn comparisons with Florentino Pérez’s Galácticos policy – the name given to the era enacted by Real Madrid at the turn of the century when they set out on assembling the world’s biggest football superstars for excessive fees in an attempt to inflate their stature to the top of the game’s hierarchy.
While the ‘Van Gaalácticos’ has yet to take hold, if Ed Woodward- United’s current executive vice-chairman- continues to invest large amounts of capital into acquiring players, United may soon resemble the Real Madrid of Figo and Co.
In many ways, it’s a route that Woodward has every right to take. According to Forbes magazine’s analysis of the biggest sporting franchises in the world, United are currently valued at $2.81bn, third behind Madrid and Barcelona, and are one of only four football teams in the top 10 (Bayern Munich are the other, in seventh).
Forbes’ assertion was primarily based around United’s historical $1.3bn dollar-10-year deal with Adidas which starts in 2015/16. Essentially, in an age of financial bulwarks, United’s brand is so strong that the risks of Woodward pressing onwards with this policy are minimal– the money is there to be spent.
Perez saw instant success with that policy in the early noughties. Madrid won La Liga in 2001 and 2003, as well as their 9th champions league. It proved as successful off the pitch in marketing terms as it did on. That side is highly appealing for a club so microscopically analysed by investors on a daily basis as United are- few clubs float on the New York stock exchange and have debts of United’s magnitude to be tended to.
Woodward would be wise to spend that money cautiously, however. Arguably, Perez only pursued a spending policy of that size because of Madrid’s internal club structure – he was lobbying to an electorate to become president- and faced stiff competition at the time from then-President Lorenzo Sanz, whose tenure had brought two recent European successes in 1998 and 2000.
Woodward is not faced with a demographic of voters to please directly. He’s employed (not elected) and serves shareholders- he does not need to pledge a manifesto, as such, to keep his job. Perez was aided by the selling of their training ground- the Ciudad Deportiva – for 480m euros, which gave the club instant capital. Adidas’ deal, alternatively, is staggered over 10 years, and does not give Woodward the liquidity.
Woodward would also be neglecting the fundamental principles of Sir Alex Ferguson’s legacy by effectively casting aside the products of their youth academy. Whether the United board, which Ferguson sits on alongside Bobby Charlton, would allow academy players to be neglected remains to be seen.
The sale of Danny Welbeck – effectively brought about by the arrival of Radamel Falcao – epitomises the youth versus superstar dilemma. The scrutiny that it has since received in the media is an ongoing reminder of how that debate splits opinion. Success today, or patient, controlled success, tomorrow?
While Madrid reaped the rewards of that first Galácticos era, they soon went on a barren period of winning absolutely nothing for three years. Bizarre accusations surfaced of the lack of stability that became rife from within – players being picked on marketable reputation as opposed to form, an inharmonious dressing room due to wage disparities.
The story of David Beckham being signed instead of soon to be World-Player of the Year Ronaldinho because the latter was considered ‘too ugly’ to be a Galáctico is an apt example of how the club lost its way.
For Woodward, following in Perez’s footsteps may appear tempting at first, but could have damaging long term consequences. Or could it? Madrid have roughly maintained that policy up until now, and in Pérez’s second tenure the club are currently on their largest ever winning streak as reigning European champions.
With the embedded influences of Sir Alex Ferguson still too prominent in the club, Woodward will probably not have the de facto power to get too carried away; failing to learn from Perez’s initial mistakes a decade ago would likely see him ousted from the club.
While providing United’s managers with a free reign in the transfer market may seem tempting, Pérez’s ultimate resignation in 2007 proves that an aggressive transfer policy is not a formula for long term success. Woodward must act wisely.