Manchester United’s transfer policy: how the mighty have fallen

As if any evidence was needed of just how far behind their major rivals United have fallen in terms of their transfer policy (or lack of it), a bid of comfortably over £50 million is being considered for Aaron Wan-Bissaka, the Crystal Palace 21 year-old right back. There is little doubt that the youngster has great potential, and has impressed hugely in his first full season playing regular Premier League football – but does he warrant such a hefty price tag, or even the courting of one of the world’s biggest clubs trying to reverse a steep decline in fortunes since Sir Alex Ferguson retired?

Polished jewel to hidden gem

For a number of seasons, United have favored buying players with plenty of top-level experience and whom have numerous winners medals to their name. Indeed, this policy seemed to fit hand-in-glove with a manager like José Mourinho has always favoured buying a ready-made superstar than developing young players to become pivotal parts of his teams. Unfortunately this transfer policy has only delivered the club a period of drastic regression.

Proponents of the change in United’s policy; from investing in ready-made world stars to young players with little world reputation, but significant potential, will rightly point out that the former has not worked. Alexis Sanchez, Angel Di Maria, Sebastian Schweinsteiger and Henrikh Mkhitaryan are leading examples of players that have been signed in recent seasons with big reputations, for big money, but have been underwhelming to the point of embarrassment.

At times, it has appeared as though players were signed primarily on reputation, without due consideration being given to how players would fit into the team, or whether they were really needed, when other parts of the team clearly need more urgent addressing. The fact that United still often have one of, if not both, Phil Jones and/or Chris Smalling starting at centre-back in their line-ups demonstrate that there has not been a joined-up strategy for a long time. Would either of these players get into another top 6 club? Highly doubtful, so why have they still not been replaced?

Lack of accountability

No one suggested that it would be easy for United to replicate their success under Sir Alex Ferguson, but few would have predicted such a rapid fall into Premier League and European obscurity. Whilst a season or two of readjustment would be acceptable, the club is about to enter it’s 6th campaign of the post-Ferguson era and shows little to no sign of again returning to the top table of English, or European football. How has this been allowed to happen? Would Europe’s other biggest clubs allow this malaise to continue for so long? Unfortunately for United fans, their success on the pitch appears to almost be secondary to the commercial success off of it – a disturbing reality for United fans.

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An accurate analysis on the rot that has set in at United, was delivered by United legend Gary Neville, who’s rant about Ed Woodward in particular, after watching Manchester City beat Leicester on their way to winning the title, summed up their current predicament:

“Over the last five years, the club has ricocheted and bounced like a pinball from one manager to another with different philosophies. They’ve been pulled around and played in the transfer market time and time again. If you’ve not delivered success on the pitch for five, six, seven years – there comes a point where you say, ‘Hang on a second, it can’t just keep being the coach. It’s got to be people above that step aside and move into a different role. It has to deliver performance and results and it’s not. There is a cultural problem at the football club. It’s deep. The decisions are bad, the choices are poor.”

With United not threatening to win a title once during Ed Woodward’s reign, it can only be assumed that the hierarchy are prepared to sacrifice on-pitch success for off-pitch success. This culture ensures that proper, considered long-term recruitment planning is not at the forefront of the upper echelons at the club. No wonder then, that the club’s dealings in the transfer market have been disjointed, uncoordinated and frivolous.

Unearthing diamonds or fools gold?

The purchase of Daniel James, and pursuit of Wan-Bissaka, highlight a complete u-turn in United’s much maligned recent transfer policy of bringing in tried and tested superstars. With respect to United’s transfer targets this summer – the pursuit of the likes of Daniel James, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Max Aarons also represents a sharp decline in the ambitions of the club that dominated English football during the nineties and noughties. Although United fans might console themselves with the fact that they are signing players with plenty of potential and whom could become Premier League stars of the future, they must be hugely underwhelmed.

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That is not to say that these players won’t go onto have great careers, but it’s sensible to put United’s targets into some perspective. To potentially pay a higher fee for Wan-Bissaka, than City did for Kyle Walker a mere 2 years ago, just emphasises the state of desperation United have now reached in trying to reverse their fortunes. Walker was a regular in a top-6 Premier League side for many years, a regular in the English national side, and had experience of major European football under his belt when City signed him. Wan-Bissaka has played one full season of Premier League football, for a team that flirted with relegation for most of the campaign. Although he is younger, the reported transfer bid just doesn’t stack up. Unlike with De Light and Joao Felix, there has been no European-wide reported interest in Wan-Bissaka: should that tell us something?

Similarly, Daniel James was not another player too high up on the radar of Europe’s superpowers this summer. He had a great breakthrough season, albeit in the Championship and has attributes (pace, finishing) to evidence that he could prosper in the Premier League under the right circumstances. Is he more talented than Marcus Rashford, or Anthony Martial though? He is likely going to need a season or two to settle in at Old Trafford before we see anything like his full potential in a red shirt. Ordinarily he’d be assigned as ‘one for the future’, but United just don’t have the time to afford him a grace period at the moment.

United have not signed a teenager/21 year old with obvious, genuine world-class potential for a while. Arguably, you’d have to go as far back as the Rooney and Ronaldo era for a demonstration in great recruitment of young potential. In the case of Rooney and Ronaldo, the talent was abundently clear for all to see. Ronaldo with his fancy stepovers and tricks; Rooney with his debut piledriver against Arsenal as a schoolboy. Admittedly, few would have predicted that between them they would scale the heights that they did but it’s hard to envisage Daniel James or Wan-Bissaka getting close to those standards based on their current playing history, or attributes.

Signing and developing young players – a poor track record

It should be remembered that United have bought many young players since Ferguson’s departure in 2013; but the record isn’t impressive. Luke Shaw was signed in 2014 with the promise of becoming one of the world’s best left-backs for years to come. Although now a regular in the United first team, he’s been in and out of the side (injuries aside), and hasn’t really lived up to his potential. The fact that he’s been close to the Old Trafford exit door before, and doesn’t get selected by England prove that as a whole, he’s not developed as expected at Old Trafford. The same is true of the-then teenage sensation Anthony Martial, who has also been in and out of the United first team, and a few bight spots aside; has not delivered on his undoubted potential that United paid for when they signed him in 2015.

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Memphis Depay was another outstanding talent who promised much before his Old Trafford arrival but delivered very little, leading to a hasty departure. In a damning indictment of United’s recent inability to produce the best from their young signings, he is now starring in the French League for Lyon and is a regular starter for a resurgent Dutch national side. Even Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s Crystal Palace teammate, Wilfried Zaha was signed as a young player by United in 2013, but was a sore disappointment, and has only fulfilled his potential outside of Old Trafford. With United’s poor track record of developing young players signed from elsewhere with burgeoning reputations – does it really make sense to change their transfer policy to one of signing young talent in an effort to return to the top? Not unless the coaching framework allows for a successful delivery of this policy, which it doesn’t appear to at the moment.

Creme-de-la-creme to double-cream

In a sense, the change in transfer policy employed by United should be one that gets United fans excited. United’s glorious history is littered with young players that have made their name at Old Trafford and have become world superstars; none more so in recent times that Cristiano Ronaldo. It could be that Daniel James or Aaron Wan-Bissaka are ‘the next big thing’, but their lack of top-flight experience or interest from other top clubs in Europe would suggest it’s unlikely. Europe’s top young talent does not cost £15 million any more, as United paid for Daniel James. It costs over £100 million, as in the cases of Ousmane Dembele and Kylian Mbappe. Sadly for United, they no longer appear to be in the minds of young players with these levels of potential.

The days of United being able to attract the top young talent from across the world appear to be over, at least for the meantime. The likes of De Light, Rodri, Sancho, De Jong, Jovic, Mendy, Joao Felix etc no longer even appear to be viable options for one of the biggest clubs in the world. Sure, they can pay the wages, and boast a magnificent history, but compared to some of the other top clubs in Europe, they simply do not hold the same attraction. A record of poor development of young players, a lack of Champions League football and a likely hiatus of title challenges do not hold the same appeal as Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus, Bayern Munich etc.

If United were signing players such as Mbappe, Jovic, De Light, De Jong etc, fans would have serious cause for optimism, but the young players they are signing and targeting are several tiers down from this. Quite simply, they are no longer aiming for the stars. For their sake, they must hope these talented young players can exceed expectations and hit the ground running, or their new transfer policy will be as fruitless as their old one. A fall from grace indeed.




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