In the summer of 2002, Rio Ferdinand became the most expensive defender in transfer history (for the second time) when he swapped the Leeds’ captaincy for the Manchester United shirt. United paid £30m for the promising defender who was a couple of months shy of his 24th birthday. He was just about to hit his peak and ticked all the boxes for the sort of player United were looking for. He had experience of both Champions League and international football, and was looking for his next big challenge. He had the self belief to make it at the top and Sir Alex Ferguson was delighted to have convinced him to sign.
“He is going to be a fantastic player,” Ferguson said at the time. “The board wanted him as much as I did. It is fairly obvious what his talents are, but everyone wanted him here. He is a world-class defender with the experience of having played at the very highest level of the game, for club and country. He is also a fine young man who will fit into the squad extremely well and I am sure he will prove to be a big hit with the fans.”
Ferguson was questioned over the amount of money United had spent to sign the defender, but after finishing 10 points behind Arsenal that season, the manager batted away any criticism.
“We have the right to try and improve ourselves and there’s nothing wrong with that,” he said. “It was disappointing last year – we hope to make amends for that and Rio is part of it.”
16 years later, with the club desperately seeking some defensive stability, the most any manager has been given since to buy a defender is the £31m that Jose Mourinho spent on the 22-year-old Victor Lindelof last season.
The days when the board would support the manager in signing a world class defender, for the price world class defenders cost, are long gone.
In the January 2018 transfer window, rivals Manchester City and Liverpool signed Aymeric Laporte and Virgil Van Dijk. They are the two most expensive defenders in the history of football, with the former costing £57m and the latter costing £75m. That is now the going rate for a world class player in this position.
In the summer of 2018, having just finished second, Mourinho hoped United would follow suit and sign the experienced defender we were crying out for. While United boasted the second best defensive record in the league, largely aided by the superhuman performances of David de Gea, there was no denying the back four was a long way short of what a team that hoped to be challenging for the title or European Cup would possess.
Looking at the players who made the most appearances in that defence, it was clear that time was not on their side. Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia, two former wingers, and Chris Smalling, started this season a year further away from their peak. The full-backs are 33-years-old and Smalling is 29. Even at their very best, we would be pushing it when thinking they were good enough to win us a title, but now? Their time is over yet we are still persevering. Pep Guardiola was given over £100m to replace his ageing full-backs, yet United were reportedly looking to extend the deals of Young and Valencia, while spending just £19m on a player for the future in Diogo Dalot.
Mourinho made signing a centre-half his priority in the summer just gone but Ed Woodward turned him down, briefing the press over his reasons why.
Woodward argued that the players on Mourinho’s wishlist were not worth the money and the players he had targeted were no better than the ones we had already. There was the understanding United would have to pay at least £70m for players who, Woodward believed, wouldn’t vastly improve the team.
I’ve spoken at length about how insane it is that Woodward, a man with no experience of football before working for United, is making footballing decisions at the club, so we don’t need to go in to that again here. But after finishing second in the league last season, United had to improve, and it’s hard to understand how it could be suggested that Toby Alderweireld wasn’t an upgrade on every centre-half at United. Even Harry Maguire, who is still below the level you would expect United to be interested in, was a mainstay during England’s World Cup campaign, while Phil Jones only made the bench and Chris Smalling didn’t even get a call up.
United are a business, so you understand that spending a fortune on someone with a reduced resale value makes little sense financially, but in terms of success on the pitch, it makes total sense. If United could build on their second placed finish, thanks to the added protection at the back, then who cares if Alderweireld was past his best in the near future. As a team that hasn’t won the league since 2013, United should have thrown everything at building a team capable of winning the title, but they didn’t.
In an attacking sense, United have faired pretty well this season. Main striker Romelu Lukaku has been a mile off the pace, and looks twice the size he was a few years ago, yet he’s still scored just one less than Eden Hazard, is just two short of Sergio Aguero and three short of Harry Kane.
City are the only side with more shots on target than United this season, with 17 more. United have had 100, Liverpool 94, Chelsea 90, Spurs 84 and Arsenal 78.
In terms of goals, we fall short of the teams above us, but not by many. Liverpool, who are top of the table with a 16 point advantage, have scored just six goals more than us. Spurs, who are third, have scored just two more.
When it comes to goals conceded only six teams in the league have a worse defensive record than us. Crystal Palace and Newcastle, who are 16th and 15th in the table, have a better defence.
While the overall total of goals can be attributed to a number of things, namely a midfield that isn’t shielding the defence well enough, that doesn’t hide the fact United can’t go longer than a week or two without a dreadful defensive error costing us points. Phil Jones’ recent own goal against Valencia, albeit in the Champions League, typified what United are dealing with.
— Man Utd Updatez Ⓜ️ (@ManUtdUpdatez) December 12, 2018
Chris Smalling and Jones have over 500 United appearances between them but they’ve never been good enough. They go through patches of looking like real defenders, pulling off world-class tackles and putting in top performances, but it never lasts. They always come crashing back down to earth with a horrific error. Of course, all defenders make mistakes, but do any make them as frequently as our supposed first choice centre-backs do?
Mourinho has signed two central defenders since becoming United’s manager, Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof. The latter has looked good this season and was even named Sweden’s player of the year last month. The former had a horror show against Brighton, costing us the game with his inexplicable errors, and hasn’t found a way back in to the team since. Both have potential to do well though but are not yet at the world class level that defenders reach at their peak.
Had Mourinho been given the option of splashing the cash on an experienced defender, he would not have chosen two unproven youngsters that command the fee United were paying for players in their position almost two decades ago. But he wasn’t. So he tried to do the best with what he could and it would be far too premature to write off either player.
But what United needed now, for this season, was a commanding defender, who could instil confidence in the players alongside him in the backline, as well as the midfielders in front of him. But Woodward pulled the plug on that.
If United had signed the defender Mourinho wanted, we would still be behind City and Liverpool, which is not OK, but we would likely be there or there abouts. There would still be the issues we’ve seen in terms of attitude from some of our players. Mourinho may well still be a sulky presence on the sidelines. But we would get through the season, with some pride, maybe some silverware, and Champions League qualification.
Even taking the recent Valencia game as an example, with United conceding two goals because of two blatant errors by Jones, we could have won that game 1-0 with a great defender playing, and we would have qualified top of the group.
The fact United are likely to miss out on Champions League football next season and why Mourinho probably won’t make it until the end of the season is because the man making decisions on our transfers is a man who does not have experience in football.
So whoever we appoint next, whether it’s during this season or for the start of next, he will still have many of the problems Mourinho does. We can get rid of him, and we should, but we will be swimming against the tide for as long as Woodward holds the position at the club that he does.
United fans who appear to hate Mourinho more than they love United will take this as a defence of the manager, but it isn’t. He’s failed at what he was supposed to do and has been backed to a certain level where we should be better than we are. I hope he sees out the season and we can bring someone in at the start of the summer, with their transfer list adhered to, a pre-season to put in place what they want, and United can improve next season.
But any manager working under these conditions will not succeed. The sooner we wise up to that and make our voices heard, the better.