The strange recent years of Fergie’s last days and the bizarre comedown that followed it, combined with the emergence of Twitter, have seen a lot of strange opinions passed around the internet concerning United. Sometimes it’s revisionism – Moyes was terrible from the start, Ruud Van Nistelrooy held United back, and so on – and sometimes it’s used to talk up the current lot. Michael Carrick is world-class, Rooney is still a 25-goal-a-season striker, all the classics. The weirdest though, used to justify everything from signing English youngsters after a couple of good games to Glazer austerity, goes like this: United have never been like Real Madrid or Juventus or Bayern Munich. We don’t spend fees on established stars, we make them.
Obviously, any casual flick through the history books will show this to be total nonsense, so we won’t waste time refuting it here. Much like any biggest-fish-in-the-pond that wants to take advantage of being so, from Real Madrid to the Old Firm, United have always done their best to make sure they at least get the best crop of stars born in or passing through Britain, and import what they can’t get domestically to fill out the gaps. There’s a real tradition for youth, of course, by far the most established in the country, but United have always had something else about them too, that little hint of glamour that makes the difference – it’s the reason Manchurian farmers who don’t even follow football have heard of Manchester United (and are then cited as one of our billion fans to Chevrolet by Ed Woodward in a conference call.)
There’s been increasingly less need, however, to take this line since United have become absurdly ambitious in the transfer market following the disastrous first post-Fergie window. Juan Mata, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao all came to Old Trafford. For the ‘United make stars’ idea, there was also Luke Shaw at an eye-watering price. The purse-strings had finally been loosened, and United looked capable of building a genuinely great team.
All of these players, however, turned out to be failures, to relative degrees and for various reasons. Mata did not transform United’s attacking play. Shaw has regressed, Di Maria couldn’t have looked less interested, and Falcao… well, there aren’t many strikers in the league who would’ve done worse playing up front for United for a season.
The extent of some of these failures has been surprising, but it hasn’t been entirely unpredictable. Just as United went for youngsters in the late Fergie era because the money wasn’t available to do anything else, Woodward & Co. now appear to be desperate to sign big names just to prove they can. Falcao was a needless gamble who was either totally unnecessary or an insufficient attempt to paper over cracks at the last minute, depending on whether or not you had the foresight to see that Rooney and Van Persie were finished as top-level strikers. Shaw was a huge risk, and Mata would always need to be accommodated in a way United weren’t set up to allow.
Di Maria, though, has perhaps been the archetypal example of United’s failures. A great player, certainly, but there were plenty of warning signs. It was foolish to make a marquee signing someone who cannot, by virtue of a poor goalscoring record, be a complete gamechanger in an attacking sense. It was also foolish to sign someone who would shunt the previous marquee signing, Mata, out of his natural position. And to take someone from a club whose stature United aspire to as a reject. And someone who plainly wanted to sign for a different club. Perhaps, in addition, it was foolish to make all these mistakes after Arsenal made the prototype in blundering into them all with their signing of Mesut Ozil the previous summer, after a similar bout of giddyness brought on by an increased transfer fund.
Of course, Ozil has improved in a way that it’s hard to see Di Maria doing. But United, blessed with more cash, can afford to sack him off at a loss and go for someone else instead. The problem has been the type of star player United have attempted to acquire. Part of this is the result of circumstance – a couple of years ago, Bale or Modric might have been classic United purchases, but mid-table English clubs aren’t blessed with too many such players at the moment. So, what’s the alternative?
Fortunately, the idea of buying players who aren’t the finished article yet has not escaped United, as the signing of Memphis Depay proved. True, not exactly an unproven 18-year-old, but someone who wants to play for the club, who has the capacity to improve, and fills a role and brings qualities that the team currently need and lack. Ander Herrera, probably last year’s player of the season, was a similar player. Technically, United probably overpaid, but they could afford to. It’s on those criteria that United’s new signings should be decided upon, regardless of the size of their brand or release clause.
Nobody’s against marquee signings, but with United in their current state, an attempt to ask a manager to cobble together a team out of the cast-offs and has-beens that comprise the big-name players who United could buy at the moment can only end in disaster. It’d look less like Madrid’s Galacticos and more like an MLS All-Star side. We’d all be delighted to get a 80m record-breaking signing to blow everybody else out of the water. 70m for Harry Kane would be ludicrous and could end in disaster, but we can afford it, and it’d probably be better than spending the same on someone like Cavani, a player on a definitive downward spiral who would only be moving because he had to. The team badly needs an injection of glamour, but not at the expense of its sanity, or what little of it there is.