Thomas Müller. Gareth Bale. Arturo Vidal. Sergio Ramos. Wesley Sneijder. Five very fine, world-class footballers. The common thread: each participated in transfer sagas that lasted an entire summer, or in some cases even longer. Long, played out dramas that resulted in little but reams of newspaper speculation, and wasted hopes and dreams. Despite the club’s power, money and global reach, Manchester United has become a laughing-stock in the transfer market in recent summers. No longer.
The club, particularly under Ed Woodward’s guidance, became prone to being used by stars who simply wanted a new contract, and not a move to Old Trafford. Real Madrid’s Ramos was the most recent example – a drawn out saga last summer that ended in a significant pay bump and Madrid’s captaincy, much to United’s embarrassment. It left the club without an alternate defensive option late in the summer, demonstrating a severe lack of planning and a naïve approach.
United has drawn criticism because Woodward has focused the club’s transfer strategy on prioritising commercial interests above on-the-field performance. Targets appeared to be global megastars – often those out of reach.
“We are willing to invest. There is no fixed budget,” bragged Woodward in summer of 2014. “Financially we are extremely strong and funds are available. There is a lot of work going on behind the scenes, so watch this space.”
The space was watched. Little happened. In reality the club struggled to sign stars of the calibre expected. The moves that the club made often reeked of desperation; too often bereft of serious long-term planning. Marouane Fellaini is the symbol of that era, while the ghosts of Angel Di Maria, Radamel Falcao and others linger over the club.
Perhaps that era is coming to an end. United’s early moves in the market speak to a change in Woodward’s approach this summer. Perhaps the club’s new-found relationship with agent Mino Raiola has paid dividends. By the end of the summer (or even this week) three of Raiola’s key clients could all be United players. Zlatan Ibrahimovic joined in July, and was quickly followed by Dortmund playmaker Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Could Paul Pogba be the latest Raiola client to make the switch to Old Trafford? Reports that the Frenchman is close to an Old Trafford move have increased, four years after Pogba left in controversial circumstances following a fallout with Sir Alex Ferguson over first-team opportunities. Yet, the switch now beckons for what would be a world-record fee for Europe’s brightest young talent. Pogba’s return would underline the a costly mistake made in 2012, but the club is finally behaving like the planet’s most financially powerful club.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]The club struggled to sign stars of the calibre expected. Moves often reeked of desperation; too often bereft of serious long-term planning. Perhaps that era is coming to an end.[/blockquote]
To put that statement in perspective, reports in Spain from Real Madrid mouthpiece Marca indicate that Los Blancos have dropped out of the race for Pogba because of United’s financial muscle. That’s some statement – and is telling about the Premier League’s renewed vigour. Finally, the Reds may have found a way to flaunt the muscle Woodward has bragged about for years. Perhaps he wasn’t a liar all along.
Regardless of whether United completes the move for Pogba, it appears that the club has planned its transfer activity for the first time since the David Gill-Sir Alex Ferguson era. It is only mid-July and the thrust of business is probably already done; three of four primary signings have been made, and supplementary signings will arrive depending on sales, to which Mourinho spoke in his opening press conference. For the first time in years the club will be ready to go when the season starts.
That is a breath of fresh air, with Mourinho’s meticulous approach to planning seemingly paying quick dividends. The Portuguese’s scouting and personnel decisions were made long before he ‘officially’ accepted the managerial position. After all, Mourinho was spotted in Dortmund last February, keeping an eye on Mkhitaryan, his future Armenian star, months ahead of a move.
Pogba could be the final piece in the main puzzle as Mourinho bolsters the spine of a side that desperately needs reinforcement. An experienced defender is also reportedly on the agenda, and that would certainly aid the development of a youthful looking defence that has added Ivory Coast star Eric Bailly to its ranks this summer.
If United can make Pogba the next stunning recruit, it seems Mourinho will have helped Woodward’s renaissance from hapless CEO to the main man of the world’s most powerful club.
Transfers are a means to an end though. The final stage? Turning planning, quick decisions and money it into trophies – the return of the glory days to Old Trafford once again.