These are celebratory times indeed. Not only has Manchester United’s executive vice chairman Ed Woodward closed a deal, some 12 days before the summer transfer window shuts, but in a position where the Reds are desperately short. United’s calamitous showing against Swansea City last weekend served only to highlight just how desperately the club requires new blood in defensive positions. So to the rescue comes Marcos Rojo, Argentina’s World Cup left-back, who will play on the left side of United’s back three this season after Woodward secured a £16 million transfer from Sporting.
Rojo’s signature takes Nani in the other direction, where United will pay the errant Portuguese winger around £5 million to play for the Lisbon-based side this season. Good deal all round, those of a more cynical bent might add. Meanwhile, the Argentinian will compete with Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Tyler Blackett for a place in Louis van Gaal’s side, while offering a useful option at left wing back.
Not that Rojo was anywhere near van Gaal’s first choice this summer, with United mooting deals for Thomas Vermaelen, Mats Hummels and Mehdi Benatia. The former transferred to Barcelona after Woodward spent an entire summer dallying on the deal with Arsenal, while the latter is still mulling over offers from around Europe. Hummels – always van Gaal’s first choice – is unlikely to leave Borussia Dortmund in the current window.
Strange, though, how the club has once again left execution of transfer planning to the very last moment, more than six months after former captain Nemanja Vidić announced his departure for Internazionale. In truth the club has known at least as long that Rio Ferdinand would not secure a new deal at Old Trafford. In aggregate, Rojo serves to highlight another omnishambles of a transfer strategy played out by Woodward and company this summer.
In between Vidić’s January announcement and the Premier League kick off last weekend David Moyes was sacked and van Gaal appointed, with seemingly little continuity in club strategy. True, the Dutchman signed off on more than £55 million worth of acquisitions in Ander Herrera and Luke Shaw, although those deals, instigated by Moyes, remained the sum total of United’s market activity this summer until Rojo’s arrival was announced by United and Sporting on Tuesday.
Not that United’s acquisition of Herrera and Shaw should pass without scrutiny either, the club having paid a significant premium for each. Or, to paraphrase former United right-back Gary Neville, Chelsea secured seasoned internationals Cesc Fabregas and Luis Fillipe for around £18 million less than the United pair.
Elsewhere, the outlook is less positive for Woodward, who is said to be acutely aware of the growing reputation he has gained for being outmanoeuvred in the transfer market. Not least because the former JP Morgan executive has talked such a good game, asking fans to “watch this space” while United “moves in the market” far more aggressively than in previous seasons. Supporters have watched, and waited, with less reward than the club requires.
van Gaal certainly remains an experienced defender short. After all, Rojo has played just three seasons in Europe and must quickly adapt to the rough and tumble of the Premier League. Moreover, the former Estudiantes defender is yet to complete more than 33 games in all competitions during any one campaign. It is likely to be a challenging first few months in England and a very steep learning curve.
Play he must though. After having lost four defenders in the summer – Ferdinand, Vidić, Alexander Büttner, and Patrice Evra – van Gaal has little choice but to risk his new man. Rant suspects few in United’s hierarchy will take responsibility for the abject failure in planning.
Meanwhile, in midfield the ease with which Swansea negotiated United’s triumvirate of Darren Fletcher, Juan Mata and Herrera last Saturday is a significant cause for concern. Mata was largely anonymous, first as United’s creative fulcrum in van Gaal’s 3-4-1-2 system, and then in a more conventional role behind Rooney in a Moyes-esque 4-4-1-1. Herrera was neat, but lacked real influence, while Fletcher, who excelled during the summer tour of the USA, was as rusty as one might expect a man to be after returning from two years out of the game.
United is seemingly no closer to sealing a deal for either Angel di Maria or Arturo Vidal. The former is available, although United’s is not the only game in town, with Paris Saint Germain attempting to construct a deal that circumvents Financial Fair Play regulations. The latter has long been considered by United’s hierarchy despite repeated denials behind the scenes.
The prevailing intelligence is that Woodward must land at least one superstar to bring United’s squad up to top four quality. On the evidence of Saturday’s performance the Reds are further short of Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal in the chase for Champions League places than feared. Failure to qualify for next season’s premier European competition is an option, but one that will cost United tens of millions in lost broadcast, matchday and sponsorship revenues.
More pertinent, however, is quite how the club finds itself in this position once again. After all, this was the summer of supposedly strong investment, with the club having deleveraged over the past four years, and more cash available to the new manager than at any time in recent history. This was the summer when all those regional sponsorship deals, Chevrolet’s millions, and broadcast rights combined to proffer United overwhelming financial muscle.
The £750 million kit manufacturing deal with adidas, announced in July, should have further embolden Woodward’s team. Not so it seems. In fact, not only has the scenario of hyper hyperinvestment failed to materialise, but the club enters the last days of a transfer window desperately chasing players in the most embarrassingly scattergun fashion. Whatever planning went into United’s summer strategy – for want of a better word – it has proven to be wholly inadequate.
The rub comes in May and not August, of course, although it takes not any foresight to predict some of the travails that van Gaal’s side faces in the coming months, no matter the Dutchman’s genius. His squad is light in central defence, central midfield and in wide areas, both of the attacking and defensive variety.
Meanwhile, the Glazer family announced last month it plans to sell another 12 million shares on the New York Stock Exchange, raising almost $200 million in revenue for Malcom Glazer’s six children. Nor will the sale precipitate a change in strategy, with the family retaining more than 80 per cent of the voting power having devised a dual class stock structure on IPO some two years ago.
Neither are the Glazers minded to remove Woodward from the equation – the man who has successfully executed on the Americans’ commercial vision. Woodward, to his core, remains a company man; a Glazer favourite.
It leaves United supporters little confidence that the new manager will hold a full complement of tools come 2 September. Boasting an unbalanced squad, short of world-class talent, and with his stars’ confidence seemingly absent, van Gaal faces one his greatest managerial challenges. Woodward the scorn of many.