Identity. It is a topic on many lips in the wake of Manchester United’s spending spree this summer. United unloaded around £150 million on six high-class imports during the window, and yet the deal that generated most copy was Danny Welbeck’s departure to Arsenal. The end of more than 130 years of youthful tradition or the reaffirmation that United remains among the world’s élite?
On the face of it the answer is simple. In a global game United simply swapped Welbeck, an inconsistent academy graduate with 29 goals in 142 games, for a proven class in Radamel Falcao. The price differential says as much: Welbeck cost Arsenal £16 million, Falcao north of £45 million when he signs permanently next summer. There is, after all, no room for sentimentality in the hunt for success.
Yet, United’s is a history replete with the fruits of youth development and Welbeck the leading player in a contemporary academy cohort that is symbolic of more than simply ‘who is best on the pitch.’ Youth, some say, is United’s essence, its soul, the raison d’être. This was consistently Sir Alex Ferguson’s line during his 27-year tenure at Old Trafford.
The player’s sale, amidst United’s conversion to the world’s leading sports marketing platform in a globalised brand economy, says much for the club’s priorities – the maintenance of commercial interests remains just as paramount as success on the pitch. Or in other words, while Falcao represents an upgrade for Louis van Gaal’s team, the Colombian’s profile also serves to feed a commercial entity more voracious for star names than ever.
It is this economic evolution of the club, the game and those that follow it that feels uneasy for many. Perhaps, even, this observation is at the root of criticism from within, even if naked resentment is the fuel from without. Not everybody is comfortable with United’s quickfire conversion for parsimony to plunder.
“Is it better to look at the instant rather than the future?” said former assistant manager Mike Phelan last week. “It is a difficult one because youth is always the future. Maybe this is the start of a new way of doing things at Manchester United and maybe that is the way football is going.”
United reacted strongly to the accusation that youth has taken a back stage, briefing media that 12 academy players are registered in the club’s wider Premier League group. More, indeed, than any other club in England. In James Wilson, Tyler Blackett, Reece James, and Jesse Lingaard, Van Gaal has already demonstrated faith in youngsters this season.
It is a familiar line. The difference between United and the club’s competitors? “Not spending fortunes on proven goods,” said Sir Alex in 2012. “That’s the difference between United and the rest – we can play 18-year-olds because it’s part of our history. It’s like a destiny for us. No other clubs can do that.”
Yet, there are also powerful forces driving the club to a future that is tied not to the academy but global recognition. Indeed, the club’s recent sponsorship deals with Chevrolet and adidas will push United’s annual revenue beyond £500 million in the coming years. Add more than 30 further global and regional sponsors to the roster and the hunger for success may now only be part of United’s culture. Stardom drives United’s commercial needs and, perhaps, future player recruitment too.
It is an observation that has led to the conclusion in some quarters that United will now seek out the most expensive players on the planet. Far cry from the austerity of the first eight years of Glazer ownership when debt bit deep into United’s investment and Ferguson ran his team on a comparative shoestring.
But with commercial revenues on the uptick, and debt interest at circa £20 million per year, executive vice chairman Ed Woodward has many reasons to feel emboldened in the market.
Further cash is seemingly available in January too, with potential recruits said to include Kevin Strootman that will take the club’s annual spend beyond £200 million for the year, including Juan Mata last winter. No longer a burden, so goes the spin, player recruitment is now an investment in United’s brand equity.
In the midst of this discussion it is easy to forget that Welbeck is also a very fine player, not just a local recruit. The Longsight-born striker has never been one to lead the goalscoring charts, perhaps, but those who champion the 23-year-old’s cause point to other qualities beyond goalscoring. Indeed, six goals in as many games last Christmas point to a player capable of scoring more frequent if given the opportunity in a more central role.
“He’s a real threat to defenders and, if Arsenal use him right, he will be very dangerous for them,” said former United defender Rio Ferdinand.
“I cannot believe United let him go, especially to Arsenal. That seems mad to me. Danny has everything to be a top player. English football has yet to see what he can really do because he hasn’t been getting a run of games. At Arsenal, he will be the main man and I have no doubt he will flourish.”
Welbeck’s departure, together with a dozen other players, including Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Ryan Giggs, has come amid the most rapid evolution in United’s playing squad for two decades.
Indeed, Van Gaal’s challenge – to knit together what is effectively a new team – is one that no United manager has faced since Ferguson sold Mark Hughes, Andrei Kanchelskis and Paul Ince in 1995. The following season Ferguson integrated Nicky Butt, David Beckham, Gary Neville and Paul Scholes into the United side to much success.
Yet, in the years before 2005 Ferguson also broke the British transfer record eight times, just has Sir Matt Busby had done for Dennis Law in the wake of the ‘Babes’ destruction at Munich in 1958. Youth and investment – hasn’t the club always played both games? Scrutiny, too, has always followed.
Yet, as the Glazer family’s parsimony cut into the United’s competitiveness from 2005-2013 it was also Ferguson who left a squad in far from “the strongest possible shape.” The Scot stood back in retirement and watched Rome burn. The club, it seems, is now trying to rebuild in a day.
“It is a change of direction for United letting one of their own go,” adds Ferdinand. “Traditionally, this was not their way, adding so many players in a short period of time and having such a radical overhaul. Normally, as with me when I joined in 2002, it was about adding one piece to the jigsaw.
“Some fans still romanticise about their success and the way they brought through so many home-grown players. Unfortunately, you can’t always have that fairytale. Radamel Falcao and Angel Di Maria are world-class players and they have added quality in Anders Herrera, Luke Shaw and Daley Blind, but I do wonder if they will live to regret not keeping Danny.”
That story will play out in the year to come; Welbeck’s performance at Arsenal and Van Gaal’s ability to get the best out of £150 million worth of new talent.
As ever it will not only be United’s success on the line, but the club’s ‘identity’ too. Twas ever thus.