“Ridículo” ran the headline in two of Spain’s leading sports dailies last week. No translation needed there. Except that the farce surrounding David de Gea’s aborted transfer to Real Madrid extends beyond the Spanish capital to include a little too much of Manchester United’s approach to the transfer window. It is the third summer in which the club’s executive judgement must be called into question.
The window began with Memphis Depay’s acquisition in May and ended amid bickering about the intricacies of FIFA’s transfer matching system. From the hope of progress to come, to the relative embarrassment of a summer that offered a glimpse into a world of planned squad improvement, but concluded with too many questions for real comfort. It is a window that has left Louis van Gaal better off than 12 months ago, but still short of the resources needed to mount a truly effective title challenge
The club’s critics, including Real Madrid chief Florentino Perez, crudely frame the narrative of United’s summer as one of expensive incompetence where the truth encompasses a far broader story. There is a path forward to a future in which United returns to preeminence, albeit one there are few guarantees the club will take.
El Presidente was moved to labeled United’s vice chairman, Ed Woodward, “inexperienced’ following Madrid’s failed de Gea chase. The Spaniard, like many, missed the nuance in the considerable farce – one that defies the basest evaluation. After all, subtly is a quality that rarely fares well amid all the media noise that accompanies each summer’s extended haggling.
“It’s the inexperience of the new people in charge,” concluded Pérez last week. “This is exactly the same as what happened before with Coentrão and Herrera and we thought they would have learned from what happened in the past.”
Base, perhaps, but Perez’ accusation does cut to the heart of supporter concerns about Woodward’s ability to land the biggest deals. The former banker has brought in more than £250 million in new talent since taking over from David Gill, but the impression remains that more astute executives have too often outmaneuvered Woodward.
The charge from Madrid is perhaps darker still – that Woodward’s bumbling cost the Spanish giants a player, De Gea the move he so obviously desires, and United a £29 million fee.
Still, while the success of United’s transfer strategy this summer will be judged in May, a window that began with the club having planned ahead, ended with more questions laid at Woodward’s door. It is an uncomfortable position for the 43-year-old executive, who has enjoyed success on the commercial front, while being widely ridiculed for his exploits in the transfer market. Not all of it is fair.
In fact United’s riposte to Perez’ rant was sharp and, it is worth noting, credible. Briefing on the QT, United accused the Spanish giants of, essentially, bringing failure upon themselves with a bid at the 11th hour. Moreover, Van Gaal has privately expressed his delight at United’s summer business, including retaining De Gea.
“The facts speak for themselves. The documents were in on time. Real seem intent to move the focus away from their own clumsiness this summer,” a United spokesman told the Press Association. “We all like to blame others but if you let one slip through your fingers then ultimately the culpability is yours.”
Quite. Others view Perez’ agenda as less opaque than the childish sequence of claim and its rejoinder that filled the back pages last week. Some believe that the Real president was happy to leave De Gea in Manchester for another year, allowing the popular Keylor Navas to stay in Madrid, and the club to pick up a free transfer next summer.
Whatever the truth, Perez’ narrative strikes a chord with some precisely because it hints at that wider perceived truth about Woodward. It is a view that may remain the dominant assessment of the Englishman until United lands the Premier League or the executive the ‘worldie’ he seemingly craves.
Outwith De Gea, United’s summer appeared predominantly logical though. Signatures filled significant holes: Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin add class and defensive cover in midfield; Memphis Depay pace and a goal threat in the attack. Matteo Darmian has already proven an inspired signing at a bargain price to cover the hole left by the departing Rafael da Silva.
Elsewhere, United’s window has been more curious. And once again a little haphazard.
The discussion surrounding Anthony Martial has largely focused on the French teenager’s price, which could potentially top £60 million if all bonuses are paid. Even in an inflated market, fueled by an upcoming 70 per cent increase in television revenues, the figure is eye watering. But the decision to complete the deal – with Chelsea seemingly closing in – was made at the very last moment, suggesting that opportunism and not long-term planning was very much to the fore. It is not the first time that observation has been made about United’s transfer strategy under Woodward.
Van Gaal has stronger options now. No question about that. Yet, a transfer strategy is also one of balance. United’s acquisition of six players this summer – two midfielders, two young forwards, a defender and a goalkeeper – is balanced, but counter-acted by Van Gaal’s decision to let 13 players leave permanently. More still on loan.
Some departures were inevitable: the aforementioned Rafael, Jonny Evans and Nani. Tom Cleverley has long since accepted a future away from Old Trafford, while Anders Lindegaard has spent much of the past two years “picking his nose” on the bench. Angel Di María’s unhappiness in Manchester was no secret. The Argentine’s performances, if not his talent, are unlikely to be missed.
Other departures were more questionable in the context of Van Gaal’s squad. The decision to let Robin van Persie leave for Fenerbache made sense only in the event United secured a replacement striker. The club did not. That decision was later compounded by Javier Hernández’ sale to Bayer Leverkusen, which leaves Van Gaal with Wayne Rooney as the squad’s only number nine. It is an imbalance that could well come back to haunt the Dutchman if Rooney’s stark slump in form is not resolved in the coming months.
Meanwhile, United’s failure to land an experience centre-back exposed the ‘Sergio Ramos or bust’ policy this summer. With Daley Blind still occupying a central defensive berth – and brutally exposed against Swansea City last weekend – the decision not to pursue Nicolas Otamendi, or another high-class option, could well become a source of regret. Not least because Van Gaal has fallen out with yet another player, Marcos Rojo, over the Argentine’s failure to renew his passport, while Phil Jones is injured once again. Nobody should trust the Englishman’s fitness.
The most oddball departure of the summer came with Adnan Januzaj’s loan to Borussia Dortmund. The Belgian’s technical excellence, pace and potential goal threat are all qualities Van Gaal has publicly identified as missing from his squad.
More broadly, Van Gaal’s open-door policy has a led to a rapid transition in the nature of United’s squad. Just seven first team players remain from Ferguson’s time at the club: De Gea, Jones, Rooney, Michael Carrick, Chris Smalling, Ashley Young, and Antonia Valencia.
Moreover, of the youngsters offered an opportunity last season – Tyler Blackett, Patrick McNair, Reece James, James Wilson – few, if any, are likely to feature in the months ahead. Blackett and James have left the club; McNair and Wilson will enjoy only intermittent spells on the bench. The club’s proud record of having at least one player from the academy in the match-day squad for more than 3,500 games in succession is likely to be broken this season.
The changes paint a picture of a squad development strategy that does not always sit well with supporters or everyone connected with the club.
“It was always about creating players. Now it is the opposite,” said former assistant manager Carlos Quieroz last week. “There is panic buying. You have to prepare and then make the decisions together. You can still make wrong decisions but we never made panic decisions when buying players.”
And yet, with so many millions spent, the focus also returns to United’s balance, or lack thereof. Woodward’s failure to land a world superstar may haunt the executive; his inability to fill all of the holes in Van Gaal’s squad is likely to limit the team’s competitiveness. Now that’s an assessment worthy of the ridículo moniker.