My guess is that most Manchester United fans are celebrating these days.
Why? Because Bastian Schweinsteiger has become a Manchester United player. He thus contributes strongly to Louis van Gaal’s rebuilding of the team, a rebuilding most fans probably had hoped was more underway than the end of last season showed it to be.
In spite of buying six new players worth $230.000.000, it was obvious that Manchester United were still in need of new quality players in central positions.
With the purchase of the winger Memphis Depay, the club continues a strong tradition of Dutch quality from PSV Eindhoven (Jaap Stam, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Park Ji-sung). And even though Depay is young, there are signs indicating that he could be an instant hit: speed, goals, dribbles, and physique to mention just a few of his key competences.
The transfer of Matteo Darmian also looks promising. Darmian may be a relatively unknown card, and United fans may also be a bit concerned about the national balance of the team, but Darmian has been impressive for both AC Torino and Italy for the past two seasons. Like Depay, he is a pure Van Gaal decision (that is, not a leftover from the Moyes era), and judging from the Dutch manager’s previous career, he has had a pretty good idea with the transfers he has made.
This brings us to the recently announced deal between Bayern Munich and Manchester United involving midfield maestro Bastian Schweinsteiger. He is not only a pure Van Gaal decision but also a sort of Van Gaal invention. After all, it was Van Gaal who transformed Schweinsteiger into a holding midfielder in 2009.
My intention in this article is double. First, the article is about Bastian Schweinsteiger. Second, the three most recent transfers give rise to a general reflection on three types of transfers to Old Trafford – three types because they involve three different horizons of time.
But first Schweinsteiger. As already mentioned, his arrival will probably cause some celebrations among United fans. And with good reason, I believe. He is as I said a transfer sanctioned by Van Gaal and also “invented” by him. That in itself is a good start. But if we look closer into what Schweinsteiger can contribute with there are of course several additional reasons.
First, his preferred foot is his right foot. Why is that so important, one might ask? Well, Van Gaal has expressed several times that he was looking for a right footed holding midfielder to relieve Michael Carrick. Schweinsteiger is hardly brought to the Theatre of Dreams just to step onto the big stage in moments when Carrick is injured, but Van Gaal’s motif is nonetheless reasonable. In several matches during the previous season, we saw Manchester United field a team in which seven out of ten outfield players were left footed. This in itself is quite extraordinary when we take into account that less than 20% of the world’s population is left footed. But, in addition, such a “leftward turn” also provides a system philosopher like Van Gaal a bit of a headache, since he is very concerned with specific roles and “automatisms,” and both have a lot to do with symmetry. When Van Gaal has been chasing a right footed and not a left footed number 6, it has to do with his propensity for balance and symmetry, and in this case he has estimated that he already had Daley Blind and Michael Carrick in his squad, but that the latter is aging and injury prone.
Apart from being right footed, Schweinsteiger also brings something the United team has lacked in recent years: True leaders. Perhaps they are not in need of exactly the same level of leadership that characterized Alex Ferguson’s first generation, the martial team. Just think of Peter Schmeichel, Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister, Roy Keane, Bryan Robson, Mark Hughes, and Eric Cantona being in the same team. But since the departure of players such as Keane, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra, and Ryan Giggs, too much winning mentality responsibility has been on the shoulders of Wayne Rooney. With Schweinsteiger, Manchester United will get a player who knows how to take responsibility, someone on whom the other players can lean, and who can also make sure that Fergie Time will be re-activated as a vital component in the team’s hunt for glory.
Like Carrick, Schweinsteiger also possesses that composure, which is so crucial for midfield maestros. And these players only become maestros if they not only manage to pass safely across the field but also pass penetratingly and goal-assistingly up the field. Both Carrick and Schweini excel in this. Carrick’s importance for Van Gaal’s team in the previous season has been well documented statistically. With Schweinsteiger, Van Gaal gets a genuine replacement for Carrick, which means that last season’s loss of points during Carrick’s absence should be minimized in the coming season.
But are all Manchester United’s problems solved with the purchase of Schweinsteiger? No, that is probably stretching it a bit too far. And here are a couple of reasons why. First, Schweinsteiger lacks – like Carrick and Blind – speed, although he has often managed to hide this weakness with his foresightedness, passing skills, and composure.
The most important problem is probably Schweinsteiger’s age. Before the new season kicks off, he will have turned 31. This brings me to this article’s second concern regarding the three types of players that historically have been brought to Old Trafford.
In my previous article, I questioned Alex Ferguson’s Robin van Persie deal. It was not my intention to question if Van Persie had been a success at Old Trafford. He was. And that simply because he was the famous difference between a championship and second spot in his first season at Manchester United. But it is also a fact that he only gave Manchester United one good season – and thus two semi-bad ones.
With Schweinsteiger, we are facing a similar dilemma. Will he, like Van Persie, end up being a quick fix and give Van Gaal and Manchester United one or two good seasons? Yes, probably. But that is perhaps okay. Maybe it is a situation that United fans must get used to. That is, it’s a situation in which the manager cannot make long-term plans like Ferguson could. Even Ferguson didn’t plan for the future with Van Persie. He had a very important objective, that is, to tilt “the noisy neighbors” off the pin. He succeeded in that. But Moyes, and then Van Gaal, inherited a Van Persie whose decline began (we can see that in hindsight) with Ferguson’s retirement announcement.
Van Persie and Schweinsteiger (and Ramos) represent a type of transfer, which we for many-many years didn’t see at Old Trafford. The purchase of players aged above 27 years. But the times they are a-changing. They already began to change during the time leading up to what turned out to be Ferguson’s last season. It is a type of transfer that in reality cannot give Manchester United more than two or three good seasons.
In this transfer window, Darmian represents the second type of transfer. With his 25 years, the Italian full back is already an established player, although he of course can be further developed by Van Gaal, by his new team mates, and by the new league. He is a player that is bought with the intention of giving Manchester United five to eight good seasons. In this category, we also find players like Park and Juan Sebastian Veron.
Depay represents the third type of incoming player. He is a long-term investment like it was the case with Rooney and Luke Shaw. Here, we are talking 10-15 years of service. This is the type of player that United fans love to love. Together with the players from the academy, they are the living proofs of the club’s ongoing commitment to youth and talent development, and thus it is players like this who endow Manchester United with a tinge of eternity through continuity and the cyclic.
Many different factors play a role in determining if the three patterns described above (2-3, 5-8, 10-15) hold water in the case of individual players. It can be nationality as in David de Gea’s case, where Ferguson’s conviction regarding longevity and long-term solution in all likelihood has turned out to be an illusion. It can be ability to adapt as in the case of Veron, where Ferguson ended up selling the Argentinian earlier than planned because he never really made it at Old Trafford. In terms of durability, we also have positive outcomes where the player actually ends up surpassing the expected horizon of time. Edwin van der Sar is an example of this.
But back to Schweini. We must say the same today as we did back then in 2012, when Van Persie arrived at Old Trafford. Congratulations to Manchester United with the capture of this world-class player. May he give the club a couple of seasons at the highest level. Because it will probably not be more than that. But that is okay.
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