Manchester United’s frustrating summer transfer window


In case it escaped your notice, Manchester United made a major signing a couple of days ago.  The Old Trafford club have struck a deal with Donaco International, making them United’s official casino resort partner.  Oh yes and there’s the business of Pedro signing for Chelsea right under the noses of Ed Woodward and Louis van Gaal.

On the face of it, this has been another underwhelming window for Manchester United so far.  Pedro opted against a move to Old Trafford. Sergio Ramos is staying at Real Madrid. Ángel di María disappeared for a few days before popping up in Qatar to sign for Paris Saint-Germain and of course there’s the specter of David de Gea’s seemingly inevitable move to the Bernabéu (this season or next) hanging over the club.

Spanish paper Marca, who have peppered their pages with stories about David de Gea all summer, put the boot in labeling United a ‘curious club’ whilst deriding the Red Devils’ inability to recruit top players despite being the second richest team in the world.  Quite the putdown.

Let’s take stock here though.  Thus far United have signed Matteo Darmian, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneiderlin, Memphis Depay and Sergio Romero.  It’s an obvious statement but United look stronger with those outfield additions.  Darmian is already looking to be a bargain. Schweinsteiger and Schneiderlin add quality to the midfield and in Memphis, United may have found a fitting heir to the fabled No. 7 shirt.

Compared to the last two summer windows United have been far more efficient this time around.  Granted the bar was set so low the last couple of seasons that any level of competency was bound to be seen as an improvement.

In fact, this is the first settled summer window United have had since losing both Sir Alex Ferguson and David Gill but it’s fair to say that the club are still trying to find their feet in ruthless world of the soccer transfer market.

Ed Woodward, United’s chief executive, has taken the brunt of the criticism for the failures in the market.  Certainly he was culpable in his first foray into the summer window along with David Moyes aiming for the likes of Cesc Fàbregas and Gareth Bale but ending up with Marouane Fellaini instead.

His first window with Louis van Gaal in 2014 was an affair in last minute wheeling and dealing.  After securing the signings of Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera in June, United waited till the last few days of the window to bring in the likes of Marcos Rojo, Daley Blind, Ángel di María and Radamel Falcao.  Not a day went by in that window without a link to Arturo Vidal, Cristiano Ronald and of course Gareth Bale.

That window had the added disruption of Louis van Gaal’s long World Cup run.

This time around United have been more decisive in the window but Woodward and van Gaal have still had their fair share of bumps.

Dani Alves effectively used Manchester United as leverage to secure a new deal with Barcelona.

Long term target Mats Hummels opted to stay at Borussia Dortmund.  Nathaniel Clyne was considered before van Gaal decided to look elsewhere whilst any interest in Roberto Firmino failed to turn into anything more tangible.

The pursuit for Sergio Ramos was scuppered because of the political climate at the Bernabéu.  Florentino Pérez’s treatment of Iker Casillas created an atmosphere of hostility and backed the Real Madrid president into a corner.  Pérez refused to sell Ramos with the former apparently telling the latter in a meeting in China that fan pressure would force his resignation if the player was allowed to leave the club.  Pérez may not have wanted Ramos to stay but he certainly needed the defender to remain.  As a result of political expediency Real Madrid’s new club captain got the contract he felt he deserved from Real.  Ramos may have well been interested in going to Old Trafford but him and his agent, brother René, certainly used Manchester United’s interest to force Florentino Pérez’s hand.

Even when United aren’t in for a player they are still being used as leverage.  The twin recognition that the club still needs players coupled with the knowledge that United have money makes the club an irresistible option for agents.  Nicolás Gaitán has been forever touted to move to Old Trafford and has once again figured prominently in United transfer gossip.   During the Ferguson era David Gill became so fed up with the continual ‘Gaitán to Old Trafford’ stories he phoned his counterpart at Benfica to request that they stop linking the player with United.  Expect more ‘Gaitán to United’ stories with the collapse of the Pedro deal.

Contrary to popular transfer gossip Louis van Gaal was not interested in signing Nicolás Otamendi (whether he should have been interested is another debate).  Reports linking the player with United were driven by his agent according to a number of journalists including Gabriele Marcotti and reporters from the Manchester Evening News amongst others.  Ed Woodward apparently labeled Otamendi “this year’s Gaitán.” Otamendi’s agent did earn his corn though securing his client a move to the blue half of Manchester.

United are good fodder for agents but then again the club have invited it upon themselves especially with boasts about its spending power and the public nature they appear to be conducting transfers.  It’s a far cry from the days of Sir Alex Ferguson’s cloak and dagger operations and the mantra of ‘value in the transfer market’.

The transfer for Pedro displayed an almost ‘Moyesian’ level of dithering.  United could have secured the Spanish International’s signature weeks ago but whether it was an issue of haggling over the fee or a change of heart from Louis van Gaal, the club have been made to look like amateurs by Chelsea.  If the fee was the reason for the hold-up then Woodward only has himself to blame but if it was van Gaal’s decision to pull the plug on the deal in favour or pursuing Sadio Mané then one can feel a measure of sympathy for the Manchester United chief executive.

With United failing land Pedro, Aleksandr Kokorin’s agent spoke up saying that the club were interested in the Russian international.  Opportune timing indeed.

However it’s worth remembering this isn’t the first time Chelsea have pinched players seemingly destined for Old Trafford.  Arjen Robben was ready to join Sir Alex Ferguson’s team before Chelsea nipped in to whisk him away to Stamford Bridge.  The John Obi Mikel saga was another affair where United and Ferguson were outdone by Chelsea.

In fact if we look at the United’s transfer history under Ferguson there have been plenty of players whom the club have failed to secure.  Aaron Ramsey, Gareth Bale, Alan Shearer (twice), Paul Gascoigne, Ronaldinho and Patrick Kluivert are just a few names who have slipped past Ferguson.

Looking further, Ferguson rarely purchased ready-made stars.  Robin van Persie was the last time he purchased a player considered to be the finished article.  Arguably, the only other previous purchases who could slot into that category in recent history are Dimitar Berbatov and Juan Sebastián Verón.  Indeed the Scot seemed happier to spend big on players with potential with Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand and Cristiano Ronaldo being the stand-out examples.

It’s plain to see that Woodward wants to make a statement, see big names like Gareth Bale or Thomas Muller at United and more importantly have them succeed.  It is a shift in policy from the Ferguson-era though the experiments with Ángel di María and Radamel Falcao didn’t end up well.  Also aiming high, as Woodward has found out, can leave one in danger of having their fingers burned.

So what is the issue at United?  Perhaps it is a question of structure and it could continue to be a problem no matter who is in charge until it is addressed.  Should United hire a sporting director to help with player recruitment and other football related issues?  With Gill and Ferguson the club didn’t need one as they knew and more importantly were capable of handling all aspects of player recruitment from strategy to negotiation.

Ferguson is a figure unique in football.  Not many people could do what he did at a big club.  His successor is a case in point.

When David Moyes was in charge he flew off to different parts of Europe to personally scout players.  His dedication to run the rule on targets can’t be questioned but could he really afford to be that personally thorough whilst delivering success at the same time?  The answer was ‘no’ as he discovered to his cost.

As for Louis van Gaal he has had limited experience in direct player recruitment and more often than not worked with a sporting director.  His specialty is coaching not recruitment and it’s too much to expect that he handle all the transfer dealings whilst being expected to bring trophies to Old Trafford.

Looking at United’s rivals in the Premier League all of them, with the exception of Arsenal, have a team tasked with recruiting talent.  At Chelsea, Michael Emanalo and Marina Granovskaia have proved to be extremely good working the transfer market.  Manchester City have Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain overseeing football related activity whilst Liverpool have a transfer committee that looks after player recruitment.

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