Manchester United’s Decade of Transfer Failure
In the decade since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, Manchester United have spent £1.32 billion in the transfer market and have not come close to winning the Premier League.
To many fans, the club’s transfer activity is to blame. They are either spending too little or too much, too rash or too slow, but of more concern is their lack of a true and consistent recruitment strategy.
With that in mind, this is the story of Manchester United’s decade of transfer failure.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement and coming in of ‘The Chosen One’ David Moyes
Sir Alex Ferguson’s personality defined Manchester United. He was a singular voice and once gone, United’s identity was too easily influenced by whoever was coaching them.
When combined with regular coaching changes and contrasting philosophies, the result would too often be quick changes in philosophical direction that lead to wastage and underperformance.
Ahead of the 2013/14 season, which was David Moyes’ first and only year at United, the club only added Marouane Fellaini to the squad that had just won the title.
It had been a summer spent pursuing Cesc Fabregas and Thiago Alcantara but ultimately ended with the player from Moyes’ former club Everton — who conformed to his more direct style of play — coming into the champions’ dressing room.
In the January window, Juan Mata was signed from Chelsea but Moyes wouldn’t last the season as he was sacked in April with a few games remaining having spent just about £70 million on transfers.
The Louis Van Gaal era
The summer of 2014/15 brought with it the arrival of Louis Van Gaal who had been conveniently hijacked in his final moments from joining Tottenham Hotspur.
The Dutchman’s tenure began with a swift change in direction. Ander Herrera was signed to perfectly suit his need for a disciplined and tactically aware midfielder.
Following Herrera on the bandwagon to Old Trafford was Daley Blind, a player who had been coached by Van Gaal in the Dutch national team and had risen through the Ajax academy system.
Luke Shaw and Marcus Rojo were signed for a combined fee of 57.5 million euros (£47m) and late in the summer, a club-record deal of £59.7 million — the highest fee ever paid by a British club at the time — for Angel Di Maria was agreed.
That season United finished fourth, and more reinforcements were subsequently brought in the following summer.
A collective 96 million euros (£82.5m) was spent on Bastian Schweinsteiger, Matteo Darmian, Memphis Depay, and Morgan Schneiderlien while goalkeeper Sergio Romero joined on a free transfer.
Late in the summer window, Anthony Martial was bought from AS Monaco for 60 million euros (£51m).
Van Gaal would win the FA Cup but amid complaints of a lack of entertaining football and coupled with a fifth-place finish, the Dutchman was dismissed and replaced by Jose Mourinho with United’s spending since Ferguson’s retirement having slightly surpassed £360 million.
The arrival of Jose Mourinho
Mourinho probably had the clearest impact on United’s transfer policy. Eric Bailly joined from Villareal and Henri Mkhitaryan — a player who suited Mourinho’s counter-attacking football perfectly — moved from Borussia Dortmund, costing 80 million euros (£68.75m) between them.
They also broke the world transfer record to re-sign Paul Pogba for 105 million euros (£93.3m) from Juventus as well as adding Zlatan Ibrahimovic on a free transfer — a player Mourinho had long admired.
United finished sixth albeit winning the Europa League and ahead of the 2017/18 season, Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic joined from Everton and Chelsea respectively. And so did Victor Lindelof from Benfica, signings that shaped the Portuguese’s physical profile.
The trio cost £140 million and midway through the season in January, Alexis Sanchez arrived in exchange for Henri Mkhitaryan who went to Arsenal.
The Red Devils would finish second, their highest place to that point since the post-Ferguson era.
United would follow that high-flying finish by signing Fred from Shakhtar Donetsk for 59 million euros (£51m), and Diego Dalot from Mourinho’s old club FC Porto for 22 million euros (£18m).
However, Mourinho would not last until Christmas and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would replace him by the end of 2018 having spurlged £368 million to take United’s total spending since 2013 to just over £728 million.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and shift in the club’s direction
Whilst Solskjaer lacked the experience to have a definitive type of football, he would prove most effective on the counter-attack and that again would show United’s transfer traits.
The following summer, winger Daniel James moved from Swansea for£15m, and fullback Aaron Wan Bissaka from Crystal Palace for £47.5m.
Centre-back Harry Maguire was signed for £80m — a world-record deal for a defender — from Leicester City and was suited to playing in a deep defensive line.
Sporting Lisbon’s Bruno Fernandes joined for £67.6m in January, with United finishing a comfortable third in the league despite a Covid-induced long break.
The following summer whilst the football world was reeling from the effects of the pandemic, United noticeably contracted their spending which was now reaching the billion-pound mark.
Donny Van De Beek and young Uruguayan winger Facundo Pellistri both moved to Old Trafford for a combined fee of 39 million euros (£33.5m). Fullback Alex Telles would join for £15m, Edinson Cavani on a free transfer, and Atlanta’s Amad Diallo would follow in the winter window for a 40 million euro fee (£34m) including bonuses.
United would finish second, a step up from the previous season.
In the summer of 2021, English winger Jadon Sancho was signed from Borussia Dortmund for £70m and so was Raphael Varane from Real Madrid for £40m and Cristiano Ronaldo from Juventus for £17m.
Earlier that year in March, John Murtough became the club’s first-ever football director and that seemed to represent a movement away from coach-led signings.
In spite of that, big spending on big names was back but of course, that wasn’t the only criticism as they were also widely accused of dithering in the transfer market.
While a deal for Sancho was completed, as in the case of Maguire, it was the second time United had pursued him as they had dedicated plenty of time pursuing him in the previous summer but with no success.
The 2021/22 season would be Soskjaer’s last as the club eventually dismissed him in November, temporarily replacing him with Ralf Ragnick on an interim basis after a run of poor results. At that point, United’s spending had passed the billion mark, £1.13 billion to be exact.
A new era under Erik Ten Hag
Erik Ten Hag would succeed Ragnick on a full-time basis and like other coaches before Sosjkaer, the Dutchman was surrounded by another round of coach-centric spending.
Former Tottenham talisman Christian Eriksen moved on a free transfer, Lisandro Martinez and Antony were also signed from Ten Hag’s former club for a combined 152 million euros (£130m) and so was a young Tyrell Malacia who moved from Feyenoord in the Eredivisie for £12.8m.
But then, following a humiliating early season loss to Brighton and Brentford, United moved quickly to sign veteran defensive midfielder Casemiro from Real Madrid for £60m plus £10m in add-ons and that of course brings us to the present day with United still chasing the elusive Premier League title having spent in excess of £1.3 billion.
Having made the biggest transfer deficit during the last 10 seasons between 2013 and 2022, Manchester United are still far from competing for the title whether that be with Manchester City, Liverpool, or more recently Arsenal.
Premier League Top 6 Club’s expenditure from 2013 to 2022
[Source - Transfermarkt]
It goes without saying that United’s spending isn’t necessarily the problem nor generally are the players who have been signed. What probably characterizes Manchester United’s transfer activity during this period has been its adherence to the temporary needs of its coaches rather than the long-term strategy.
The result has often been a squad that suits nobody.
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