Are Manchester United moving backwards under the Glazers and Woodward?
Juventus’s transfer strategy from 2012-2017 was revolutionary. Rather than an elite club going for world-class established names, the Italian giant configured a two-pronged approach to signing players.
One dimension was grabbing low-priced up and coming talent. Paul Pogba, Alvaro Morata, Paulo Dybala, Alex Sandro were part of this group. They were responsible for bringing impetus and dynamism to the squad.
Next, they targeted the opposite spectrum, hiring players in their late 20s and early 30s whose value has recently diminished. Davi Alves, Patrice Evra, Sami Khedira formed part of this group.
The man behind bringing Pogba, Sandro, Alves and Dybala to Turin was Javier Ribalta. Manchester United pulled off a coup when they signed Ribalta in 2017. In recent years, the club had trebled their global scouting network and hired reputed professionals to find the real ‘United’ players in other parts of the world.
One year on, Ribalta has left for Zenit St. Petersburg. There have been two types of news leaking out of the club. One claims that there are ‘no bad feelings’ for either party. It was a natural progression for Ribalta to take up a sporting director role at Zenit. Another source claims that Ribalta left on account of having limited control. Either way, United’s inability to hold on to such an influential scout cannot be good news.
While this news alone might not be cause enough for worry, let’s take a look at the current transfer scenario at Old Trafford.
Jose Mourinho went into the summer transfer window by submitting a list of preferred targets and priority areas for the Red Devils to strengthen to Ed Woodward. A central defender, a left-back, a right-back, at least one midfielder and a back-up striker were the minimum requirements for a title challenge in the upcoming season.
As of now, a dynamic midfielder and a young right-back have been signed. News trickling out from several media sources claim Tottenham is playing hardball over Toby Alderweireld, Mourinho’s preferred centre-back, asking for £75 million. Ed Woodward does not want to go over £50 million. He is also on holiday.
Alex Sandro is Mourinho’s target for the left-back spot, but Juventus want nothing less than £60 million. While personal terms seem to be agreed, Juventus and United disagree significantly on the valuation. Only two weeks remain before the Premier League transfer window closes.
This narrative of clubs asking huge money for top players is nothing new. Given the current market, the £50-60 million range for impactful players can be considered a steal. But Woodward risks losing out on targets by continuing to haggle.
In a recent press conference, Mourinho responded to a question about pending transfers. "One thing is what I want and another thing is what is going to happen." That paints a grim picture of United's state of affairs.
Mourinho isn’t the first United manager to express this sentiment. David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal both blamed United’s inability to sign their target players as reasons for their perceived failure. Coupled with news of on-going negotiations, United always looks like its playing on the back-foot, on-field or off. Strangely, it’s not that they don’t have the money. They are the most valuable football club in the world.
Marquee signings like Angel Di Maria, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Paul Pogba, Radamel Falcao (on loan) prove United do have a stuffed purse. In the last three years, the club has spent over £350 million.
It might be that Woodward prioritises commercial benefit more than football development and winning trophies. Di Maria famously mentioned he was signed to increase merchandise sales and rumours of Mkhitaryan being signed as a makeweight for Pogba are also known.
Gradually, United are focusing on becoming the largest commercial club in football rather than the biggest footballing club. Their priority is to remain in the top-four, raking in the Champions League money and selling shirts, rather than winning the league. The question beckons, is Manchester United moving backwards under the Glazers and Woodward?