After three years without a Premiership title, Manchester United returned to the summit of English Football in style last season, trumping defending champ Chelsea by six points.
The Reds followed up their ninth EPL crown with a host of summer pickups: Owen Hargreaves from Bayern Munich, Nani and Anderson from Sporting Lisbon and Porto, respectively, and Carlos Tevez from West Ham.
United’s shopping bill looks likely to top £50m for the summer, dwarfing that of Chelsea. This isn't the first time the club splashed the cash in the summer transfer window: Since June 2003, United have spent an average of £29m a year on player purchases...with only one Premier League title and a League Cup to show for their outlay.
Between 1994 and 1999, United’s dominance came mainly on the backs of homegrown talents. They did spend large sums on big names—£10m on Dutch defender Jaap Stam, for example—but it was the locally developed players who gave the team its balance, versatility, and strength.
Of late, though, Alex Ferguson’s policy is beginning to resemble that of Real Madrid’s "Galacticos" era, when then-president Florentino Perez spent enormous amounts of cash on imported stars.
At one time, Madrid could field Roberto Carlos, Walter Samuel, David Beckham, Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, Michael Owen, and Ronaldo. The team was indestructible on paper, and did play some stunning football...but one championship title and a European Cup in five years were scant rewards for the hundreds of millions they shelled out along the way.
This isn't to suggest that Ferguson's recruitment policy could never work. To their credit, United seem to be buying the big names to suit a system. Hargreaves is a midfield dynamo, Nani a talented winger, and Tevez a skillful and powerful striker. If nothing else, Ferguson seems to be biding his time to find the right players for the right positions.
Last year, the manager secured Tottenham midfielder Michael Carrick for a reported £18.6m. While this was a princely sum, it allowed Ferguson to add effectively but minimally to his existing squad—and allowed United to keep their edge throughout a tough season.
Carrick’s conservative style, composure, and passing nicely complemented the play of Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Christiano Ronaldo, and Wayne Rooney—and ultimately led to the title in May.
What does all this mean for Sir Alex and his team? Consider the 1999-2000 United squad. There were six homegrown players on that club's starting 11—compared with one, skipper Gary Neville, for this year's model. Talented products of the United youth system like Wes Brown, Darren Fletcher, and John O’Shea may well be squeezed out by the new additions—and while Ferguson won't turn a blind eye to youth, the future is bleak for any up-and-comers at Old Trafford.
Buying talent rather than nurturing it has its own pitfalls. United’s purchases in recent seasons have been hit-and-miss—but the majority of his recent signings have done much to prove that Sir Alex is no fool. Rooney, Vidic, Ronaldo, Carrick, and aging goalkeeper Edwin Van Der Sar have repaid the manager's faith by revitalising a team that had lost some of its sparkle.
It may be that, after a period of domination involving a group of youngsters and a relatively barren spell of wasteful spending, Ferguson has found the right mix again. His defence is experienced and strong; his forwards are young and dynamic.
Attracting big names invites great disappointment, with Chelsea’s acquisition of Michael Ballack and Andrei Shevchenko a recent example. Signing up young prospects also carries risks.
Sir Alex is assembling a youthful United team of big names who've yet to hit their primes. Unlike Real Madrid’s "Galacticos," they'll become a star team rather than a team full of stars.