It’s that time of year again. Not much is certain in football, but when the transfer window opens, speculation linking Manchester United with the sport’s great and good can be counted on.
Gareth Bale, Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo are all apparently moving to Old Trafford this month, just like they have been for every transfer window of the past five years.
The "rumour mill" was once a term to describe the root of football’s inherent thirst for transfer gossip—now it might as well be defined as Old Trafford. There is not an elite player left in the sport who has not been linked with Louis van Gaal’s side, regardless of how outlandish or unrealistic the link may be.
United, themselves, seemingly play up to such rumours. Chief executive Ed Woodward has become a figure of fun in the transfer market, failing to secure every top target to be linked with the club. No matter how hard he tries, Woodward simply cannot capture that one marquee signing he so badly wants.
By several accounts, including this one from Marca, United were confident Ronaldo could be lured back to the Premier League in the summer following Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. Instead the Portuguese winger used his former club’s interest to leverage a bumper contract extension from Real Madrid.
Then there was Cesc Fabregas, who did seem legitimately unsettled at Barcelona. However, United fudged their attempts to agree a fee with the Catalan club for the player and watched as he signed for Chelsea the following summer.
Now the Old Trafford side are once again lining up a marquee target, with Ronaldo, Bale and Neymar in their sights, per James Ducker of the Times. With the past two summers spent overhauling the squad, United will now narrow their focus on securing the services of a higher caliber transfer target.
This approach underlines that United, and Woodward, have learned nothing from the past few years of transfer-market failure. It’s about time Manchester United dropped their fanciful, implausible transfer strategy, and instead focused on finding players capable of carrying the club on an upward arc. They must identify the next generation of shining stars and position Old Trafford as the place for them to make it big.
That’s what Ferguson did so well. He sold Manchester United as somewhere for football’s next big things to fulfil their potential, promising them a platform to demonstrate their talents. He did it with Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand and pretty much every other star to have played under the Scot at Old Trafford.
United must find a way to become that club once more. They have the financial might to lure such players, and now Woodward must put aside his personal vanity project to ensure the recovery of English football’s most successful team. He must start targeting the right players.
And so the likes of Romelu Lukaku, Marquinhos, John Stones and Max Meyer should be on the radar of the Old Trafford club. It’s players of this ilk—not Bale, Neymar or Ronaldo—that will restore Manchester United’s identity, and that’s what Woodward should be primarily concerned with at the moment. The club has lost direction and it's up to him to find it again.
Of course, Woodward’s desire to shop from football’s top shelf is understandable. United are no longer considered superpowers of the game on the pitch, so it’s at least comprehensible that they should seek to arrest that decline off it.
But with every failed effort to capture a marquee signing, United’s standing in the transfer market is weakened. It’s not a good look for a club so often positioned as football’s most powerful to fail in their attempts to sign a player so many times.
There’s a point at which eagerness crosses into desperation—and, in truth, United might have reached that point quite some time ago.
Apart from anything else, buying the best doesn’t always guarantee the best. The pitfalls of signing a marquee target should be clearer to United than most.
The transfer of Angel Di Maria to Old Trafford in the summer of 2014 showed the club could still compete at the very top of the market, but they signed a player not totally committed to the challenge in England. He didn’t want to be there.
Transfer targets should be evaluated on the merits of their individual game and suitability, not their reputation. Di Maria’s ill-fated spell at Old Trafford should serve as a warning to United and Woodward, yet it only seems to have whetted their appetite for more.
In the post-Ferguson age, United seem intent on building themselves up as the Galacticos of the Premier League. But they must assess what has worked for them in recent transfer windows, and what hasn’t.
When Woodward has succeeded in securing big-name targets—Di Maria, Radamel Falcao, Juan Mata and Bastian Schweinsteiger—results have been mixed.
Instead it has been shrewd signings like Ander Herrera, Daley Blind and Morgan Schneiderlin that have worked best.
In today’s inflated market, United will still likely have to part with a king’s ransom for some targets, but in such cases, they should only do so for players who have yet to reach their optimum.
For a club like United, it’s not so much about sell-on value, but top-level potential. They need players who can carry Van Gaal’s side forward along the rising trajectory of their own burgeoning careers. They need the next best players to become the next best team.