Manchester United's Biggest Transfer Steals of the Past 10 Years
Manchester United have long since stopped specialising in the transfer steal. Even during Sir Alex Ferguson's glory years, true value for money was hard to come by. The problem is, when United come along, the selling club knows the buying club is unlikely to penny-pinch. So while the odd Ole Gunnar Solskjaer slipped through the net, Ferguson's best signings were generally pricey or happened more than a decade ago.
Some of the players on this list of the top transfer steals of the past 10 years do fall into the pricey category, but they nonetheless count as a steal because of their impact or how good they became. There are a couple of free transfers that get a mention and the odd Dutch midpriced utility player—well, OK, one Dutch midpriced utility player.
Given that United do not generally do steals, it's not a bad list. Let's take a look.
6: Michael Carrick, £18.6M, Summer 2006
In a list of the best transfer steals of the past 10 years, it is a fairly maverick choice to start with a player signed for a pretty steep price 11 years ago, but here is the reasoning.
This is Michael Carrick's 11th season at the club, as he was signed in the summer window ahead of the 2006/07 season, which means he sort of counts. And while his £18.6 million price tag was close to eye-watering at the time, as a long-term investment, it was incredibly good value.
It works out to £1.69 million for every season he's spent at United. During that time, he has helped the club win five Premier League titles, two League Cups, the UEFA Champions League, the FIFA Club World Cup and the FA Cup.
During his United career, he has transitioned from essentially serving as a kind of accomplice to Paul Scholes into being the side's most senior—and for a long time, most important—midfielder. While he is finally relinquishing that crown, he is still a vital component of the squad. Paying £18.6 million was a total bargain.
5: David De Gea, £18.9M, Summer 2011
A few years later, for a fraction more—effectively a good deal less considering transfer-fee inflation—Sir Alex made one of his boldest transfer market gambits. For the first time in his career, he gambled big on a young goalkeeper. It was an incredibly successful bet.
There were a few rocky years as David De Gea bulked up and got used to a new league, but over time, he has earned himself three Player of the Season awards at Old Trafford and is a worthy part of the pantheon of all-time great United 'keepers. There was a period of time when he was the only elite-level performer at the club.
That speaks to a problematic serious mismanagement of affairs in the post-Ferguson world, but none of that limits the enormous value United have extracted from this investment. He nudges ahead of Carrick here on the grounds that £18.9 million in 2011 was a good deal less than £18.6 million in 2006.
In the future, one of two things will happen. He will either stay at the club and be remembered as a legend, which would be well worth the price originally paid, or be sold on at a considerable profit. Either way, paying under £20 million for De Gea turned out to be a huge steal.
4: Daley Blind, £13.8M, Summer 2014
Louis van Gaal's record in the transfer market as United manager does not look great. With five of his 12 signings having already left, the failure rate is dangerously high.
The steal rate was pretty low too. His more successful signings all came at a cost, but there was one exception to that rule. Daley Blind arrived at the end of Van Gaal's first transfer window for £13.8 million, which definitely counted as a bargain in 2014.
Since then, he has made 118 appearances for the Red Devils playing at left-back, left wing-back, centre midfield and in the centre of defence. He has amassed 1,740 minutes of league football this season under Jose Mourinho, meaning only six players have featured more than him, per WhoScored.com.
He is a manager's dream, apparently happy to play anywhere he is asked. While his physical attributes stand between him and true greatness, his price compares favourably to the rest of Van Gaal's signings, and his sheer utility makes him a steal. He has slightly more "steal" value than De Gea because of their relative prices, although obviously the 'keeper is in a different echelon of quality.
3: Javier Hernandez, £6.8M, Summer 2010
With 85 starts, 72 substitute appearances and 59 goals, Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez more than paid back his transfer fee, which by 2010 standards, may as well have been free. BBC Sport reported his fee at the time as between £6 million and £8 million. Even at the more expensive end of those options, Chicharito was an enormous bargain.
His eye for goal was immediately obvious. Indeed, his debut appearance for United showed he had not just an eye but an entire face for goal, as he tripped but still managed to score in the Community Shield against Chelsea.
He had a prolific time under Sir Alex, but he went badly off the boil when David Moyes apparently considered him surplus to requirements and hardly played him in 2013/14. Van Gaal sold him to Bayer Leverkusen for just £7.3 million in August 2015 in what must surely have been one of the Dutchman's worst decisions.
With United creating a hatful of chances under Mourinho, how valuable would a poacher of Hernandez's calibre have been to the current United side?
Either way, his low price and substantial output make him United's third-biggest steal of the past decade, a long way ahead of Blind in fourth.
2: Robin van Persie, £24M, Summer 2012
One good season out of a player who cost the best part of £25 million? How can that be the second-biggest transfer steal of United's past decade?
Well, because Robin van Persie's arrival was a £24 million investment in joy. It was £24 million spent on making magical memories, the kind that will last a lifetime. Van Persie arrived after United had been brutally pipped to the title by Manchester City and almost single-handedly ensured that Manchester was red again. All the glorious scenes that followed the 2012/13 season? They all required Van Persie's presence.
It was because of him that Sir Alex's last season ended in triumph—his 13th Premier League title and United's 20th top-flight title trophy. For an end that fitting, the striker would have been a steal at twice the price.
1: Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Free Transfer, Summer 2016
In the summer of 2016, Manchester United signed Zlatan Ibrahimovic on a free transfer, and at that point any and all discussion of their biggest transfer-market steal of the past decade came to an end. Ibrahimovic is the correct answer.
His enormous commercial impact cannot be ignored here. He would have affected shirt sales, certainly, but more pointedly increased marketing visibility and attractiveness to sponsors are a huge factor. The bean counters would no doubt be delighted with his presence.
But never mind all that. He scored 28 goals. There is an element of sadness to this, as injury denied him what would have been a much more fitting end to the season—had he had been able to fire United to Europa League victory in Stockholm, for example.
But his impact around the club, his sense of presence, the chance for United fans to regularly watch him in person and his many, many goals all mean he stands alone as the biggest steal of the past decade by a mile.
On a free transfer.