Today a guest post by Alastair Brookshaw @albrookshaw
A recent (somewhat transparent) PR drive by the Glazers has seen talk of a £100, or even £200, million war chest being made available for floundering David Moyes. But if that’s true, it will signal a marked change in United’s transfer policy over the past 5 years. Manchester United are one of the English Premier League’s big spenders. They have one of the highest wage bills in the league and have one of the most expensively assembled squads in the country. But despite all this, their transfer dealings in the last few years have had far less in common with the mega-rich, oil-funded clubs than they have with the work of the most famous penny pincher of all … Arsène Wenger.
Where’s The Money?
When United splurged £30 odd million on Dimitar Berbatov in 2008 it was simply a show of the sort of financial muscle we had come to expect from them. An already talented squad was being topped up with a world class, top-price signing. It was the sort of purchase that had kept United at the top for season after season. But nearly 6 years have gone by and United haven’t made a signing like it since.
A look at their dealings in 2009 sums up a general theme that has held true ever since: we see a mixture of ‘youth with potential’ and slightly underwhelming ‘mid-range’ purchases. So in came Pogba, Mame Biram Diouf, Obertan, Michael Owen (on a free) and Valencia. 2010 read even more like a ‘Wenger window’: Smalling, Lindegaard, Bebe and Hernandez. A year later: Phil Jones, De Gea, and Ashley Young, and so it goes on.
This is the team that spent £30 million on Rio Ferdinand in 2002. Think for a second what an equivalent purchase in 2014 terms looks like. It’s certainly not Chris Smalling for £10 million! Robin Van Persie may have been a marquee signing in many ways, but in terms of cost even he was still very much off the M&S shelf rather than Harrods. Would they have got him for £50m with 4 years left on his contract? The evidence of the past 5 windows suggests not.
‘Doing A Wenger’… Not So Easy Apparently
This period has also been one in which Fergie’s reputation truly soared above Wenger’s. While Arsenal scrambled for 4th place and famously failed to land trophies, United somehow remained at the very top, despite the extravagant spending of the oil-enhanced teams, and even as their squad appeared weaker and weaker. There can be no doubt that Fergie’s final trophies were an extraordinary testament to his will to win and his ability to wring every last drop of talent from the players at his disposal. I have been predicting their downfall for at least 2 or 3 seasons and each time have been left astounded at his ability to challenge for title with the squads at his disposal.
However, if last season is a testament to Fergie’s greatest strengths, then this season is surely highlighting some of his failings. In particular, it offers the clearest evidence yet that even he might have struggled with the task that Wenger was set just under a decade ago. If this was Fergie building a squad ‘on a budget’, it is another reminder of how impressive the job is that Wenger has done in since the stadium move. After all, Wenger didn’t have the luxury of relying on the greats he had assembled during the good times. Part of his task was to sell off the Invincibles – and later stars – at the best price he could get for the club.
By contrast, last season the league was won primarily by the United squad that Fergie had assembled at huge expense over the years preceding 2008. With the notable exception of Van Persie (and I suppose if we’re being generous De Gea) there is not a single ‘post-Berbatov’ signing who can be said to have been truly instrumental. Fergie may have had to sell Ronaldo and offload Tevez, but a comparable situation to Wenger’s would have probably seen them without Giggs, Scholes, Vidic, Ferdinand and Rooney last season.
So Where Have United Gone Wrong?
I’m being fairly kind to Fergie by likening his budgetary constraints to Wenger’s. United may have tightened their belt in relative terms over the last few years, but they are still one of the richest clubs in the world. And some of those average players still cost a considerable amount of money. Jones, De Gea and Ashley Young may not have been star signings, but they still amounted to over £50 million spent.
Whilst Wenger certainly made some missteps with his cheaper signings, in the ‘mid-range’ bracket he has blown Fergie out of the water. Since 2009 United have spent approximately £120m on: Kagawa, Zaha, Jones, De Gea, Young, Smalling, Hernandez, Bebe, Valencia (9 players). Compare that to (over the same period) £90m on: Podolski, Giroud, Cazorla, Monreal, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Arteta, Gervinho, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Vermaelen (10 players). There is of course the anomaly of Van Persie being available for £22m, but otherwise, player for player the gap in quality is pretty astronomical, as is the gulf in cost. And that, of course, is the period in which Wenger was slowly allowed to loosen the purse-strings. Imagine Fergie having to live by the budget Wenger did in the 5 years from around 2005. If his period of ‘austerity’ since 2009 is anything to go by, it might not have been at all pretty!
So What Does It All Mean?
If you’re a Manchester United fan none of this makes comfortable reading. Arguably it hints that Moyes won’t have anything like the war chest that is being reported in the papers – surely a factor in their failure to land any of their main targets in the summer. (Perhaps it also explains why Moyes was the first choice for the job in the first place? He is, after all, a man with a reputation for keeping teams competitive on a tight budget.) And should they fail to reach the Champions League next season those budgetary constraints will only get worse (particularly as one can only assume it will have a knock-on effect on their celebrated commercial revenue). Sure, there will always be money available – the money they wasted on Fellaini in the summer proves that – but, unless their spending policy for the past few years has been some sort of clever ruse, I don’t think Moyes will be able to spend his way out of trouble as easily as some would have you believe.
As an Arsenal fan it is yet another reason to re-evaluate the last 8 or 9 years of ‘failure’. Fergie is rightly considered to be one of the greatest managers of the modern era and yet even he has struggled to build and improve a squad under financial pressure that is minimal, compared to the constraints Wenger was under, in the early Emirates years. Unlike Wenger he was under no pressure to sell his ‘big guns’ so still had enough quality in his squad to keep winning trophies, but the overall impact is now being felt. Many of those players – Vidic, Ferdinand, Scholes, Giggs, Evra, Van Der Saar – are either recently retired or on the wane and suddenly this season we are presented with a vision of what United’s squad might have looked like if they had had to tighten their belts to the extent that Arsenal did.
It also offers a vindication of Wenger’s care in the transfer market, especially at higher prices. If one cry has been most common amongst a certain section of fans it has been:
“We understand we can’t afford Messi. That’s not what we are asking for. Just buy top quality players in the £15m-£30 mark.”
I’ve written elsewhere that, unless you’re careful, some of the worst value in football is in this category, and United’s transfer list post 2009 shows how easy it is to waste your money. The usual suspects are still moaning that not all of our transfer kitty was spent in the summer, but it would only take two or three ‘Fellaini-style’ missteps for that money to disappear down the drain very quickly. There is, of course, an irony that the same people moaning about it are the ones who have been most critical of our ‘deadwood’ in years past. As another transfer window progresses, perhaps it’s time for some of those critics to start considering just how many times Arsène has got it right and they’ve got it wrong!