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Manchester United are back... at least in the transfer market

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What a difference five years makes.

Sunderland v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

Replacing Sir Alex Ferguson and chief executive David Gill in one fell swoop was never going to be easy. But, when both men retired back in 2013, few could have predicted the troubles ahead for Manchester United. Not only did the champions plummet to seventh in the league title, but their transfer business suffered a similar nosedive.

Suffice to say, the new regime of David Moyes and Ed Woodward did not get off to a good start. The pair spent much of that summer in quixotic pursuit of Cesc Fabregas and Cristiano Ronaldo, though Moyes did find time to scuttle the Thiago Alcantara signing.

On September 3, the club finally made its first — and only — signing: Marouane Fellaini for £27.5 million. A deal that should’ve been done and dusted months before instead dragged on and on. Plus, Fellaini never proved worth the wait.

That disappointing window descended into farcical chaos on deadline day when unauthorized third-party lawyers “representing” Manchester United turned up at La Liga’s offices to finalize the Ander Herrera deal. The only problem? There was no deal and United insist to this day that they have no idea what happened.

No matter who was right or wrong, United looked something between foolish and incompetent. In short, it was a transfer window to forget.

But Ed Woodward proved himself a quick study, learning from those early missteps to build one of the world’s top transfer operations.

In just the last calendar year, the Woodward/Mourinho team pulled Romelu Lukaku out from Chelsea’s grasp, financially outmuscled Manchester City for Alexis Sánchez and Fred, and pried Diogo Dalot from his boyhood club Porto.

The summer before, United fended off interest from Real Madrid to bring Paul Pogba home for a world-record fee and recruited Zlatan Ibrahimović on a free transfer. United no longer scrambled after crumbs on deadline day (sorry Fellaini!), but instead pounced on world-class talent whenever the opportunity arose.

Especially satisfying have been the aforementioned transfer wins over rival City. After grabbing Alexis in January, United picked right up where they left off by signing Fred earlier this month. The Brazilian midfielder was reportedly a Guardiola target back in January, but Mourinho and Woodward used the past few months to win Fred over and seal the move.

Sheikh Mansour doesn’t often lose a transfer tug of war, so United deserve a lot of credit for pulling that off twice in six months.

The biggest coup of the summer, though, might be Diogo Dalot. Porto absolutely did not want to lose their young right back. Dalot only played six times for their senior team, but the European elite were watching. The Manchester Evening News revealed that more than a dozen top clubs were after the Porto youngster, and United again won out.

Dalot might not be the big name some supporters expected, but he should prove a shrewd piece of business nonetheless. His £17.4 million release clause is a bargain for such a precocious talent. United typically shop for the finished product, so it’s a nice change of pace to sign an up-and-comer who is the envy of other Champions League clubs.

And just look at how United now handle the never-ending Cristiano Ronaldo rumors. For the umpteenth summer in a row, the former United star is making noises about leaving Real Madrid — with many unnamed sources sharing his desire for an Old Trafford return.

Before, United acted like an excited puppy whenever Ronaldo deigned to mention them, even though it always ended the same way — with a bumper new Madrid contract and his old club empty-handed.

That all changed last year. Mourinho poured cold water on the speculation in July by dubbing the prospect of a Ronaldo transfer as “mission impossible”. In fact, any rumors about Ronaldo have been met with a quick briefing from the club that it’s not happening.

On some level, United probably is interested — the promotional possibilities surely make Woodward’s eyes light up — but they’re no longer so naive as to get publicly drawn into another Ronaldo transfer circus.

The biggest reason for United’s recent transfer success? A shockingly stable working relationship between Woodward and the mercurial Mourinho. United’s manager has a long history of falling out with his employers, but Woodward seems to have forged a successful — and drama-free — partnership with The Special One.

Last year, when United only signed three players instead of Mourinho’s desired four, the manager didn’t rage or brood. Instead, he thanked the board for their hard work and declared himself satisfied with that summer’s business. Such a mellow reaction to disappointment rarely happened at Chelsea or Madrid.

This burgeoning bromance might also be key to avoiding Mourinho’s “third season syndrome” in 2018/19. Stay tuned on that note.

The club’s transfers haven’t been perfect, but gone are the days when United stumbled through the market and chased impossible targets only to be left with egg on their face. Transfer efficiency might not win trophies, but it’s still a great sign that Manchester United are re-establishing themselves as a world power after a few years in the wilderness.