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Manchester United’s last 10 years of transfer business has been directionless and disappointing

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A detailed autopsy of a decade of a little good, a fair bit of bad, and a whole lot of mediocre.

Where it all started to go wrong.

Signing new footballers is one of the game’s biggest gambles. A return on your investment is never guaranteed. Previous form, current reputation, price – these things are all variables that really, have little impact on how a new player will actually perform in new surroundings.

Clubs will study absolutely everything about a player before they sign him, but the details they collect, analyse and re-analyse only ever serve as an “estimate” of sorts. It’s like when you buy a pair of new jeans online. You’ve browsed eleven hundred options, applied the filters, compared prices and convinced yourself that these are the pair for you. But it’s not until you eventually try them on that you realise that they actually look a bit sh*t.

Naturally, the key to being a success in the transfer market for clubs is signing more hits than misses. Aiming for perfection is folly – not every player is going to work out. Due diligence can only do so much and plucking individuals out of a work environment that they are thriving in and dropping them headfirst into your own is understandably going to throw up some random results.

Nevertheless, some clubs are better at this than others. FC Porto in Portugal, Juventus in Italy and Bayern Munich in Germany for example employ systems that seem to get things right in the market more often than not. There are plenty more who can claim to be savvy market operators, though the rest would probably accept a 50/50 success/failure rate as an overall positive result.

In terms of the “big” clubs around Europe, not many have fared worse in the transfer market than Manchester United over the past decade. Through a mixture of atrocious decision making, financial constraining and misdirected loyalties, United’s brief flirt with elitism was followed by a ten-year span of rapid depreciation. To find the source of the decline, we have to go back…..way back. So get ready and strap yourself in for some heavy nostalgia please……..and away we go……….

We’re through the time tunnel, with Tchaikovsky echoing eerily on the breeze, hurtling past the spinning clocks and kaleidoscopic colours, landing in 2008 and the real Summer of Love – for Manchester United fans at least. Coldplay’s Viva la Vida has been overplayed on the radio to the point that it’s catchiness has mutated into concentrated audible hate noise and the world is in the midst of a financial recession……but we don’t care.

Because having just won the Premier League and Champions League double, United are the biggest swinging d*ck on the continent and everything looks in place for a sustained period of dominance. United have a man of unrivalled brilliance in the dugout, the best defence on the planet and two of the world’s most exciting young players in Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney.

All they need do is to heed the lessons learned from the aftermath of their Champions League win in 1999 and build from a position of strength. No laurel resting this time. Job one, of course, was keeping the current team together. Ronaldo was convinced to give it one more year, but the only incoming of note was Spurs’ striker Dimitar Berbatov, acquired from under the noses of the now financially obese Manchester City.

Berbatov changed the whole dynamic of the United attack and overnight the team’s forward play was cranked down a couple of notches in terms of intensity. The squad was still superb however and Fergie won the Premier League title again, adding the League Cup and World Club Cup to the trophy cabinet with it. United lost in the Champions League final to a magnificent Barcelona team, though it wasn’t until Ronaldo left a month later that United’s short-lived reign as Kings of Europe felt over.

Feeling ostracised by Ferguson’s preference for Dimitar Berbatov, Carlos Tevez also left in the summer of 2009, removing the second prong from United’s devastating attacking trident of the previous year.

A combination of Glazer purse string tightening and the reluctance of Sir Alex to bow to the heightening transfer, wage and agents’ fees meant that the Ronaldo wedge went almost completely unspent. United tried to replace their world class talents with cheap imitations as the game but limited Antonio Valencia was drafted in along with free agent Michael Owen and the relative unknown Gabriel Obertan. We didn’t realise it at the time, but this was the start of the rot setting in. The origin of the decline.

Fast forward now through the time tunnel at even greater speed, past Obama love-ins and volcanic ash clouds to the summer of 2010 where United fans are licking their wounds with the help of David Guetta’s “Getting Over You.” The Premier League crown was lost to Chelsea and despite the efforts of Wayne Rooney, United exited the Champions League at the Quarter Final stage.

In the door at Carrington came Chris Smalling from Fulham, considered a long-term successor to Rio Ferdinand (stop laughing at the back). The little-known Little Pea, Javier Hernandez arrived from Chivas in Mexico and Fergie took a punt on Portuguese winger Bebe. The outgoings were restricted to fringe players and dead wood.

Really the 2010/11 campaign was one of Fergie’s many miracles and looking back now, the unrelenting genius of the man was searingly obvious. With Chicharito excelling and a squad heavily rotated throughout, United won back the Premier League from Chelsea and even more remarkably, took advantage of a favourable route and reached the Champions League final for the third time in four seasons. The eventual battering at the hands of Barcelona didn’t come as a surprise – it was Fabio (yes, he started), Valencia and Park against Messi, Villa and the rest. It was United’s midfield two of Carrick and Giggs against Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets. Only ever one winner.

While Bruno Mars and Jason Derulo were doing their best to ensure people didn’t enjoy music in the summer of 2011, United continued to frustrate in equal amounts with their transfer business. Edwin Van der Sar left, as did stalwarts John O’Shea and Wes Brown. Atletico Madrid’s David de Gea was chosen as the new number one, while Phil Jones was nabbed from Blackburn and earmarked as a future Nemanja Vidić replacement (I’ll send you to the Principal’s office if I have to). Both failed experiments Gabriel Obertan and Bebe were cut loose, while the perennially injured Owen Hargreaves was finally released.

United cruelly lost out to City in the league on goal difference even with the help of returning retiree Paul Scholes, though a more foreshadowing moment and a glance at the impending long-term doom on the horizon was United’s Champions League exit at the Group Stage. We were less falling behind and more falling off the edge of a cliff in football terms. Continental irrelevance incoming….

We’re going to crank up the speed on the ‘ol rickety time machine now. Let’s open her up and really see what she can do, because other than a Robin Van Persie one-man-title charge it’s all pretty grim from here on in….

“There’s no earthly way of knowing which direction we are going. There’s no knowing where we’re rowing or which way the river’s flowing…” – Willy Wonka

Summer 2012 – we’ve survived the Mayan apocalypse, Rudimental are telling us to “Feel The Love” and Carly Rae Jepson is intoning everybody’s favourite musical guilty pleasure. We didn’t realise it at the time, largely because we were too excited about the little boy inside Robin Van Persie – but United spent big and badly that summer. The Dutchman came in with Shinji Kagawa, Wilfried Zaha, Nick Powell, Angelo Henriquez and Alex Buttner. Dimitar Berbatov, Park Ji-Sung and a disillusioned young Frenchman named Paul Pogba jumped ship.

Through a string of dramatic comebacks and moments of inspirational individuality that papered over the ever-widening cracks, United won the league again – it was Fergie’s last hurrah and the parting gift of an outward-bound demigod. The Champions League was left behind in the Last 16, though the retiring Ferguson could at least exit on a high with the Premier League trophy in pocket and Paul Scholes hiding under his coat.

Ferguson was gone and with him he took the magic he used to turn average players into great ones. Without his alchemy, United would now need great players to be a great team. That might seem like an obvious thing to say and the norm for most clubs, but with Ferguson, ordinary players were dragged to performance levels beyond comprehension.

The line of managerial successors was weak – first David Moyes on the pitch failings were mirrored by his business off it. He dithered and dallied in the summer of 2013 and while supporters refreshed transfer news feeds to the tune of Jay-Z’s Magna Carta and Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines, only the atrocious Marouane Fellaini was signed. Juan Mata was signed in January 2014 as the last throw of the dice by a man with one foot already out the door.

Having finished in an unthinkably low position of 7th, United were at rock bottom. Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidić, Patrice Eva and Ryan Giggs were done, severing links to the glory days almost completely. Louis Van Gaal was subsequently handed the keys to the vault and in hindsight it was absolutely ridiculous to hand monocratic control of the squad’s overhaul to such the dangerously eccentric Dutchman.

The Summer of 2014 saw Ángel Dí Maria, Radamel Falcao, Ander Herrera, Luke Shaw, Marcos Rojo, Daley Blind sign on the dotted line with Danny Welbeck, Chicharito, Shinji Kagawa, Alex Buttner, Nani and Tom Cleverley signing off. United had parted with close to £200m their attempt to exorcise the ghost of Moyes and with the minimum target of 4th place restored (a feat helped considerably by a campaign devoid of European football) a further £150m or so was spent on Van Gaal’s “process” in the summer of 2015.

Bastian Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneiderlin, Memphis Depay, Matteo Darmian, Sergio Romero and Anthony Martial were the new faces (at this juncture, my musical references are exhausted – new music has become strange and unsettling to me). United fans were understandably titillated, that is until they actually watched their new footballers playing football.

The revolving door at Old Trafford had started to spin into overdrive – Di Maria and Falcao who were just in, were just as quickly back out again. Back out of the Champions League, bored to the point of breakdown and backed into a corner by City’s capture of Guardiola, United turned to evil incarnate in the summer of 2016, swapping Louis for José, handing him approximately £300m over two summers to manufacture a winning machine.

With the wage ceiling obliterated, in came Zlatan Ibrahimović, Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, with Eric Bailly sneaking in alongside them. With the door still flapping on its hinges, Schneiderlin and Depay were launched through in the other direction. And even though the team was packed to bursting with “stars,” United finished one place lower in the Premier League than in Van Gaal’s ill-fated second season, but Champions League football was restored through Europe League glory.

Romelu Lukaku, Nemanja Matić, Victor Lindelöf and Alexis Sánchez have since been added to the mix, while Zlatan and Mkhitaryan lasted less than a year each before being moved on. Is your head spinning yet? It’s time to ease off on the accelerator and take stock. I want you to count them. Draw up your list of the unequivocally successful signings Manchester United have made in the decade that has passed since their last Champions League win. I promise it won’t take you long. If you can’t count your total on one hand you are being too generous.

United’s transfer business since 2008 should be used as an educational example or guide on how not to operate in the market. Of course, the succession of dreadful managerial appointments has been a huge factor in perpetuating the mess. Though the policy of handing autonomous control of transfers to the manager is a model that is not only dated, it’s downright dangerous. Ed Woodward the old romantic is just too trusting.

What it all means is that we now have a collection of players built around four separate ideologies. It’s squad that has been pulled apart, reset, added to, taken away from, mished and mashed so much in such a short space of time that lot of United fans feel little or no attachment to it at all.

The directionless transfer practices have taken their toll. Most United fans don’t really know where we are as a team or where we seem to be headed. It all feels randomised and without design.

Identifying and signing players should always be a collaborative endeavour. With the right upper-management structures in place, continuity is easier to maintain and the need for entire squad reconstruction negated. With the appointment of Javier Ribalta last year and the departmental scouting overhaul that’s been taking place since, maybe, finally, United are taking the right steps to modernize how they do things.

Maybe Fred and Diogo Dalot are the first cooperative, democratically acquired players of a new era, bringing an end to ten years of waste? Maybe those jeans I bought online will fit this time? Wouldn’t that be lovely?