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Manchester United adopted a Galactico policy, and failed miserably

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In chasing superstars instead of focusing on team-building, United put the cart before the horse

Huddersfield Town v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

It’s easy to forget while listening to ageing ex-footballers dissect the weaknesses of the modern footballer and their lifestyles that some of these ex-footballers were phenomenal talents in their day.

The signing of Roy Keane in 1993 was a blockbuster deal, in which one of the greatest young talents in English — and maybe even European — football signed for Manchester United ahead of their rivals, establishing the Red Devils as a force for not only the present but the future.

Keane was the coup of 1993.

It was a British record transfer fee that left Blackburn manager Kenny Dalglish fuming; famously spitting venom down the phone to Keane, once he heard of Keane’s choice. Keane had been United’s biggest signing since Bryan Robson more than a decade earlier and it would herald a new tradition of big signings arriving at Old Trafford.

Keane, Veron, Van Nistelrooy, Ferdinand, Rooney, Van Persie …. Di Maria, Pogba, Sanchez.

Keane was not signed to be the heartbeat of the 1993 team; that would come years later. Keane was not to be the superstar around which the team would be built. There was an attempt to establish United’s play around Juan Veron and that ended badly. For the most part however, United’s ‘superstar signings’ such as Ferdinand, Rooney and Van Persie, were players joining established teams with the ambition that they would either drive the team into the future or provide the icing on the cake for an already steady team.

Somewhere around 2014 however, the transfer strategy began to malfunction in Manchester. That’s a well-established fact; but the core principle which failed so badly was the notion that a single signing could be the fulcrum around which an entire team would succeed.

The men running Manchester United began looking for a saviour.

Di Maria, Falcao, Pogba, Sánchez…. Pogba.

Probably truer than with any other signing, Paul Pogba – fairly or unfairly – was to be the player around which Manchester United’s present and future would be based. Pogba would be the on-field general and the impetus to not only attacking play, but entire team building.

There were two problems with that.

Firstly, Pogba is not Bryan Robson or Roy Keane. For all his talent, he is not the galvanising, last-man-manning the barricades type footballer. It’s not a criticism, and it is a shame he is not that type of footballer, but he simply is not.

Pogba would have been a fine addition to an already striving team.

Secondly, football supporters the world over scoffed at the Real Madrid ‘Galactico’ policy of the early 2000s. For all its hype, lustre and ability to pigeon hole large numbers of phenomenal players into the one team, it simply did not work. David Beckham left Manchester United for Real Madrid in 2003, playing for Madrid for four years during the pomp of their Galactico era and only won one La Liga title for his troubles.

Signing superstar players and expecting ‘the worker bees’ or ‘the minion players’ around them to endeavour to get the best out of their more talented counterparts simply does not work. Manchester United supporters have spent three years talking about the best players and system to ‘get the best out of Pogba’.

What about playing the players to get the best out of Manchester United?

Take a novel approach. Rather than signing a superstar central midfielder or a star striker, Manchester United set about quietly team building. No £80m signings for a year. Instead of having one player save our season, let’s return to the era when a superstar signing was intended to be the icing on the cake of an already established team or a star for the future who is given time to grow into the role.

Only three members of the Manchester City team that played Arsenal in May 2016 are still at the club, and they did this without signing established superstars around which to build their team.

Even Wolves had quietly built an impressive collective without having the pulling power of money, London or Champions League football.

In April 1988, Manchester United drew 3-3 with Liverpool at Anfield. Only three of that starting eleven played in the side that won the FA Cup in 1990 two years later. Eight players from that FA Cup winning team went on to win the Premier League in 1993.

It took five years. Team building takes time. In those years, United signed Bruce, Pallister, Ince, Sharpe and McClair. It wasn’t Barnes, Lineker, or Stoichkov they targeted. Ferguson and Martin Edwards targeted team building and the formation of a spine in the team; a group collective of footballers who lived and died together.

The superstars would come later.

Should Manchester United embark on a transfer strategy this summer where Paulo Dybala, Gareth Bale, and Jadon Sancho are the main names being considered, before the fundamentals of a team spine have been established, then the rot that is currently present in Manchester is far from entering remission.

There has been a lack of understanding in Manchester in recent seasons. Superstars are not the building blocks to a team; they are the gloss or shimmer when the team is built.

Without wanting to depress United fans, the club should be looking at the development of Liverpool since 2015 and Manchester City since 2016. What superstars did either of these teams sign? Southampton’s Virgil Van Dijk was probably the most renowned signing for either side.

Team building, rather than superstar signing, should be the strategy for Manchester United going forward.

There will come a time when Manchester United should herald the return of their superstar signings, but following a season that has been wholly depressing for the team and its supporters, that time is not now.

Paul Pogba is taking tremendous criticism for not being the superstar signing Manchester United and their fans wanted. The problem was that Pogba, like Veron before him, was not the sort to invigorate a team that needed fire. Even worse than for Pogba, he encountered a supporting cast that was ever rotating and arguably never good enough to play for Manchester United.

Supporters can hope that in the coming years, the days of a ‘supporting cast’ might be consigned to the past and a balanced team, much like a balanced diet, might better serve Manchester United and their supporters.