Perhaps there was a time, once, where football transfers were simple transactions, made in hope and received with curiosity. This player is here now. They moved for this much. Let’s see what happens.
This is not that time. At least not for Manchester United, currently running at a ratio of 500 parts noise to one part actual football club. All transfers are statements, here where it’s noisy. All transfers say things about the club: what they are doing, what they want you to think they are doing, and what, by implication, they are not doing.
So to pick a move entirely at random, Manchester United’s signing of Dan James comes with the message, straight from the club:
look! we’re United! we’re buying exciting young players! not just splashing on big names! this is a place where stars are made, not just bought! this is a club that buys for the future, and doesn’t just chuck money at any big name in the papers! we can buy anybody we want, and we bought Dan James! he must be good!
And that’s all very nice and thoroughly admirable, though perhaps — given the general state of United, and given James nearly joined Leeds in January — the move actually reads something like this:
look! he’s quick and he’s Welsh and Ryan Giggs recommended him, and Giggs is one of the twelve numbers in Ed Woodward’s phone book, and you know who else was quick and Welsh? Ryan Giggs! what an amazing coincidence! isn’t anyway, this exactly the kind of interesting, slightly left-field move that Alex Ferguson would make? you remember Alex Ferguson, right? wasn’t he great! Dan James!
This isn’t to assume that James will flop, of course; just to note that it’s a strange move, and not necessarily any of the kinds of strange — daring strange, clever strange — that United would like to pretend it is. And something similar is happening with Juan Mata, who has just signed a two-year deal with the option for a third.
The official line out of United is that Mata is now some kind of wise old footballing Yoda, here to show the youth what’s what. After the renewal, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer described Mata as “the ultimate professional” and a “great example to our younger players”, and someone whose “vast experience will help [those younger players] to reach their potential over the coming seasons”.
And that’s all good, right? Here’s Manchester United, recognising that to make good young players, you need good old players. Wisdom, like ginger hair, is passed down through generations, and Dan James — young! exciting! did we mention young! — is going to find out from Juan Mata just what it means to be a Manchester United player.
OBVIOUS JOKE BEGINS
Yes, he’s going to find out what it’s like to be in and out of a team with no plan, how it feels to play for five managers in as many seasons, what it’s to slide from challenging for the title to not challenging for the top four …
OBVIOUS JOKE ENDS
You’ll have noticed the thing that’s missing from Solskjaer’s glowing review of Mata: he doesn’t say anything along the lines of “Also he’s really good at football”. In the quotes on United’s website, United’s manager does mention Mata’s “talent” and “intelligence”, but it gets much less attention that this mooted pastoral role. And so we get the strong impression that United have signed up a footballer but not because of the football he plays.
Your correspondent has two theories on this, one rather fanciful and one disappointingly prosaic. To turn to the most fun one first, we’re increasingly coming to the conclusion that Woodward’s time in charge can best be understood as a kind of cargo cult rendering of How To Run A Football Club: he thinks that, by moving through the forms of competent football administration, he can somehow summon a well-run football club into being.
The club has a tradition of youth? Buy some youngsters. But the club also has money? Buy some expensive ones. And young players need old ones knocking around? That man’s got a beard, give him a new contract. There we go, all in place. Why aren’t the trophies falling out of the sky?
And so we end up with Juan Mata being asked to play Eric Cantona to a new generation, without any of the foundations being in place. Without the intricate web of expertise, inspiration, and application that sat behind the previous generations and their wisdom, imparted and received. Without, frankly, anybody involved being anywhere near as good, at least as far as we can tell. Unless the plan is for Mata to inspire a new generation of mea culpa blogging, in which case, here’s to ten years of “Hugs, Dan James”.
The second theory is that United are finding life in the transfer market quite difficult, which makes giving Mata another couple of years a reasonable and safe thing to do. He’s not terrible, after all. He might be past his best, and he might not get into the team of any other notional Big Six team, and he might never have done anything to live up to that helicopter-and-pocket square entrance, but he’s here and he’s willing, and he’s certainly better than spending two months trying to sign somebody else and failing.
Obviously, they can’t say any of that. Hello, we’re Manchester United, help. That wouldn’t be very on brand at all. Instead it’s: Hello, we’re Manchester United, welcome to Juan Mata’s School for Gifted Youngsters. And just when beloved commercial partner Fox has lost the X-Men, too.
It could all work, of course; Mata is an intelligent and diligent professional, and you can never have too many of those. Just because Ed Woodward doesn’t know anything, doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to know. But the best signings speak for themselves. This one … this one does not do that. Or at least, it doesn’t say anything particularly encouraging.