We’ve been pretty lucky as supporters of Manchester United. We’ve seen some of the greatest players, and moments — and damn it, football — in the history of the game. During the most successful period in our club’s history, there are so many strong arguments for the United’s best ever signing that it underlines just how successful we have been at recruitment. The players that signed for United and succeeded — Bryan Robson, Roy Keane, Eric Cantona, Peter Schmeichel — had era-defining careers at Old Trafford.
But not everyone succeeded. United’s list of outright busts is as long as any other big club’s and filled with infamous names. Over time though, even busts can even be remembered fondly. The failures that really stick in the craw are the ones that we thought — no, knew — were going to be good. Like with so much in football and in life, it’s the hope that kills you.
This is the Juan Sebastian Veron (“He is a f***ing great player. And you’re all f***ing idiots”) Memorial XI. Here are Manchester United’s most disappointing signings.
French goalkeepers can’t be trusted. We know this now as a matter of scientific fact, but United had to learn this the hard way back in the early 2000s. When Peter Schmeichel left United after the treble-winning campaign in 1999, Sir Alex Ferguson decided to hold live goalkeeper tryouts by playing a combination of Mark Bosnich, Raimond van der Gouw, and Massimo Taibi. United still won the league at a canter, because Fergie is a wizard. Wisely though, the great Scot recognized his folly and sought to get an established, top class ‘keeper in. And who better than the World Cup ‘98 and Euro 2000 winning stopper of the then all-conquering France team?
Enter Fabien Barthez. Barthez, signed for what was at the time a eyebrow-raising fee of £7.8 million, was meant to be a worthy successor to Schmeichel. And he had the winning pedigree that should have made him a natural fit for a United dressing room full of winners and strong characters. And in his first season, despite his, err...eccentricities, Barthez delivered. The crowd loved the confidence and passion with which he played the game, they loved his lightning quick reflexes, and he was replicating his international form on the club stage.
That was as good as it got though.
Barthez’s next two seasons delivered a second league title in 3 years, but they are remembered far more for calamity than for anything else. No goalkeeper currently at the club can really compare, but imagine if Marcos Rojo had a shot of adrenaline rammed through his breastplate like that scene in Pulp Fiction, and was then sent into goal. Imagine if we put gloves on Eric Bailly right after making him guzzle a litre of tequila. A series of high profile mistakes eventually saw Barthez dropped, and then effectively released a full year before the end of his contract. - BM
The next Duncan Edwards.
Believe it or not, young ones, but there was a time when that sentence appeared to be accurate. Jones, a product of Blackburn Rovers, caught Sir Alex Ferguson’s attention as a teenager, and initially did well to justify his (estimated) £16.5m fee in his first two seasons. He was pretty versatile, able to play centre-back, right-back, and even occasionally in midfield. However, Jones was one of many players whose form dove after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, and a promising start at United would soon turn sour.
Jones became a liability for Manchester United. He was constantly picking up injuries, and when he wasn’t injured he began a habit of significant and clumsy mistakes at the back that would prove costly on multiple occasions over the years. However, Jones was still young, prompting managers and Ed Woodward to keep him around in hopes that he’d come along eventually. Unfortunately, he just hasn’t. Though at times he’s shown he can be quite good, he has proven to be a rotation player at best. He fell well short of Duncan Edwards, and was not the successor to Rio Ferdinand or Nemanja Vidić that many hoped he could be. - CD
When José Mourinho arrived, for some reason we still thought he had a good grasp of the transfer market. Therefore, when he bought a defender we assumed Eric Bailly was going to take us to the next level. I mean, how hard could it be? We already knew Chris Smalling and Phil Jones weren’t the guys, and Marcos Rojo had already established himself as quite bad.
At first, Bailly was everything we hoped for. Big, physical, and really good defensively. Our prayers had been answered! So we looked the other way when he injured his knee in October. In year two, an ankle injury kept him out for four months. By year three, he was out of favor with Mourinho, and never found the favor of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who famously yanked him after 30 minutes on that famous night in Paris.
This year, Bailly didn’t even wait for the injury bug to get him, picking up an injury during the preseason that kept him out until February.
Bailly has a lot of good traits, but the best ability is availability and simply put Baily hasn’t been available enough. He’s played just 739 Premier League minutes in the last two years. Yikes. - PK
This one is a bit tough, as Luke Shaw is still a starter at the club and only 24, but he’s nowhere near lived up to the hype from when he first arrived.
One of Louis Van Gaal’s first signings (though a deal was in place before the Dutchman’s arrival) Shaw had the massive task of filling the hole left by Patrice Evra’s departure. He struggled at times in his debut season, but really started growing up in 2015. Unfortunately, a broken leg in the early part of the 2015/16 season nearly derailed his career, and kept him on the sideline for the rest of the season. Since then Shaw has either been battling injuries or fighting for his starting place.
Aside from a decent 2018/19, Shaw has been inconsistent and often out of shape. He’s struggled to maintain match fitness, and has already lost a step still relatively early in his career. He’s becoming the Phil Jones of left-backs, and may soon lose his spot to bright youngster Brandon Williams so soon after beating out Ashley Young. - CD
United wanted him after the 2006 World Cup but for some reason it took a year for Hargreaves to arrive at Old Trafford. The midfielder had already battled some injuries but when fit United now had their midfield pair — along with Michael Carrick — to move into the post Roy Keane era.
Right from the get-go, Hargreaves showed what he could do for United. His versatility allowed him to play at right-back, or on the right wing, allowing Ferguson to deploy the hybrid 4-4-2/4-3-3 formation that was so effective that year. United won the Premier League and Champions League double and really should have won the Treble. Hargreaves should have been a mainstay in that United midfield for years.
Unfortunately, Hargreaves never got over the injury problems that had plagued his career. He missed the start of the next season with a knee injury, and only made three appearances in September before going down with another knee injury that would keep him out for over a year. He came on in the 89th minute of the second to last match of the 2009/10 season only to get hurt again. His final year at United saw him make one appearance that lasted under five minutes.
If not for the injuries, Hargreaves would have been a tremendous signing for United. A fit Hargreaves probably makes a difference in the 2009 Champions League final. A fit Hargreaves is probably worth a few points that could have swung the 2010 title race. He’ll always go down as a fantastic “what if?” - PK
It’s important to remember just how good Morgan Schneiderlin was at Southampton. He was the backbone behind a Saints team that finished seventh. He was regularly starting alongside Blaise Matuidi and Paul Pogba in France’s midfield as they prepared for Euro 2016.
United needed a holding midfielder. Here was an international holding midfielder making waves for a mid-table club. This was exactly the kind of signing United would make under Ferguson.
Then Schneiderlin came and just never caught on. It seemed like he never seemed to fit Van Gaal’s rigid system, but there was more to it then that. He was just pretty average. The players weren’t impressed with him, new manager José Mourinho wasn’t either. He eventually left for Everton where he’s continued to be just average, and not even a first choice starter. Not a day goes by where United have regretted letting him go. - PK
Ángel Di María
Forget for a second about how Di María’s time at United played out and remember how you felt when we first signed him. This was our biggest signing in quite some time. This wasn’t a Premier League player taking a step up to join United, this was a European star at one of the biggest clubs in the world coming to us. For once the pipeline that goes from Manchester to Madrid actually went the other way.
Di María’s talent was apparent from the moment he arrived. He dominated his first few games and was a genuine joy to watch. When he first came I was eagerly awaiting matches not because I wanted to watch United, but because I wanted to watch Di María. He was our most exciting player since Ronaldo.
But things went off the rails really quickly. It only took about a month for it to become obvious that Louis van Gaal and Di María didn’t match. Di María is a dribbler; he’s an artist with the ball at his feet. Van Gaal hates dribblers. It was oil and water. Then came the whole “he didn’t settle in Manchester” thing and United had to move on from him quickly.
Di María’s isn’t remembered fondly at Old Trafford, much of which is his own doing. But it does influence how we remember him. Though we consider Di Maria’s season at Old Trafford to be a complete failure, his 10 assists (11 in all competitions) that season were double the next highest player. Only Paul Pogba has reached 10 assists in a campaign since. - PK
This is a pretty obvious one, and one that people were excited about. With Manchester City establishing a huge gap at the top of the table in January 2018, José Mourinho’s Manchester United were desperate for a boost. They were unlikely to catch up, but could still make a decent run at it, and maybe even challenge for the FA Cup or UEFA Champions League. In order to make it happen, the club negotiated a swap deal for Arsenal’s Sánchez, who had been a star for the Gunners since his arrival. City backed out of a potential deal due to his massive wage demands, which United — now regrettably — met.
The result was a poor rest of the season, in which Alexis scored a handful of goals and had some nice assists. However, it would be his only run of anything that could possibly resemble form, and his 18/19 campaign secured his “bust” status. His enormous wages, the drama he caused by pushing Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial out of the team, and his ineffective performances make him one of the most disappointing signings in club history. - CD
Memphis Depay, the player that was supposed to be United’s next star playmaker on the wing, but who turned out to be another short-lived, failed experiment. The Dutchman arrived in Summer 2015, alongside the Schmidfield and one Anthony Martial, to round out Louis Van Gaal’s second season reinforcements. There were hopes of a title challenge early on as Memphis and Martial stood out and City and Chelsea experienced a bit of a drop off. Unfortunately that wasn’t to be the case, and the dull LVG football began to result in bad draws and losses. Memphis in particular failed to make an impact against quality opposition. He couldn’t quite make the jump, and eventually lost his starting spot after the emergence of Marcus Rashford as a reliable attacking option and Martial’s move to left wing.
Depay was not given another chance under José Mourinho, and was moved to Lyon in January 2017. Like Di María, Depay has had a decent career since leaving Old Trafford for Ligue 1, but was yet another no. 7 flop in his short time in the Premier League. He clearly had immense talent, but didn’t look near ready enough to make the jump to the big time. - CD
Mkhitaryan should have been a home run for United, and he would have been if José Mourinho was not the manager of Manchester United when Micki joined the club. Prior to arriving in Manchester, Micki enjoyed one of the more prolific attacking campaigns for Borussia Dortmund where he notched 23 goals and 25 assists in the 2015-16 season. His addition to a United team that featured Zlatan Ibrahimović, Paul Pogba, and up-and-comers Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford was a mouth-watering proposition.
However, like so many victims of Mourinho’s management, Mkhitaryan was dragged through the mud, left off the team sheet, and forced to play a more defensive shape which negated his ability to create on offense. By the time he left on a swap deal to Arsenal, he had nearly fallen out of love with football and was desperate to be rid of Mourinho — I reckon we can all identify with that.
So, while technically speaking he can be listed as disappointing because he never came close to matching his output at Dortmund, we can all still remember him fondly for his contributions in the 2016-17 Europa League campaign that included goals in five different knockout matches, including the insurance goal against Ajax in the final. I don’t care if I sound like a Mkhitaryan truther, he is a huge reason why Mourinho got to tank a Champions League campaign a year later.
Plus, we’ll always have this...
Transfer deadline day, summer 2014. Within minutes of the window closing, United fans were taken on emotional rollercoaster. Academy graduate and local hero Danny Welbeck had made a shock transfer to Arsenal, but United had replaced him with the sensational signing of Radamel Falcao. Falcao had only joined from Monaco on loan with an option to buy after the end of the season, but this was widely accepted a circumstance bourne out of a time crunch as the window closed. Louis van Gaal and Ed Woodward had orchestrated the largest single-window reshaping of a United squad in modern history, and Falcao was meant to be the spearhead of this new team that was being constructed.
Falcao had only recently recovered from injury, but this was one of the most feared no. 9s in world football over the last half decade we were talking about. He had everything: pace, strength, technique, workrate, and a proven goalscoring record.
That wasn’t what United got, though. That player was in the past. What United got was a shell of the old Falcao; a man whose every failure to control a ball or beat a defender betrayed the fact that his body just could not meet the demands he was putting on it. With all due (dis)respect to the litany of pointless and underwhelming signings under van Gaal, Falcao might be pound-for-pound the biggest let down of the lot. He did nothing. By the halfway point of the season, the idea that United were going to activate their €55 million option to make his transfer permanent was beyond laughable.
Great song though. - BM
The Starting XI of Discontent: Barthez; Jones, Bailly, Shaw; Hargreaves, Schneiderlin; Di María, Sánchez, Depay, Mkhitaryan; Falcao.
Dishonorable Mentions: Tim Howard, Chris Smalling, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Ashley Young, Dimitar Berbatov.
Manager: José Mourinho