Last week was “What If...?” week at SB Nation but since time is a construct that no longer exists, I’m doing it now.
Over the last few years, Manchester United have often wondered “what if Sir Alex Ferguson didn’t retire?” Would United still be at the top of the Premier League, especially in a league with Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp?
I find that question by itself pretty boring.
Given the relative weakness of the league in the 2-3 years after Sir Alex’s last title, it’s not a crazy assumption that he would’ve managed at least another league title in that time, even with a United team in transition. Eventually Klopp and Pep would have arrived and done exactly what Arsene Wenger and José Mourinho did when they first arrived. Then Ferguson would have done the same thing he did before: take his licks, regroup, hire a new no. 2, and figure out a way to beat them.
So instead of imagining an alternate history of how many titles Fergie would have won, this is a “What If” specifically about the rebuild. What if Sir Alex Ferguson remained in charge but now had Ed Woodward’s newly freed-up resources behind him? What would the team and squad look like now?
Ferguson managed to suck every last drop out of his last team and knew he needed to blow it up and start again. Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidić, and Patrice Evra were on their last legs. Wayne Rooney was deteriorating. Robin van Persie proved to not have much more left in the tank. Fergie was always the master of selling a year too soon rather than a year too late. But he was old, and he didn’t want to spend the energy on another rebuild (plus the unfortunate story about his wife’s sister), and so the job fell to his successors.
And so Ed Woodward comes in (replacing the also retiring David Gill) with David Moyes and starts a rebuild that is still going on today.
The final years of Fergie’s reign were marred by inactivity and a lack of ambition in the transfer market — letting Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez leave and replacing them with Antonio Valencia and Gabriel Obertan. It was marred by protests about the owners and phrases like “there’s no value in the market.”
That changed with Ed Woodward. Contrary to popular belief, Woodward is not actually cheap. He may not be good at signing players, he may not sign the right players, but cheap he is not. A lot of that is thanks to Woodward bringing in a ton of money thanks to his commercial prowess.
By January of his first year in charge he had broken United’s transfer record for Juan Mata. The following summer he broke the record for a teenager when he signed Luke Shaw. He broke United’s transfer record again to sign Ángel di María. He did it again to sign Paul Pogba.
From the summer of 2014 to the winter of 2018 Woodward approved the spending of £622.15 million in transfer fees alone. The second most in all of England, and just £32.10 million less than Manchester City. That doesn’t even include all the fees they paid for “free” transfers Zlatan Ibrahimović and Alexis Sánchez.
Assuming that Ferguson would have had the same resources at his disposal that Moyes, Louis van Gaal, and José Mourinho had from 2013 until now, how different do the last 7 years of squad-building look?
It starts, of course, with Wayne Rooney.
Ferguson’s parting gift to United was letting the club know that it was time to move on from Wayne Rooney. The first thing Woodward and Moyes did was sign Rooney to a new contract. That was a priority for Woodward because he understood the value of having a marketable superstar. Rooney was the only player at United that fit that profile.
There obviously would have been a power struggle at the top between Ferguson and Woodward. Fergie would win this because if he didn’t, he’d leave. And this what if is obviously predicated on Fergie staying so...within a year he’d have Woodward’s trust and this wouldn’t be an issue anymore.
But for now, a compromise would be made. Rooney would be sold, but United would have to bring in a new marketable superstar to replace him. Enter Gareth Bale.
Woodward was already keen on signing Bale, and Patrice Evra recently confirmed that so was Ferguson. United had a bid accepted by Tottenham to sign the Welshman in 2013, but the player opted to go to Real Madrid.
If Ferguson is around, he sells Bale on the idea of becoming the next Ryan Giggs, and playing alongside him for at least a year. The offer is too good to turn down and the Welshman moves to Old Trafford.
Next, Fergie would turn his attention back to his prodigal son Cristiano Ronaldo. Evra’s interview a few weeks ago claims that Ronaldo had agreed to return to Old Trafford, but I don’t know if this one gets over the line. Would United have the money to sign both before Woodward’s commercial machine starts churning? Without bringing in Bale would Real have sanctioned a sale for Ronaldo? His contract was running down, so it’s highly possible.
If Ronaldo joins, United have him and Bale flanking van Persie. Shinji Kagawa steps in as the number 10, and United never even look at Juan Mata (and it goes without saying they wouldn’t be signing that tall Belgian who won’t even be named).
Even if Ronaldo doesn’t join, United are pretty well set on the outside with Nani and Antonio Valencia on the right, and Ashley Young deputizing. Adnan Januzaj, who made the bench in Fergie’s final match, wouldn’t have gotten as many chances as he did under Moyes, but with better tutelage, he’d still be one to look out for. The same would especially go for Wilfried Zaha, who could have been a real force under Ferguson.
After Bale and Ronaldo, would Fergie continue vying for Woodward’s coveted splashy signings? Ferguson was never really big on galactico-type signings. His preference of players was very similar to what United’s preference is now. He wanted young up-and-coming players, and if they were British, even better. After landing a superstar like Bale, he’d turn his focus on filling out his team with more players that fit his preferred profile. Hijacking Tottenham’s deal for Christian Eriksen would have been very much on the cards.
Sergio Ramos is out. No way United would be getting two players from Real Madrid, and Ferguson was very committed to Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, and Jonny Evans taking over for Vidić and Ferdinand at the back. Perhaps he sniffs around Cesc Fabregas, but I don’t think that’s likely either.
Tom Cleverley would have retained his place in midfield. He had a very good 2012/13 season and Fergie rated him highly. His game only went south under Moyes and another year with Fergie would have only helped his development.
That would likely shape United’s outlook for the next few seasons. Ander Herrera would certainly have still arrived, as he’d be a perfect midfielder under Ferguson. Luke Shaw would have come in too to give competition to, err...Alex Büttner.
Without Ronaldo and Bale eating up all the time in Madrid, Ángel Di María wouldn’t have been available and United would have avoided that whole nightmare. In his place, United would have turned to Fergie’s preferred type of player. The best up-and-coming young English talent. Come on down, Southampton’s Adam Lallana!
Look, Fergie didn’t knock all his signings out of the park when he was manager and it’d be a bit far-fetched to think he’d start doing it now.
He’d probably swoop for Morgan Schneiderlin after the season he had for Southampton, and with the lines of communication between the two clubs now being better than they were between Southampton and Liverpool, United would probably land Sadio Mane. The idea of signing Bastian Schweinsteiger would be laughed off, and in his place would be the promising Englishman Fabian Delph.
United still pip the football world to Memphis Depay, but with Fergie around the winger is put in his place and given a much better development path.
The increased competition on the wings would see Valencia and Young get pushed back to fullback where they’d fall behind Shaw and Rafael. Daley Blind would have been welcomed in, but we’d never have heard of Marcos Rojo.
By now Fergie would have realized that Van Persie was losing it and Danny Welbeck was probably never going to get it. Moving Ronaldo to center forward would alleviate a lot of these issues but SAF definitely would have known that United would need another striker. Does that mean he splashes out £50m on Anthony Martial, a player whom he very much would not have needed in 2015? I don’t think so.
United, and Fergie, were pipped by Chelsea to Kevin de Bruyne in 2012, but could Ferguson have convinced the Belgian to come to the red half of Manchester in 2015? His history of scouting players in Germany says no, which also probably means that United still miss out on Toni Kroos.
After watching Toby Alderweireld dominate the Premier League for Southampton in 2014/15, Ferguson would have moved swiftly to sign the player from his parent club Atletíco Madrid, getting in ahead of Spurs.
Tottenham would still beat United to the signing Dele Alli from MK Dons, but by 2016/17 United would certainly have made a push for either Harry Kane or Dele. With Ferguson in charge the odds of one of them forcing through a move are much higher, but dealing with Daniel Levy is still not something United like to do, especially after prying Bale away from them. Nevertheless, Dele eventually gets his move.
The class of 2016/17 would look hilariously different. It’s hard to imagine Fergie welcoming back Paul Pogba, or any of Mino Raiola’s clients. That means no Pogba, no Zlatan, and no Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Not the end of the world for Woodward since he can still market his golden boys Ronaldo and Bale.
Eric Bailly would still join. Ferguson would have been in for John Stones too, but would have lost him in a bidding war to Manchester City. Michael Keane still would have left the club for more first team football.
Leicester City obviously don’t win the league up against a loaded United squad with Ferguson, Bale, and Ronaldo leading the charge. But with Michael Carrick getting old, Fergie casts his eyes over at at the shock top-four-finishing Foxes and identifies do-it-all midfielder N’Golo Kante to replace United’s no. 16. With United already keeping an eye on Borussia Dortmund, they also pluck youngster Julian Weigl (rather than Henrikh Mkhitaryan) to learn and grow into the deep midfield role.
Over the past few years, United’s transfer dealings would look pretty similar. United’s scouts still recommend Fred in 2018. Harry Maguire joins that summer as well, as the board is willing to back a manager they know will be here in a year’s time. A year later Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James come aboard. Having missed out on Bernardo Silva a year earlier, Ronaldo encourages Fergie to sign Bruno Fernandes over the summer.
In 2019, Woodward is able to tap into a new and massive market when he signs American superstar and boyhood Manchester United fan Christian Pulisic. Chelsea offered Pulisic more money, but the chance to work with the greatest manager ever is too much to turn down.
Over time Fergie cuts loose the pieces that are growing old or don’t make it. Anderson is axed pretty quickly. Nani, Chicharito, and Welbeck are cut loose in the middle of the decade. Lallana never quite makes the cut, while Delph looks all out of sorts when he’s not playing next to Carrick. Weigl never turns out to be more than a squad player.
It takes Marcus Rashford a bit more time to breakthrough, but training next to Ronaldo every day helps him develop his work ethic and become a superstar. Jesse Lingard makes the leap to being a tremendous squad player in the mold of Ji-Sung Park.
With Ronaldo and Bale getting older, Woodward needs to sign a new marketable superstar. United still don’t land Erling Haaland (because Mino), but Fergie and Woodward are able to quickly compromise. Young and British meet Super Marketable. In January 2020, United secure the signature of Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho, loaning him back to BVB for the rest of the season. Then in April 2020 United steal a march on their rivals and announce a deal to sign Timo Werner, finally securing a pure number 9 to replace Ronaldo.