Many Manchester United fans are twitchy, with good reason. After an abysmal 7th place Premier League finish under the hapless David Moyes, the supporters realise that this is a summer that could possibly shape the club’s next 5-10 years. With the departures of Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Ryan Giggs this is, as things stand, a weaker squad than that which flunked so badly last season. A return to Champions League football is absolutely essential for the club, both financially and in terms of prestige and the ability to attract players. The appointment of Louis Van Gaal to replace Moyes is unquestionably a huge step in the right direction, the Dutchman having the experience, tactical nous, respect and self confidence that Moyes so lacked during his tenure. But the fans know that in certain areas the squad is now so woefully short that serious strengthening is required to become competitive again. Whilst it is only early June, concern from supporters at the lack of transfer activity at Old Trafford is mounting. In normal circumstances this would be excessive and illogical, with three months on the window remaining. But these are not normal circumstances. A combination of factors have combined that give them every reason to worry. These nerves are not based on fanciful paranoia, but on a combination of historical realities which provide evidence that rebuilding will not be an easy task.
At the forefront of the fans’ minds is, of course, the debacle of last summer, as new Vice President Ed Woodward and manager David Moyes conducted an utter shambles of a transfer window. Whoever was to blame, June boasts of huge transfer budgets and the ability to sign the world’s best players proved to be just words. After Moyes reportedly passed up the opportunity to sign Thiago Alcantara there never appeared to be any danger of a high-level footballer putting pen to paper on a contract to play for Manchester United, and August ended in disappointment and high farce with the last-minute arrival of a vastly over-priced Marouane Fellaini and the falling through of a last-gasp attempt to sign Portuguese left back Fabio Coentrao on loan from Real Madrid. There appeared to be many parallels with Arsenal post-David Dein, as transfer policy came to lack direction and conviction and promises of big spending amounted to little, the North London club failing to sign it’s primary targets or adequately address the problem areas in the squad in the years that followed.
Whilst Moyes is now gone from United, replaced by a man not known to be a ditherer and one who has a far greater knowledge of the top end market than his predecessor, Woodward remains, a head honcho whose reputation in player acquisition is quite reasonably in the gutter. Many fans do not trust him to learn his lessons and transfer his prodigious marketing acumen to the totally different environment of the market in footballers. Evidence exists, proving that he has not been up to the task and until he demonstrates otherwise concern and mockery will continue. The final weeks of the 2013/14 campaign and the early stages of the off-season, mirroring last summer, have been accompanied by reports of a huge transfer war-chest and Woodward has briefed journalists about a desire to make at least one stellar signing (the name he has given, Edinson Cavani, a player who specialises in a position in which United are well stocked with talent), drawing obvious comparison with mistakes of the past. Mancunian hacks were also told that the club hoped to have some deals done before the World Cup, something which now looks extremely unlikely. Throw in United’s continued confidence that certain acquisitions will be made and the fact that in recent times such confidence has rarely translated into success and many seem to be suffering from a sort of footballing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Other factors combine to enhance the symptoms of this affliction. The fans and the club are both acutely aware of the need to buy at least one, but probably two, central midfield players before August. Modern history tells us that United are very, very poor at signing midfielders. Indeed, since the purchase of Juan Sebastian Veron for £28.1m in 2001 the club have arguably made only one high-level, relatively successful central midfield acquisition, Michael Carrick. In the 13 years since Veron’s arrival not one world class creative or destructive talent in the middle of the pitch has put pen to paper to play at Old Trafford bar, perhaps, Owen Hargreaves and Veron himself proved to be a square peg in a round hole. In the 7 years following the purchase of the initially very promising but chronically injured Hargreaves in 2007 no first team midfielder was signed at all until the so far disastrous purchase of Marouane Fellaini last August. United have no recent record of signing the type and quality of player they desperately need in over a decade. We have forgotten what it feels like and have long since fallen back on gallows humour to deal with the farcical neglect of arguably the most important position on the football pitch. Of course, the club have been fortunate enough to have been able to field a genuinely world class midfielder of its own creation in Paul Scholes during this period and adapt another, Ryan Giggs, to play in that position, but the peak of their powers passed long ago and they needed help, cover and replacement as first team regulars long before their eventual retirements. In truth, it could be argued that the last totally successful midfield signings United made were those of Roy Keane and Paul Ince, in 1993 and 1989 respectively. Carrick has been a fine player for the club and a vital cog in a hugely successful period, but it is not unreasonable to wonder whether he has ever been able to elevate his game to the very highest level. Given the dearth of top class midfield signings is it any wonder that the fans have trouble approaching the summer with any great expectation that these key position will be successfully filled? Maybe this year things will be different and attitudes thereafter will change, but until that time low expectations will persist. If Fergie and David Gill couldn’t obtain the right players in the centre of the park what chance do we have now? We will find out soon enough.
Adding to this sense of negativity is the way in which rival clubs have hoovered up the sort of talent, particularly in midfield, that could revitalise United. With Cesc Fabregas seemingly on the way to Chelsea, to join January recruit Nemanja Matic, and Ivan Rakitic, the absurdly gifted Croatian schemer, on the verge of a move to Barcelona, Reds again have a sense of déjà vu. I’m inclined to believe the club line that Van Gaal does not want the former Arsenal man, but when such talents are available at relatively low fees and the chance to sign them is passed up, it puts incredible pressure on Woodward and the manager to deliver the players they do want from a diminishing pool of talent. That is without factoring in the concerns about the Vice President’s ability to do his job.
It is also extremely frustrating to see other clubs so far advanced in their transfer dealings, working with such direction and efficiency to sign the players they want. Whether you rate the footballers involved or not, Liverpool and Chelsea in particular have already made great strides in their recruitment plans. Deals appear to be being done relatively quickly, with a conviction that United can only dream of. City, from a position of strength, can afford to be more patient. Arsenal, as usual, lag behind. Perhaps if United hadn’t expressed such confidence in doing early deals fans would feel differently. Whilst the change of manager will naturally result in a short time lag, Woodward has been trying to extract Luke Shaw from Southampton since January. In a World Cup summer speed will be of the essence, either before or after the tournament. Whilst some clubs appear able to make high-level signings in a matter of days, United outwardly give the impression that they are either only interested in the more risky long game or are simply unable to do deals at speed.
It may be the case that one or two signings are already ‘in principle’ agreed, but if that is true then they have been completed under a veil of secrecy out of keeping with everything we have seen before in the last 12 months. I hope it comes to pass. It will show that valuable lessons have been learned and skills acquired and once the first player arrives supporters will relax a little and be more patient with United’s pursuit of the remainder of their targets. If there is one comfort it is that in Louis Van Gaal, in contrast to Moyes, we now have a manager with the gravitas and contacts to attract fine players to Old Trafford. Without Champions League football we need all the trump cards we can get. Manchester has never been the most desirable location to live and play in in Europe and United have never paid the highest fees or salaries in the world, but this is a wealthy and very highly regarded club and a managerial giant gives them the chance to bring in some very fine players, as does the still recent memories of continental and world level success. Without those ingredients recovery would be much harder. This summer is huge. Many fans are only too well aware of this and it is the fear of United losing its seat at the top table and the events of recent memory that are driving such concern. These three months have to be different. If the club get it right in the end Ed Woodward will be deservedly praised and his reputation enhanced. He will most certainly have done it the hard way.