|Manchester United’s decision to take on Radamel Falcao is a sign not just of instability but of historic upheaval at the club. Photograph: Guillaume Horcajuelo/EPA|
It is acknowledged now that clubs doing huge deals as late as United have this year are not as stable or organised as their rivals – notably Chelsea and Manchester City – who have recruited players early enough to show them round, at least, before the season starts. Yet this feverish United activity, more than £120m spent including the staggering £59.7m for Ángel di Mariía’s left-midfield thrust, £6m for a season of Falcao and Daley Blind at £14m, goes way beyond that truth about thinness of planning. This is historic upheaval – as, in hindsight, the eventual retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, like Sir Matt Busby’s before him, was always going to be.
How odd it is to recall Ferguson leaving 16 months ago, the 2013 Premier League won, an impregnable-seeming dynasty to pass on to his anointed heir David Moyes, a farewell statement in which Ferguson said credibly that he was leaving “an organisation in the strongest possible shape”. Of the players he promised enviable continuity. “The quality of this league winning squad, and the balance of ages within it, bodes well for continued success at the highest level,” he said, “whilst the structure of the youth set-up will ensure that the long-term future of the club remains a bright one.”
Few foresaw anything like the crumbling which Ferguson’s leaving, and that of his chief executive David Gill, has in fact revealed, leading to Moyes’ rapid dismissal and this summer’s scramble for Louis van Gaal. The hectic squad stocking, pursued to the last day, has lent yet more awe to Ferguson’s managerial record: that he wrested such triumphs from a squad which, as Moyes complained in vain, actually needed major reconstruction.
Shocked out of eight merry years re-financing and brand-sweating, United’s US owners, the Glazers, have had to sanction their eager executive and former banker, Edward Woodward, to tear up years of restraint. Luke Shaw, a £27m left-back, and Ander Herrera, £29m, would have sufficed in a normal Ferguson years but Woodward has clattered on. He will hope that Di María, an undoubted star acquired at a seller’s price, the £16m Argentinian defender Marcos Rojo and the late coup of Falcao will reburnish the brand Woodward has sold for the Glazers to multiple sponsors from an office in Mayfair.
His work does appear frantic compared with the strategic reinforcing by Chelsea, with the £30m Cesc Fàbregas and £32m Diego Costa, among others, signed early, and City securing the defender Eliaquim Mangala for £32m, Fernando’s midfield bite for £12m and more squad depth including Bacary Sagna and Frank Lampard’s once golden legs.
Yet there is a sadness here, too. In the rush two at United deemed as surplus stock were Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley, two young English players polished in the “youth set-up” whose merits Ferguson sang. It was another of Ferguson’s distinctions that he continued to promote homegrown players through a period when his rivals mostly stopped. These deals risk ending a great Old Trafford tradition. Cleverley and Welbeck were both Ferguson first choices in the 2013 Champions League round-of-16 second leg, when United were thrillingly beating José Mourinho’s Real Madrid until the turning point of Nani’s sending-off.
The money reaped by Premier League clubs, from the record £5.5bn 2013-16 Sky, BT, BBC and international TV deals, plus high-priced tickets and merchandise the fans stump up for, and layers of sponsorship, has meant more than £700m spent on players this summer. The transfer window has been open between a World Cup in which England wanly flopped, and the first international since, Wednesday’s friendly against Norway, for which the FA has stacks of unwanted tickets.
After brief, dutiful head-shaking following England’s exit the clubs’ response has been to spend around £600m of that £700m on talent from overseas. The stand-out exceptions have been the elevations from a shaken Southampton of Shaw, Calum Chambers, signed for £16m by Arsenal, Adam Lallana, and Rickie Lambert, bought for £25m and £4m respectively by Liverpool, where Brendan Rodgers is continuing with a core of English players. Clubs with less to spend or more modest hopes have still bought British: promoted Burnley and Leicester City; Hull City signed Tom Ince from Blackpool, Jake Livermore and the sterling Michael Dawson from Tottenham Hotspur, and Robert Snodgrass from Norwich City; Aston Villa and Sunderland have signed some, as have Southampton.
Yet Liverpool apart, at the clubs eyeing the title and elite European competition, movement is the other way. Ryan Bertrand, who famously made his Chelsea first-team debut in the 2012 Champions League final victory over Bayern Munich, has gone to Southampton, his seventh club on loan in seven years since joining from Gillingham. Manchester City prided themselves at first under Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s ownership on fielding a corps of England internationals, but that policy has been revised. Joleon Lescott and a largely unused Jack Rodwell left this summer, while Micah Richards, City’s one academy graduate in the billion pound Abu Dhabi makeover, signed for Fiorentina on a season-long loan. Manuel Pellegrini went back for his former goalkeeper at Malaga, Willy Caballero, to provide competition with Joe Hart, the one English regular left in City’s team.
Transfer deadline day, the incomparable rolling soap opera, gives way now to a week of kitchen sink suffering with Roy Hodgson, lamenting modest players called up, the retirement of Lampard’s “golden generation” who were given first team chances young, and several England internationals no longer regulars at their globalised clubs.
There was never going to be much of a debate after England’s World Cup failure, despite the many lessons in Germany’s triumph. The chances of having one now can be measured in the frenzied summer at the Glazers’ Manchester United.