The question for Manchester United is whether they can afford NOT to pay £50m for Angel Di Maria
There will be a press conference at Old Trafford on Friday to announce a Manchester United signing – it is a contract extension if we are splitting hairs – although this one won’t be of any use come Sunday at the Stadium of Light.
The sponsorship rainmakers of Old Trafford, based in the club’s Mayfair office, keep those commercial endorsements coming. If only making signings were that simple for Louis van Gaal and his vice-chairman Ed Woodward, who find themselves hurtling towards the end of the transfer window with one home defeat, an unfit teenage left-back and an uncapped Spanish midfielder to show for their labours this summer.
So begins the renewed pursuit of Angel Di Maria, despite him not really being what United need at this stage of their putative rebuilding. Judging by his reluctance to force through a move to Paris Saint-Germain earlier in the summer, he is not that keen on leaving Real Madrid either.
But the mood at United is rather like it was in January when they acquired Juan Mata, also not quite the kind of player they needed then. The imperative then, as now, was that Manchester United started behaving like Manchester United again: spending big money on big players. The signing of Argentinian playmaker Juan Sebastian Veron for £28.1m from Lazio in 2001 was the last time Manchester United broke the bank to sign a player from abroad.
Signing Di Maria would be a statement, but a statement of what? He is a fine winger and he is available, just as Mata was available in January. There is no shame in picking up Madrid’s cast-offs when one looks at Arjen Robben’s post-Real career. The bigger question is about United’s long-term position in the world transfer market.
In his column for The Independent last week, Paul Scholes asked why one of Cesc Fabregas and Toni Kroos, both long-term United targets, had not been signed this summer. United have always struggled to sign the best overseas players on the market, throughout the modern era under Sir Alex Ferguson, and now, as the club try to establish themselves post-Ferguson, it is becoming even more of a problem.
Over the club’s transfer history since the turn of the millennium, United have been successful in signing most of the best English players when they come on the market. Rio Ferdinand, Wayne Rooney, Alan Smith, Michael Carrick, Owen Hargreaves, Phil Jones, Ashley Young and Luke Shaw. They have signed many of the best Premier League-based foreign stars who have been made available: Louis Saha, Carlos Tevez (on loan), Dimitar Berbatov, Antonio Valencia, Robin van Persie and Mata.
But when it comes to competing with the biggest clubs in Europe for the talent du jour, that player who has become one of the chief targets for the summer, you have to go back to the summer of 2001 for their last big coup, when they signed Juan Sebastian Veron from Lazio. Even so, that summer Real Madrid signed Zinedine Zidane for £46m. United have always struggled to sign the very best players from Europe, missing out on the likes of Ronaldinho.
It was more a case of who United missed out on over the Ferguson years: Patrick Kluivert in his 1990s pomp, Ronaldinho when he went to Barcelona in 2003, Karim Benzema when he joined Real Madrid. The scale of United has a pull on British players and those from overseas based here already (see Van Persie’s “little boy inside”) but they have always struggled to sign the market’s biggest prizes, even when they were the champions of Europe.
The problem? It has to be said that relocating to Manchester is not always an easy sell to the modern footballer from overseas. Preposterous as that may sound, it is the reality northern clubs are faced with. Manchester City have had to pay a premium to overcome that and, having attracted the likes of Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Yaya Touré, have wisely renegotiated contracts to keep them there.
The upward curve of United’s record transfer fee has been far below that of the world record fee. In 2001, when United broke their 1998 record of £12m for Dwight Yorke by signing Ruud van Nistelrooy (£19m) and Veron (£28.1m), Madrid signed Zidane for just less than those two fees combined. The reported figures are never exact but United have paid only four bigger fees since Veron – for Mata, their biggest so far at £37m, Berbatov, Ferdinand and Ander Herrera.
If Di Maria was to sign for the reputed £50m, the transfer would be placed eighth on the list of all-time fees, alongside the £50m British record Chelsea paid for Fernando Torres and the same amount PSG have committed to David Luiz. The top five fees have all been paid by either Real Madrid or Barcelona and all in the past five years as the arms race has intensified. Manchester United midfielder Juan Mata The £37m paid for Juan Mata in January was a club record.
Of course, it is not all about the size of the fee. The £12.24m United paid in 2003 for a teenage Cristiano Ronaldo was the signing of that decade, perhaps any decade. And no one would wish on United the preposterously lavish pursuit of success, and high turnover of players, Madrid have embarked upon every summer over the past 10 years while leaving major questions over their funding unanswered.
Nevertheless, United’s abstinence in the rising figures would be a lot more laudable had the club not spent the past nine years paying around £680m to service the debt of their owners, the Glazer family. They could not have competed for every player the big two in Spain have signed, but they should have competed for at least one or two.
Once upon a time, Ferguson said that there was no value in the transfer market and, given his success and his longevity, that was accepted in many quarters as the wisest option. The question now for United, however, is not whether they can afford to pay those kind of prices. The question is whether they can afford not to.
Successful clubs have a momentum about them when it comes to signings. They find it easier to attract better players, year after year. Madrid and Barcelona had to wrestle the initiative from the big Italian clubs, just as Chelsea and City had to pay over the odds early on to get the ball rolling. Manchester United's chief executive Ed Woodward Manchester United's chief executive Ed Woodward
For United, after their years of Glazer frugality under Ferguson, the momentum has come to a halt. Thus, 13 years since they signed Veron, they find themselves once again trying to persuade a reluctant Argentine to come to Old Trafford. It will take more than Di Maria’s acquisition to change the mood around United when it comes to the club’s status in the minds of the world’s elite footballers.
In the meantime, United will have to ensure that the tyre manufacturers, vintners, courier services, savoury snack manufacturers and home office equipment suppliers keep signing up to their commercial partners operation. They will not be able to afford the premium on new players otherwise.
Back to Friday, and Apollo Tyres, the press release tells me, has enlisted the former United striker Andy Cole to launch its new contract, presumably on the basis that no football reporter is going to turn up just to talk treads and inner tubes.
Cole’s £7m signing from Newcastle United almost 20 years ago was one of the three occasions when Ferguson broke the British transfer record. Coming from one of their nearest rivals, it was one of those signings that jolted you with the scale of United’s ambition and power. They could do with a bit of that in the next 13 days, although it will take much longer, and a lot more money, to fix the bigger problems.