When it comes to professional club soccer, the English Premier League is at the pinnacle of depth and competitiveness, with top-flight clubs on par with any other team in the world, and mid-table teams that would rival the best clubs in Europe’s other major leagues.
And yet despite this parity in high-quality soccer, over the course of the first 21 Premier League seasons, Manchester United was crowned champion 13 times, and finished no lower than third in any campaign.
The league’s 22nd season, however, marked a seismic change for the Red Devils, as legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson retired, handing the reins to young David Moyes, formerly of Everton. Despite his anointment as “The Chosen One,” Moyes led the pre-eminent alpha dogs to a seventh-place finish, never threatening for an all-important top-four Champions League berth. This sudden shift in fortunes saw Moyes replaced with accomplished Dutch national team manager Louis Van Gaal.
Van Gaal’s celebrated player management and tactics were on full display this summer, as he led the Netherlands on an entertaining run at the World Cup in Brazil, finishing in third place. The Dutchman used flexible formations in order to get the most out of an imbalanced squad, and if not for Brazil’s shocking meltdown against Germany, the Oranje’s opening-round demolition of reigning world champion Spain would have been the best victory of the tournament.
Optimism once again reigned among the Manchester United faithful, and an undefeated preseason with a largely unchanged squad had many believing that Moyes truly was the sole cause of last term’s six-place drop.
But these illusions were shed on Aug. 16, as an ignominious opening day 2-1 defeat was followed by another listless performance on Aug. 24 — a 1-1 draw with perennial relegation candidates Sunderland.
It appears increasingly likely that a departure other than Ferguson’s has had a massive impact on the team’s fortunes — Chief Executive David Gill resigned along with Sir Alex in 2013, passing his duties to accounting whiz Ed Woodward.
One of the first signings under Woodward — disappointing midfielder Marouane Fellaini — epitomized the mismanagement of the team’s 2013 season, as the club inexplicably paid above the asking price for Fellaini after hesitating to act in the final weeks of the summer transfer market.
This summer’s transfer pursuits have been similarly catastrophic, as Woodward has shown himself to be out of his depth when it comes to evaluating talent. However, Woodward’s commercial wizardry was on display as he orchestrated the biggest jersey sponsorship deal in professional history, bringing in $1.3 billion to the club over the next decade with corporate sponsors Adidas and Chevrolet.
But United can take no solace in this economic comfort, as they still lack performance results. Premier League rivals Chelsea and Liverpool all strengthened their squads and covered their weaknesses. The Blues brought in Spanish stars Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas to retool their offense, while the Reds reinvested their windfall from the inevitable departure of Luis Suarez in the attacking talent of Mario Balotelli and in defensive depth they will need for Europe-wide competitions. Similarly, 2013 champions Manchester City kept their nucleus intact while trimming their bloated budget, and fellow top-four finishers Arsenal brought in star winger Alexis Sanchez from Barcelona. Meanwhile, Manchester United has brought in the fewest number of players of any team in the league, and none of vital importance.
Woodward’s unwillingness to over-spend after initial mistakes has left Van Gaal fuming and the team in desperation as the signing window shrinks. The club has been linked with a number of big-money deals, but excluding Real Madrid star winger Angel Di Maria,the signings simply haven’t materialized.
This isn’t the Oakland Athletics, operating on a shoestring budget. This is Manchester United: one of the most valuable sports club in the entire world. For the giants of the sport, brute force is more effective than efficient bargaining; if the team is in a position of need, overspending on the best player available will do the team better than getting the right price on a mid-tier starter. Even an extra 10 million pounds, the gap between star centerback Borussia Dortmund’s Mats Hummels and any of Man U’s depleted current backline, is a drop in the ocean and a worthwhile investment.
Pressure from Van Gaal, as well as the poor start to the campaign may force Woodward to abandon caution and put the considerable money at his disposal in his manager’s hands. Di Maria, who has been inexplicably deemed surplus to requirements by Real Madrid, will reportedly come to Manchester for a club-record 56 million pounds. Several more signings are rumored to follow.
Even if the reports are true, Woodward’s caution has already cost the club dearly; all of their rivals have had the players they wanted in the fold for a month, leaving United to rush to fill crucial weaknesses. Missing the Champions League just once has already damaged the club’s presence in emerging markets and its attractiveness to elite players; a second successive failure could set the club back far more seriously.
Darius Majd is a senior in the College. The Sporting Life appears every Tuesday.