Manchester United’s recruitment has been under the scanner since Sir Alex Ferguson left the building in 2013.
David Moyes was promised the moon and was delivered Marouane Fellaini as his only summer signing minutes before the window closed. Shadows of Leighton Baines, Cesc Fabregas, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo were chased across Europe but in came only Fellaini.
Moyes went on to completely forget how he used Fellaini at Everton and played him as a defensive midfielder. There were no tears shed when the Scot was sacked nine months later.
Louis van Gaal arrived and Manchester United over-compensated for their dithering in the previous summer and took some of the worst recruitment decisions on the Dutchman’s whims and fancies.
Only three players of the 10 Van Gaal signed in 2014 and 2015 remain at the club and only one of them seem to have a long-term future at Manchester United.
The haphazard spending during the Louis van Gaal era affected Jose Mourinho as Manchester United refused to trust another manager’s judgement in 2018 after burning their fingers with the Dutchman.
The club are still paying for those mistakes as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer struggles to shift out deadwood and convince the club to spend big on a top target such as Jadon Sancho.
Louis van Gaal wrecked Manchester United’s recruitment for a few years
While the recent shift towards Manchester United’s more judicious and calibrated approach towards recruitment is a result of the club spending stupid money on Alexis Sanchez in January 2018 and learning their lessons, the seeds of it can be traced back to the Louis van Gaal years.
The Dutchman arrived with a massive reputation and his ego entered the room before he did. He was fresh off from a brilliant World Cup campaign with the Netherlands and Manchester United wanted to back the new manager after mismanaging the market the previous summer.
Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera were long-term targets who Louis van Gaal signed off on. But Manchester United went and broke the bank on Angel Di Maria, got Marcos Rojo from Sporting Lisbon and signed off on an expensive loan of Radamel Falcao. Daley Blind was also signed from Ajax towards the end of the window.
The lack of clarity, checks on the suitability of the players and a disregard for their injury record was apparent.
Di Maria never wanted to leave Real Madrid and Manchester United didn’t bother to check whether he looked forward to living in England. Louis van Gaal’s muddled thinking on how to use such a creative but mercurial talent didn’t help but Di Maria never settled in England. He was off to Paris Saint-Germain a year later.
Radamel Falcao just returned from a career-threatening knee injury and was not in shape to play in the Premier League that year. Marcos Rojo was never a centre-back who was good enough for Manchester United.
One can have sympathy for Daly Blind as he was the casualty of Jose Mourinho’s tunnel vision. He would have been a key player under a different manager who appreciated his technical ability. He went on to star in an Ajax team who were minutes away from reaching a Champions League final last year.
With Champions League football earned, Manchester United were expected to do better next summer. But Louis van Gaal decided to spend money on a washed-up and injury-prone Bastian Schweinsteiger to marshal his midfield.
Morgan Schneiderlin looked very impressive at Southampton but no checks were done on whether he would be ready for the step-up at Old Trafford.
Memphis Depay joined following an impressive season at PSV Eindhoven but again struggled under the greater scrutiny that Manchester United bring. Matteo Darmian looked good for a while but wilted away with each bad performance as his confidence took a beating.
The only success of the Louis van Gaal era is Anthony Martial. It took him a few years but the Frenchman finally showed his talent consistently in 2019-20 under a manager who is prepared to trust him.
The forward played his best football under Louis van Gaal and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer but looked lost under Jose Mourinho who never appreciated his mercurial ability.
Sergio Romero can also be deemed as a relative success and has been a patient and able deputy to David de Gea over the last five years.
Three out of ten
30 per cent is a woeful transfer hit rate but that is exactly the number of Louis van Gaal signings who are still part of the squad.
Given the question marks over whether Luke Shaw would ever be able to realise the potential he showed during his teenage years, the number comes down to two – Anthony Martial and Sergio Romero. It is hard to remember whether any of the other seven players had even one good season at Old Trafford
Manchester United’s recruitment has improved over the last 18 months. While their negotiating tactics remain painfully excruciating, scouting, planning, checks on the background of the potential recruits and the decision making have improved.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has brought more clarity and focus in the recruitment process and Manchester United know what kind of players they want rather than spend haphazardly in the market.
But Manchester United are still counting the sins of the Louis van Gaal era. The amount of money spent on utter dross has made the owners more circumspect about signing off on big deals.
Note the amount of time they took to decide to pay a record fee for Harry Maguire last summer. Joel Glazer is reportedly reluctant to meet Dortmund’s €120m asking price for Jadon Sancho this summer.
While one may question Glazers taking a billion pounds out of the club over the last 15 years and then not trusting Solskjaer’s faith in a player like Sancho, it is also not hard to know why they are being extra careful.
The last time they blindly trusted a manager, they were saddled with an unplanned but expensive squad of players with the highest wage bill in world football (thanks to another big club’s recruitment sins, United now have the second-highest wage bill).
Louis van Gaal’s incoherent spending set Manchester United back by four to five years. When they could have consolidated power at the top of the Premier League, they wasted away millions on players who were either not good enough or fit enough to perform consistently at Old Trafford.
Van Gaal’s time is also a cautionary tales for Manchester United’s army of fans on the social media who want multimillion-euro deals done in an hour.
The arrivals of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneidelin and Memphis Depay were all widely celebrated on Twitter. Ed Woodward was hailed for getting deals done quickly and learning from the summer of 2013. The result is apparent to all of us.
Louis van Gaal’s sins played a part in costing Jose Mourinho the Manchester United job. While he was ill-suited to the club’s ethos, he won two trophies and finished second with a team who had no business being the runners-up to Manchester City in 2018.
But the club’s hierarchy second-guessed his judgement and were reluctant to back him, maybe learning from the mistakes they made during the Dutchman’s time at Old Trafford.
The story seems to be repeating this summer as well. For Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Manchester United’s sake, I hope the club trust the recruitment process that they have put in place and back the manager.
But if they don’t, we all know where the sordid tale has its origins.
Also Read: Analysing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first full season in charge of Manchester United