There is a widespread belief in football that money equals success. The more money you have to spend on transfers, the more silverware that equates to.
Well since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United have served to buck that trend. Transfer fees are always an inexact science, with so much kept hush-hush, but the Old Trafford club have shelled out somewhere in excess of £500million since the summer of 2013.
That’s a staggering outlay, and you would think would mean that the playing squad at Old Trafford has significantly improved. After all, the squad that Ferguson guided to the title in 2012-13 was widely derided as one of his weakest ever and one that badly needed ripping up.
Here we put together a team of players that Manchester United have let go from that Ferguson squad, or have come and gone since, and ask whether the 2016-17 side is really any stronger than those that have come before.
Admittedly, when you have David De Gea as your number one, whoever was goalkeeper in this side was only ever going to be a placeholder.
But the case of Victor Valdes is a curious one. Brought in by Louis van Gaal after a dreadful spell on the sidelines with a serious injury, Valdes earned himself a contract but was never really given a chance, even in cup games. His fleeting appearances were solid enough, but he fell out with Van Gaal and was shipped out.
His career nosedived after the questionable decision to leave the greatest Barcelona side of all time, but now back in the Premier League with Middlesbrough, Valdes is showing why he might have been worth keeping hold of for Manchester United.
The Brazilian was a fans favourite at Old Trafford. While he always had a mistake in him, and was a raw, sometimes rash defender, Rafael played with a spirit and a fight that embodied Manchester United under Ferguson.
Ahead of the Champions League clash with Real Madrid in 2013, Ferguson said of Rafael: “The boy has no fear, he’d go into the lions den if you asked him.” Louis van Gaal clearly didn’t fancy Rafael and moved him on to Lyon.
That was a mistake. United in 2016 are devoid of the kind of fighting spirit that Rafael brought and, in truth, he was at least as good as the defensive options United are using at right-back now.
The Northern Irishman was always a back-up, a deputy to the likes of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, but that resulted in him being undervalued at Old Trafford. Since leaving for West Brom, Evans has proved what a good, solid centre half he is and has gone to show that discarding him was another error of judgment.
Was Evans the world-class centre back United so badly needed? Definitely not. But is he a better all-round defender than the crop that remained at the club, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo? Absolutely.
Here’s another tale of a young player never given a chance to prove himself. Farmed out on loan several times, Keane impressed everywhere he went and deserved an opportunity to show what he could do at the club he had played for since he was 18. He made just one League Cup appearance for United in 2012.
Yet now Keane is excelling every week in the Premier League with Burnley, and has been in the last two England squads, prompting talk of United wanting to resign him. The fact is, he should never have been allowed to leave.
The reasons for Louis van Gaal allowing Patrice Evra to leave Old Trafford were understandable. The left-back who had been one of the most important and influential figures at the club for the best part of a decade was 33 and his best years behind him.
However, Evra was a leader, a figurehead and a proven winner. He brought a mentality that United so badly lack. The Frenchman left for Juventus, where he is a regular in the side and has gone on to win yet more trophies with the Italian giants, proving he would still have performed well for United. For his character and leadership alone, Evra should have been kept at Old Trafford.
Angel Di Maria
Where do you begin with this one? When he arrived at United from Real Madrid in 2014, having been one of the stars of the World Cup, Di Maria was up there with the best players in the world. United shelled out over £60million on the Argentine and he hit the ground running.
Di Maria was majestic in his first few matches for United, a class apart. But, as the season wore on, his role became more and more confused, playing in numerous positions and his form tailed off. Personal issues also contributed, but the awful management of one of football’s biggest talents by Louis van Gaal saw Di Maria leave Old Trafford after just one year. A real waste.
The young midfielder came through the ranks at Old Trafford and was impressive in his early days. He was a big part of that title-winning campaign in 2012-13 and brought an energy and drive to midfield.
Admittedly his performances fell away and the decision not to renew his contract was no great surprise. But, you could argue he is no worse than some of United’s current midfield options, and perhaps deserved more of a chance.
Ferguson himself must share some of the blame for this failure. Kagawa was signed ahead of Ferguson’s final season having lit up the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund. He was the playmaking number 10 that United craved.
Yet Ferguson didn’t seem to know where to play him. Sometimes in central midfield, sometimes on the left to accommodate Wayne Rooney, Kagawa was wasted. It was the same story under David Moyes and the Japanese star was sold back to Dortmund.
The mercurial and frustrating Nani. The Portuguese was always capable of the brilliant and Old Trafford, but it was so often mixed in with absolute rubbish. But nonetheless, the talent was always there and he always posed a threat.
Nani was influential in Portugal winning Euro 2016 and it’s hard to argue that United wouldn’t be stronger with him still in the side rather than throwing money away to bring in the likes of Memphis Depay.
Unfortunately the Mexican became pigeon-holed as a super-sub, even under Ferguson. His ability to come on and grab a goal was extraordinary. But Hernandez was always a consistent performer for United and you always knew what he could do.
He had pace to burn and the kind of natural finishing ability United haven’t seen since. He scored 59 goals in 157 appearances for United, including 37 from 49 Premier League starts. Since leaving, he’s scored 33 goals in 55 appearances for Bayer Leverkusen. Should never have been sold.
Of all Louis van Gaal’s disastrous decisions, this one was perhaps the hardest to take. Welbeck was a local lad, an academy product and a blossoming young forward. Van Gaal’s decision to bring in the extravagantly-paid, injury-ravaged Radamel Falcao on loan triggered the sale of Welbeck to great rivals Arsenal of all clubs!
Welbeck’s progress at Arsenal has been hampered by serious injuries, but that was unforeseeable, and the United boy should still be at Old Trafford.
Honourable mention: Robin van Persie – Was moved on too soon, could still have scored goals for United.
So, when you consider the line-up that United could be fielding this season, you have to question whether the £500million outlay has actually left them with a stronger squad.
To reinforce the point, let’s compare the most-used XI from Ferguson’s last campaign, with the most common side from this season.
2012-13: De Gea, Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra, Valencia, Carrick, Cleverley, Welbeck, Rooney, Van Persie
2016-17: De Gea, Valencia, Bailly, Smalling, Shaw, Pogba, Fellaini, Mata, Rooney, Martial, Ibrahimovic
Is the current side, with £500million having been spent to construct it, significantly better than 2012? It’s fair to argue that it is no stronger at all, which goes to show the mismanagement of Manchester United since Ferguson’s retirement.