Sources at United admit that they were slow to update their scouting network, allowing other top European clubs to establish contact with players and agents long before they were on the scene. They have now restructured their scouting department, and signalled a new strategy in the summer with the buys of Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James – promising players that should improve while signed from ‘lower-tier’ clubs. That, though, was only done after the scars from a huge number of expensive flops had already been created.
“They now need to fix a style and fix a way of recruiting,” former United defender Gary Neville said recently. “It has been going to be painful and the board are going to need to hold their nerve.”
In the past five years, United have made four of the top 25 most expensive signings of all time – Paul Pogba, Maguire, Romelu Lukaku and Angel di Maria. City do not feature anywhere on the same list.
No transfer personifies the differences between the two clubs’ strategies in the market more than Alexis Sanchez. City had been tracking the Chile international’s contract situation at Arsenal for some time, but pulled the plug on any prospective move when United’s interest turned the bidding process into an auction for a soccer professional who had just six months remaining on his deal in north London.
In January 2018, Sanchez was unveiled to great fanfare by United, who wanted to show off their transfer coup. Sanchez, though, proved to be a disaster, scoring just three times in 38 Premier League appearances and now finds himself out on loan at Inter with United still paying a huge chunk of his £25m-a-year contract.
City’s transfer strategy has been carefully planned – carrying out due diligence and assessing the personality of everyone who joins the club, including players. In 2013, following the appointment of Manuel Pellegrini as the club’s new manager, City said they would “develop a holistic approach to all aspects of the football club”. It was a statement that caused a few giggles around the football world for its new-age management-speak, something that has been not welcomed in an environment where the no-nonsense approaches of Ferguson or Jose Mourinho were seen as more productive.
In truth, City had already been working along those lines previously, but shied away from being so open about it. They had appointed Brian Marwood as a de facto director of football but thought giving him that title would open them up to ridicule given English football’s resistance to the role, despite its success on the continent. His official title was football administrator, but in truth he was the mastermind behind the signings of a core of players, including David Silva and Sergio Aguero, that has served the club so well for the best part of a decade. Marwood was also behind improvements to the City academy and long-term infrastructure of the club that have proven to be the building blocks for where they now find themselves.
A thread runs through the club’s academy with a playing philosophy that goes from primary-school age to the first team. Players are placed in one of four statuses – incubating, emerging, prime or twilight – so that coaches can see instantly where there are any potential gaps and address them.
When asked by the Daily Telegraph what the difference was between his former clubs and both City and Liverpool, ex-United manager Mourinho said: “I think the structure of the clubs When you look at City, for example: the owner, Ferran Soriano [chief executive], Txiki Begiristain, Pep Guardiola, Pep’s staff and then the players.”
“This looks like harmony, empathy, chemistry, quality, sharing the same project, sharing the same ideas.”
While City adopted a new approach a decade ago to not only topple United but to be one of the best in Europe, United were still under the control of the iron fist of Ferguson and felt there was no reason to change things. The Scot was a phenomenon, overseeing unrivalled success as his ever-changing squad won 13 Premier League titles, five FA Cups, four League Cups and two Champions Leagues.
Possibly his greatest achievement, though, was to wrestle the title back from City to Old Trafford in 2013 with an ageing squad boosted by the arrival of Robin van Persie. At the end of that campaign and facing the task of having to build another team capable of challenging for titles consistently, he decided to call time on his long reign and retire.
It did not prompt, however, any change or modernisation in the way that the club would do business. Ferguson handed the keys to the “Chosen One”, David Moyes, along with a six-year contract and a mission to carry on where he left off. It was mission impossible. Moyes was sacked 10 months later.
From there, United have stumbled from manager to manager with knee-jerk appointments rather than via a far-sighted strategy. Louis van Gaal was the technical one. Mourinho the special one who had the spine to take on Guardiola. Now it has been Solskjaer, the emotional one who can tap into the feelings of the fans.