The transfer dust has finally settled, and well, it was an interesting and active window. A certain Manchester club became Voltron and spat in FFP’s face, and the other became much maligned over a deal for an unproven French forward that hasn’t had his twentieth birthday.
How did we get here though? United, while maybe taking a pass at two La Liga players that could have helped their side, honestly had a good window. Matteo Darmian was a terrific find for £12 million and Memphis for £25 million was highway robbery. Sure, Memphis is a little bit of a project coming from the Eredivisie and needs to work on being less of an individualist, but the talent is there – much more talent than the price tag would suggest. They also found a way to get Morgan Schniederlin from Southampton for less than thirty million and grabbed Bastian Schwiensteiger for less than ten, and while these wouldn’t be classified as bargains they’re still fair fees and will serve as big boosts in the deeper half of the club’s midfield. This trickled down from the summer of 2014, which saw the highly-criticized Ángel Di María fee, but also Daley Blind who’s been phenomenal for the price.
However, people seem to not want to forget that United passed on Otamendi and Pedro and seemingly overpaid for Anthony Martial. While the Otamendi situation is mysterious, the Pedro one is not. With Juan Mata and Memphis and the renaissance version of Ashley Young in the fold, Pedro would have best served United as a center forward. While his ability to operate in space and finish seems suited for that position, it’s still completely untested waters, especially for a 5’5″ winger that’s a little light in the strength department. Regardless of class, United were forced to consider him and Rooney (also not a striker) playing off each other in some manner to be one striker in total.
Until Monaco were vanquished from the Champions League.
Then United trained on the wide-forward turned striker Martial. The only issue? The price. Monaco had no real reason to sell Martial. They look poised to finish second or third in France and collect Champions League money again and their backup options are Guido Carrillo and Lacina Traoré. After letting Berbatov go without a sound, the team was set up for Martial to show his talent. Barring any horrifying injury or team implosion, he was going to be the star and command a huge fee next summer.
Many look at the transfer market as some kind of auction house. X amount of money should get you player Y, and Z amount of money will net you player A. However, that’s not the case. United needed to give Monaco incentive to sell.
Losing Martial means Monaco run the risk of losing Champions League money/Europa glory, and the Principality club had no reason to believe he would be any less touted of a prospect next summer. Furthermore, the striker market was more barren than the driest of deserts. Martial was United’s only option with Jeremy “War and” Peace removing Saido Berahino from the market and QPR holding Charlie Austin hostage.
Now, could United have worked out a striker buy well in advance? Sure. Luciano Vietto went for £15 million in the beginning of summer without much noise. The 21-year-old Argentine had an excellent season at under-the-radar Villarreal. However, Vietto isn’t similar to Martial stylistically in that he’s a bit slender and weak as well, and didn’t have UK work permits. Paulo Dybala was also an option, but he completed his move to Juventus so early in the window it seems unfeasible to think United could have worked out Dybala and Memphis before the season ended. Harry Kane was never available it seemed. Salomon Rondon was an unknown. The remainder of the barrel were old uninspiring options like Falcao (who surely wouldn’t have come back), Chicharito, Balotelli, Jovetić or Džeko.
So it was Martial, or Rooney and the ghost of strikers past. Monaco knew it, United knew it, Chelsea knew it when they were inquiring at the price of €50 million. Because of that, United were in many eyes fleeced on the price. However, Martial is extremely talented, isn’t a retread or recycled striker, and provides the strength, pace, and finishing prowess that United desire. His current résumé doesn’t inspire, but he could be is the force United crave.
Because of that, his fee was regarded as shockingly high. What point that does bring up is where teams are finding the bargains. Whether it be a fallout with the club, a yearning for broader horizons, or the selling club being more than okay selling for a good price, the new market inefficiency is players who are available to sell.
Consider the Swansea attack featuring André Ayew and Bafétimbi Gomis. Gomis is a highly uninspiring striker that needs plenty of quality play behind him to get going, but he left Ligue 1 outfit Lyon for free. (Funnily enough, Lyon’s inability to offload Gomis is how Martial ended up at Monaco.) However, the point stands that Gomis has been a solid poacher for Swansea this season. Ayew came from financial black-hole Marseille and also was a free transfer. He’s been of the highest quality since he came and has shown the gap between Ligue 1 and the EPL based on talent last season may not have been as wide as the public opinion. Also, Ayew is only 25. The concept of a player of his caliber being free at his age is remarkable, but again Marseille were in much more need to offload Ayew and his wages than Monaco ever would have been with Martial.
A similar situation is Raheem Sterling and both Eden Hazard and Alexis Sánchez. Many were quick to point out that Sánchez only went for £35 million, while Hazard arrived from Lille for £32 million. Some thought of this as a Premier League and English premium with Raheem, but the fact is Liverpool will never need to sell like Lille has to. Similarly, Sánchez is a player that Barcelona saw no use for. Similar to Mesut Özil and Real Madrid, or even Petr Čech and Chelsea. There’s a reason Arsenal saw those players come to the Emirates but couldn’t land Karim Benzema.
Sami Khedira is a man made of glass but is also a similar case, in that he was unwanted at Real. Gonzalo Castro could be a bargain for Dortmund at €11 million.
Bayern Munich even needed to shell out €30 million for Douglas Costa – a move now being lauded as the bargain of the summer. When Costa’s move was announced, most opinions stated that he was a huge risk at that price. Plucking a player out of the Ukraine who didn’t inspire for the seleção was risky, and no one could see why he could be Franck Ribéry’s replacement. After all, this is the same club that signed Robert Lewandowski for free even when Real wanted to pay top dollar.
The fact is transfers aren’t auction houses. Not even close. They’re about as unique as snowflakes or fingerprints. Player X went for the fee Y based on a cavalcade of reasons. Vietto is a bargain for £15 million, but Villarreal knew that English clubs would be wary of work permit issues. Martial for £36 million (at least) is an overpay, but did United really want to go into the season watching Rooney fail to get in behind the defense again, and again, and again? Monaco needed to be compensated for the risk they take on for playing Carrillo and Traoré up top this season. United needed to give them a reason to sell, not the other way around. And there’s no plane of existence where Sterling and Pedro should be your number one striker option. Louis van Gaal isn’t dumb enough to mismanage that.
Should United have tried to work out a new striker option well before the deadline? Yes. That doesn’t erase the amount of good business they’ve done this summer. van Gaal has removed a ton of the hang-on players from the Sir Alex era that David Moyes didn’t have it in him to sell. Robin van Persie is well washed up, Jonny Evans never really panned out, Nani was a guy whose writing had been on the wall for awhile (though he should be in Italy or France rather than Turkey) and there were many others that hadn’t been United quality for some time. It’s a process, but that process is one that takes time and it’s brighter with Darmian, Martial, Memphis and Schneiderlin than it ever was with Chicharito, RVP, and Nani.
In a few years Martial may be the biggest transfer bust since Andy Carroll, or he could be the best player to wear the nine-kit for United in quite some time. We don’t know. But the issue that needs to be addressed is his transfer is different than Pedro’s, or Sterling’s, or anyone else in world football’s. And there’s a need to bring in the full brush of context before we start comparing them. Apples aren’t oranges, and Martial being sold by Monaco is a completely distinct set of circumstances than any other transfer out there.