United's marquee mishits
To the casual observer, it seems another indication of the Fergie factor. Equipped with ambition and boasting an enviable budget, Manchester United set about securing a marquee signing this summer. Lacking the aura and allure of the retired Sir Alex Ferguson, David Moyes has so far failed to secure one. It seems a damning indictment of the mere mortal who has stepped into the shoes of a legend.
Moyes' explanation of his failed pursuit of Cesc Fabregas seemed an obvious assertion. "Because Manchester United go after the best players in the world," he said. Yet, more often than not, they don't. Or to be more specific, they don't often go after the footballers widely acknowledged as the finest on the planet, already playing for the biggest clubs and coming at a commensurate cost.
And when even the great Ferguson did, he was often frustrated. He targeted Patrick Kluivert, Gennaro Gattuso, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Wesley Sneijder and signed none of them. Perhaps the one supposed triumph, the purchase of a proven world-class player from an elite club in a major league, was actually a failure: Juan Sebastian Veron rarely replicated his Parma, Lazio and Argentina form for United and left at a large loss.
No other arrival gets automatic entry into the category of the best. Owen Hargreaves came from Bayern Munich, but at a time when German club football lacked its current pre-eminence. Shinji Kagawa joined from Borussia Dortmund, but the year before they blazed a trail on the continent. Patrice Evra signed from Monaco, 20 months after playing in a Champions League final but leaving a club who were already in decline. When Ferguson tried to raid France for Ronaldinho, the World Cup winner preferred Barcelona.
The reality is that his pivotal buys came almost exclusively from lesser leagues and lower-ranking English clubs. Though Nemanja Vidic and Andrei Kanchelskis were recruited from Russia -- and at a time when fewer billionaires were investing there -- and the net was cast wider to find Tim Howard, Javier Hernandez and the Da Silva twins in North and South America, the three principal areas were Scandinavia, Holland and Portugal.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Peter Schmeichel crossed the North Sea, one to deliver the 1999 Champions League and the other to lift it. Jaap Stam, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Ji-sung Park traded the lowlands of the Netherlands for the heights they reached in Manchester. Cristiano Ronaldo spearheaded the arrival of the Portuguese armada, planned by Carlos Queiroz.
The common denominator is that United was a step up for each, a bigger club in a grander league. They were given a platform to perform. Fabregas and Thiago Alcantara, already at Barcelona, did not need that. Indeed, United's dealings from the Nou Camp have only produced the homesick and returning Mark Hughes, the fringe player Jordi Cruyff and the teenage Gerard Pique, who realised his potential on his return to Catalonia. Their major additions from the top Italian clubs add up to two: Veron and Denis Law, signed by Sir Matt Busby in 1962.
Nor, indeed, do United often buy from the best in England. In one sense, Moyes himself is a classic United recruit, plucked from a smaller Premier League club. So was Ferguson, lured south from Scotland in the days when that constituted the club's foreign policy.
When he concentrated on the domestic market, Ferguson signed successfully from Norwich, West Ham, Middlesbrough, QPR, Oldham, Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa, Tottenham, Everton, Wigan, Fulham and Blackburn. Rarely, however, did he succeed in strengthening his own side and weakening a major rival in one fell swoop. Andy Cole, a £7 million arrival from Newcastle in 1995, is very much an exception to the rule.
In part, that is because of the dynamics of the English game. The two Milan clubs trade with one another more often and willingly than United and their major enemies. Famously, no player has been transferred between Old Trafford and Anfield, or vice versa, since Phil Chisnall in 1964. Nor do United sign from Manchester City (and to be fair, until recently, they rarely had reason to).
Their foes from across the Pennines, Leeds, made the monumental mistake of selling Eric Cantona to Ferguson in 1992 -- Howard Wilkinson was struggling to find a place for the Frenchman in his side -- but by the time they flogged off Rio Ferdinand and Alan Smith to the other United in successive summers, it was because a financially imperilled club were not in a position to refuse any offers.
When Arsenal let Robin van Persie join United last summer, it was a tacit acknowledgement that they were competing in different leagues. The Dutchman's fee made him Ferguson's biggest buy since Dimitar Berbatov, his age and profile a status enjoyed by few of his other conscripts to the United cause, yet the fact remains that seller and buyer were no longer peers.
Van Persie probably belongs among the world's best players now. Yet in Ferguson's long reign, United sold them -- Ronaldo, Van Nistelrooy and David Beckham to Real Madrid alone -- more often than they bought them. Their diamonds have been unearthed in the academy or been polished and given a chance to shine after emerging in less glamorous surroundings. While they are now looking to bring in a ready-made match winner, over the years United have not signed superstars. They have made them.