One of the many betting companies that regularly inveigle their less than subliminal messages into journalists’ in-boxes has just claimed money is pouring in on Manchester United for the title after they broke the transfer record by shelling out more than £90m on Paul Pogba.
Since Manchester City followed up a day later with the £47.5m acquisition of John Stones, very nearly equalling the world record for a defender, it would surely be more accurate to suggest that money is pouring out of Manchester. Other clubs have been doing business more or less as normal during the present transfer window, give or take a certain hike in asking prices now that everybody knows Premier League sides are fabulously wealthy, but Manchester is silly money central. “The football industry is crazy,” José Mourinho said of the Pogba purchase. “What seems a lot of money now can often look more like value in two or three years’ time.”
City and United must both hope so. Both clubs have new managers, both have spent around £150m this summer. Mourinho has indicated United’s market might be over after signing four players – a defender, a midfielder, a creative and a striker, as he puts it – though remarkably the £144m he has already racked up has gone on just three of them. While United are paying Zlatan Ibrahimovic a fortune in wages, he moved as a free agent from Paris Saint-Germain in what might be the only deal struck in Manchester this year that remotely resembles a bargain.
City have brought in eight players, though the bulk of their spending – around £118m – has gone on four of them, Stones joining Ilkay Gündogan, Leroy Sané and Nolito among the acquisitions who could go straight into the first team if required.
When the season gets under way this weekend, with United away at Bournemouth’s cosy Dean Court and City hosting David Moyes’s Sunderland, there will be more than a suggestion of cannons lining up against peashooters. Whatever the new television money is promoting in the top level of English football, it is not greater equality or any sense of levelling up. In fairness though, the demands on Pep Guardiola and Mourinho are considerable.
City have to budget for the Champions League as well as the domestic programme, and as they reached the last four last season under Manuel Pellegrini it cannot be automatically assumed that their new manager will be able to improve on that in his first season. Guardiola has reached Champions League semi-finals for each of the last three seasons, but if he could not make the final push with a team as strong as Bayern Munich, who won the Bundesliga title by 10 points or more in each of his campaigns, there is no guarantee he will have the immediate impact at City that some of their supporters seem to be anticipating.
Mourinho’s task appears more straightforward. United will not mind if he concentrates on the league this year, no one is going to get overexcited about the Europa League, and the aim is simply to restore Champions League football to the club. While the past two managers took that to mean a top-four finish, Mourinho will be wanting to make a more dramatic impact. His goal is to win the title in his first season at Old Trafford, he has already admitted as much and has acted accordingly in the transfer market.
Who has spent their money most wisely? In terms of value, if such a notion still exists in the lunatic world of English football business, the answer to that question might very well be City. They have not just set a new world transfer record for a player they recently allowed to leave for nothing, and neither have they put their faith in a 34-year-old striker with outstanding ability but an obviously limited shelf life. Yet perhaps that is the wrong question to be asking. This season at least, City and United’s aims are not exactly the same. To oversimplify the situation slightly, United have been buying finished products, because Mourinho recognises both the need for immediate improvement and the dismay felt by most United fans over the lack of entertainment on offer in recent seasons.
Ibrahimovic might not be a signing for the future, though in the short term he promises to be quite glorious and has already begun restoring the missing swagger to United’s performances. Whereas Stones, the most expensive of City’s signings in this window, is good but still learning his trade. Everton will probably end up with a more reliable and authoritative centre-half for this season if they sign Ashley Williams for a quarter of the price, though Stones is clearly a better long-term prospect.
Similarly Sané is more about potential than immediate impact, leaving aside the fact that City already seem to be well off for pacy wingers. Guardiola seems to be stocking up with options – stockpiling, some are already saying – that may only pay off two or three years down the line and may not all go straight into first team action. Whereas it already seems clear that United’s team for important matches this season is going to feature all or most of Pogba, Ibrahimovic, Eric Bailly and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Another difference is that City already have some excellent players on their books. Sergio Agüero is probably the most lethal finisher in England while Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva have few equals for imagination and creativity. Guardiola’s task is to add to and hopefully complement an already accomplished squad, to try to bring the best from what is already there and continue the club’s occasionally faltering but still upward curve of improvement. City might have won the league last season had all their players remained fit. They certainly had a strong enough squad, though Guardiola appears to be acutely aware that City’s players have a tendency not to remain fit, hence the need for reinforcements and contingency plans that at this stage of the season appear a little excessive.
In complete contrast, Mourinho has taken over a United side that came close to flatlining under Louis van Gaal. His task is more along the lines of rip it up and start again. That he is now in the process of doing, and with Pogba in the fold the first league fixtures should give an indication of how he intends to address the Wayne Rooney conundrum. United have just signed a state-of-the-art midfielder, so there is no reason for Rooney to keep dropping back as he did at Wembley on Sunday, frequently turning up in his own half in search of the ball or to help launch attacks.
Rooney played as a midfielder against Leicester even though Mourinho has told him his value is as a striker. It could be argued that there is so little creativity in the United midfield that Rooney felt obliged to help out, but Pogba should draw a line under that idea. Rooney plays alongside Ibrahimovic from now on, and either succeeds or fails as a striker. Only time will tell whether Mourinho is being over-generous in his assessment of his captain’s abilities, though public confidence cuts both ways and it is possible that the manager is being quite shrewd.
Rooney is being given every chance to shine in his preferred position, as befits a player of his seniority. It is up to him now to make a case for his continued inclusion. As Rooney, Mourinho and just about everyone else at Old Trafford are well aware, other striking alternatives are available.
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