Since Ed Woodward replaced David Gill as Manchester United’s most powerful employee in May 2013 the executive vice-chairman has overseen 37 major signings across 15 transfer windows. The first was Marouane Fellaini for £27.5m, the most recent Facundo Pellistri, announced 41 minutes after Monday’s 11pm deadline. Completing deals as the market nears closing is a theme, as is a scattergun strategy that seems to change year to year. Here the 15 windows of Woodward are analysed.
2013-14: The farcical transfers
Woodward’s first was one to forget as David Moyes instructed him to target Cesc Fàbregas, Thiago Alcântara, Ander Herrera, Leighton Baines and Maroune Fellaini and ended with only Fellaini on the final day. In between was a failed double bid for Baines and Fellaini of £28m which Everton characterised as “insulting”. Moyes – and Woodward – should have blushed at how Fellaini cost £4m more than the £23.5m buyout clause the Scot knew about as Everton’s last manager. Woodward decided Athletic Bilbao would budge from Herrera’s €36m buyout fee; they did not. Then there was United’s “imposter” claim concerning three men apparently posing as club representatives who visited Spanish Football Association offices to pay Herrera’s break clause. This caused bemusement because the trio were Spanish sports lawyers understood to be acting on Herrera’s behalf. After the move for Baines collapsed so did a last-minute loan for Real Madrid’s Fábio Coentrão.
“Woodward and Moyes will be determined there can be no repeats,” the Guardian said. Although Juan Mata’s £37.1m arrival the following January was an improvement, United’s transfer shenanigans had just begun.
The deals and where they are now: 3 September, Marouane Fellaini, midfielder, £27.5m from Everton – joined Shandong Luneng for about £10m in January 2019; 25 January, Juan Mata, attacking midfielder, £37.1m from Chelsea – still at club
Premier League position: seventh, Moyes sacked after 34 games
2014-15: The over the top transfers
With Moyes gone, Louis van Gaal and Woodward were so determined not to repeat the sole-signing debacle that a barely credible seven players were added. Here Ángel Di María’s arrival for a British record £59.7m from Real Madrid and Radamel Falcao’s £16m loan from Monaco moved the club to a half-galáctico model given that the five other acquisitions were Herrera (£29m), Luke Shaw (£27m), Vanja Milinkovic-Savic (£1.5m), Marcos Rojo (£16m) and Daley Blind (£13.8m). The galácticos proved a disaster. Di María penned a love letter to Real fans (“I want to make clear this was never my desire,” he wrote) and Falcao was injury bedevilled. In summer 2019 Van Gaal told the Guardian: “Seemingly a few players were not reachable for Manchester United.”
The deals and where they are now: 26 June, Ander Herrera, midfielder, £29m from Athletic Bilbao – joined Paris Saint-Germain on free, summer 2019; 27 June, Luke Shaw, defender, £27m from Southampton – still at club; 5 August, Vanja Milinkovic-Savic, goalkeeper, £1.5m from Vojvodina – released in 2015 after failing to gain work permit; 15 August 2014, Ángel Di María, attacking midfielder, £60m from Real Madrid – joined PSG for £30m in 2018; 20 August 2014, Marcos Rojo, defender, £16m from Sporting – on loan at Estudiantes; 1 September 2014, Daley Blind, defender/midfielder, £13.8m from Ajax – rejoined Ajax in summer 2018 for £14m; 2 September 2014, Radamel Falcao, striker, £16m (loan and wages fee) from Monaco – returned to parent club in summer 2015
Premier League position: fourth
2015-16: The low-key transfers (and faxgate)
Di María would be sold in summer 2015 as Woodward and Van Gaal performed a U-turn, galáctico-wise, and plumped for six signings without an established A-list talent in a move that, again, seemed too polar a reaction to 12 months before. In came Matteo Darmian (£12.7m), Memphis Depay (£25m), Morgan Schneiderlin (£17m), Bastian Schweinsteiger (£6.5m), Sergio Romero (free) and Anthony Martial (an initial £36m). Martial is United’s established No 9 so rates as one of Woodward’s successes, having arrived on a final day that also brought the drama of David de Gea’s collapsed move to Real Madrid. The Spanish club blamed United, who counter-finger-pointed, citing their time-stamped faxes as evidence, and suggested Madrid had left it too late.
The deals and where they are now: 11 July, Matteo Darmian, defender, £12.7m from Torino – left for Parma in September 2019 for £3.2m; 12 July, Memphis Depay, forward, £25m from PSV Eindhoven – left for Lyon in January 2017 for £16m; 13 July, Morgan Schneiderlin, midfielder, £17m from Southampton – left for Everton in January 2017 for about £22m; 13 July, Bastian Schweinsteiger, midfielder, £6.5m from Bayern Munich – left for Chicago Fire for free in March 2017; 27 July, Sergio Romero, goalkeeper, free from Sampdoria – still at club; 2 September, Anthony Martial, striker, initial £36m from Monaco – still at club
Premier League position: fifth, Van Gaal sacked
2016-17: The short-sighted transfers
After 13 players were recruited during the previous two summers the executive vice-chairman and his new manager, José Mourinho, went for four in what remains the highest spend of the Woodward era: £149m. Yet despite a (then) world record £89m for Paul Pogba, and £30m apiece on Eric Bailly and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, it was the free signing who illuminated another hodgepodge stratagem. This was Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a 35-year-old past-his-peak centre-forward whose arrival meant the 21-year-old Martial was shoved to the margins as United adopted a plodding style. Although Ibrahimovic scored 28 goals and United won the League Cup and Europa League, they ended 24 points behind Chelsea. Woodward, though, could feel vindicated at United’s most successful season under his leadership, the European triumph meaning Champions League qualification.
The deals and where they are now: 8 June, Eric Bailly, defender, £30m from Villarreal – still at club; 1 July, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, striker, free – left for LA Galaxy in March 2018 on free; 6 July, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, midfielder, about £30m from Borussia Dortmund – left for Arsenal in swap deal in January 2018; 9 August, Paul Pogba, midfielder, £89m from Juventus – still at club
Premier League position: sixth
2017-18: The rebuild transfers
Ibrahimovic’s serious knee injury ended his main-man status and Mourinho sought to construct a more rounded side that could challenge. In came Victor Lindelöf (£31m), Romelu Lukaku (£75m) and Nemanja Matic (£40m) in a £146m outlay. With Alexis Sánchez joining the following January, in a swap that took Mkhitaryan to Arsenal, United were runners-up. Yet their 81 points left them 19 behind Manchester City which meant, surely, that Mourinho would be given the players he deemed he required for a title push the following season …
The deals and where they are now: 15 June, Victor Lindelöf, defender, £31m from Benfica – still at club; 10 July, Romelu Lukaku, striker, £75m from Everton – left for Internazionale for £74m in summer 2019; 31 July, Nemanja Matic, midfielder, £40m from Chelsea – still at club; 22 January, Alexis Sánchez, forward, swap from Arsenal – left for Internazionale in August 2020 for free.
Premier League position: second
2018-19: The disappointing transfers
Except, no. Mourinho acquired only three players – Diogo Dalot (£19m), Fred (£52m), and Lee Grant (free) – and no one in the position he really wanted to strengthen: centre-back. Among those identified were Leicester’s Harry Maguire and Bayern Munich’s Jérôme Boateng. Woodward balked at the prices quoted while wondering (reasonably) why Bailly and Lindelöf had been out of favour at times the previous term despite Mourinho overseeing their purchase. Woodward’s desire to appoint United’s first director of football deepened Mourinho’s dudgeon. “The pre-season is very bad,” the manager grumbled on the opening day in Los Angeles sunshine. By Christmas he was gone.
The deals and where they are now: 6 June, Diogo Dalot, defender, £19m from Porto – loaned to Milan in October 2020; 21 June, Fred, midfielder, £52m from Shakhtar Donetsk – still at club; 3 July, Lee Grant, goalkeeper, free from Stoke – still at club
Premier League position: sixth, Mourinho sacked
2019-20: The reboot transfers
By this sixth Woodward summer there was regret at past errors – the Moyes-Fellaini farrago was accepted as particularly unfortunate – and a brave new world dawned in which Ole Gunnar Solskjær drove identification of the ideal United recruit. This possessed an X-factor, was fleet of foot and mind, and fitted into a progressive, attack-first game. Mourinho’s successor brought in Daniel James (£15m), Aaron Wan-Bissaka (£50m) and – surely, to Mourinho’s chagrin – Maguire (£80m). Finally United had a cohesive set of additions and thus Woodward’s downgrading of the proposed director of football post to technical director made sense. Why not, if recruitment followed this template, particularly as the winter brought Bruno Fernandes for £47m (along with loanee Odion Ighalo), and the midfielder propelled United to third. Factor in Mason Greenwood’s growth from academy starlet to potential generational star and all was rosy in the executive vice-chairman’s transfer garden.
The deals and where they are now: 12 June, Daniel James, forward, £15m from Swansea – still at club; 29 June, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, defender, £50m from Crystal Palace – still at club; 5 August, Harry Maguire, defender, £80m from Leicester – still at club; 30 January, Bruno Fernandes, midfielder, initial £47m – still at club; 1 February, Odion Ighalo, striker, loan from Shanghai Shenhua – loan extended to January 2021
Premier League position: third
2020-21: The window of confusion
Jadon Sancho: two words that sum up a 10-week soap opera that was Woodward’s pursuit of Borussia Dortmund forward and that ended in failure and divides opinion. Dortmund’s demand of €120m was known early so the club should have bought him then or walked away to concentrate on alternatives. United priced the deal at about €250m and Woodward deemed this unrealistic owing to club finances being hit, yet because Sancho was Solskjær’s No 1 target he decided on a wait-and-see tactic regarding whether Dortmund would fold. This strategy meant other right wingers were not considered until Sancho was viewed as impossible and so the manager failed to land an established one. Instead Solskjær acquired two 18-year-olds, Facundo Pellistri (£10m) and Amad Diallo Traoré (£18.2m, to join in January), while Donny van de Beek (£35m), Edinson Cavani (free) and Alex Telles (£15m) made it five signings in all, though only Telles may prove a first-choice. All but Van de Beek became United footballers on the deadline day just as Fellaini did in Woodward’s opening window.
The deals: 2 September, Donny van de Beek, midfielder, £35m from Ajax; 5 October, Edinson Cavani, striker, free; 5 October, Alex Telles, defender, £15m from Porto; 5 October, Facundo Pellistri, winger, from Atlético Peñarol for about £10m; 5 October, Amad Diallo Traoré, winger, arrives from Atalanta in January for initial £18.2m.