A summer which threatened to continue the trend of Real Madrid riding roughshod over the rest of Europe’s elite appears to be panning out to be something of the opposite. Is Manchester United’s approach over the sale of David De Gea indicating that finally, the ‘Galactico’ era of Madrid poaching whoever they want is over?
First of all let us begin with a very obvious statement. David De Gea is going to Real Madrid. That is the ultimate resolution to this transfer saga.
It will most likely be concluded this summer but we have to be re-assured by United’s stance in this saga. Let us rewind two years to begin to explain why we think the club’s image is being restored to one as strong as it has been in the Glazer era, and why Louis van Gaal’s arrival has so much to do with that.
Moyes’ PR disasters
Let’s face it, in those ten months of David Moyes’ stewardship, we were rarely re-assured by any noise coming out of United.
From Ed Woodward leaving Australia on ‘urgent transfer business’ only for nothing to happen, to Moyes himself saying we would ‘try and make it difficult for Newcastle’ at Old Trafford and then, fatally, saying United ‘aspired to be’ like Manchester City, all the wrong things were being said.
The actions weren’t much better. The over-deliberation which cost the signing of Thiago was replicated in the mooted transfer of Cesc Fabregas. Let’s be fair – Fabregas was ready to move on from Barcelona, his transfer to Chelsea a year later proved that. He would have added some quality to a midfield area lacking in it.
Moyes recently confirmed that his interest in Gareth Bale was real but this was a time when there was no doubting whatsoever that Madrid were still the power they have claimed to be, and we can hardly blame Bale for making the choice he did if he was presented by the seemingly less-than-confident statements made by the former Everton man that supporters were growing accustomed to hearing.
LVG brings the wind of change
Some still remain unconvinced. Many don’t feel that the players he brought in last year are good enough and aren’t enthralled by the names mentioned so far this time around.
In the press conference to herald his arrival last July, Louis van Gaal made a very clear statement. ‘It (United) is the biggest club,’ he said. ‘But in sport you are never the biggest unless every season you prove it.’
In an interview with the Telegraph’s Henry Winter in March this year, Van Gaal repeated and elaborated. ‘We were in the USA and we played against Real Madrid, Liverpool, Roma, Inter Milan and LA Galaxy, five matches in three weeks, 300,000 fans and I think 280,000 of them in a red shirt. I know that Manchester United is the biggest club of the world,’ he said.
Asked by Winter directly if he meant that the club were even bigger than Real Madrid, he replied, ‘Yes. In terms of global appeal, not history.’ (The figures back it up – away from the attendances, United have featured in 10 of the 12 most watched Premier League matches in US television history)
Such comments are a world away from those made by Moyes. And coming from a manager who has managed in Spain, as well as Germany and his native Holland, these are comments made with authority.
The prestige placed on the caveat of the latter part of his remark – history – could be taken to imply Real have a bigger history. However, the manager’s remark about greatness being as much a contemporary measure and the way he fondly reminisces many teams indicates that the reference to history is not a discriminatory one – it’s simply one that appreciates how that is rich for each club. He even speaks glowingly about watching Jimmy Greaves of Tottenham, a club he was rumoured to take over in 2013.
The fundamental point appeared to be a bullish one to provide a quick fix repair to the club’s reputation but it was backed up with big money moves for Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao. Both were gambles and it could even be said that neither worked out (the jury is out on the former) but consider for a moment the perception, the impact – United were able to attract this calibre of player without Champions League football to offer.
How many other clubs could do that with two of the world’s most renowned stars, before even considering Di Maria had only recently put in a star turn in the Champions League Final itself.
A listers, and history repeating
Move forward to this summer. With Champion League qualification pending, but one foot in the door, the papers are having a field day, linking close to fifty players to Old Trafford since Barcelona defeated Juventus.
United have been ominous in their silence despite suggestions they have ‘made offers’ or such and such a player is ‘set for a medical’. Finally, though, it seems as if the club are being pushed into action.
Real Madrid have long been linked with a move to sign David De Gea and with just a year remaining on the goalkeeper’s contract, Los Merengues offered a miserly £13m. It is unlikely that they thought United would accept the offer but they thought it would start the wheel turning and force the Reds’ hand as De Gea agitated for a move. De Gea has hardly covered himself in glory – his silence speaks volumes – but even a transfer request at this stage would apparently mean nothing as United are standing resolute, insisting they would rather take the hit and that they value their number one at a higher price than the existing world record transfer fee for a goalkeeper.
United legend Gordon Hill recently informed RetroUnited.com that he felt like the club were losing their identity by getting involved in these huge figures but such is the modern game. They have no choice but to, and when it comes to flexing their financial muscle, United are able to match Madrid step for step. They can do that with De Gea and even though the player has understandable desires to return home, they are not allowing themselves to be walked over.
There is a marked difference in transfers of the past – United were deemed a feeder club to Madrid and it’s hard to shrug off that perception even if David Beckham, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Gabriel Heinze were players considered surplus to requirements by Sir Alex Ferguson at the time. Cristiano Ronaldo had wanted a move to Madrid for almost a year before it happened and Ferguson considered that last year – 2008/09 – as a victory of loyalty between manager and player. He was good to his word and allowed the transfer when Madrid offered a record fee. There is no such prolonged loyalty between Van Gaal and De Gea and this is helping to elevate United’s position in the market.
Returning to the head of these piece and the question of whether United are turning the tide against Madrid.
Barcelona’s dominance over most of the last ten years, even against one of the greatest ever Real Madrid teams, has exacerbated the fact that the Santiago Bernabeu outfit have in fact not enjoyed the success the ‘Galactico’ era might have expected to. Three league titles in the last decade and a European Cup record that isn’t any better than United’s in the same span is not evidence that supports the media portrayal that they are the eminent club.
The fact of the matter is that Real Madrid have not been tested in the same way they flex their muscles over other teams. It is bullish, but a move that is arguably brilliant by Louis van Gaal.
Di Maria’s transfer may have been one they felt they could afford to do with Gareth Bale’s success in his first year and the necessity to fund the move for James Rodriguez but it was a positive one for United in that it was hugely unpopular with the players who had just won ‘La Decima’.
Florentino Perez has a history of upsetting the apple cart by over-ruling his manager’s will and deeming certain players to be dispensable. The sale of Claude Makelele in his first team was cited as an high profile example of the chairman’s reluctance to reward defensive players with wages comparable to the ‘entertainers’ and comparisons can be drawn with that situation and Sergio Ramos (and, indeed, with trying to get De Gea on the cheap).
We believe that the saga will end with a very public press conference and gushing statements that Ramos intends to spend the rest of his career at Real as the new captain.
Still, there’s an element of doubt following the Fabregas saga and the fact that United were able to prise Di Maria to Old Trafford.
That the offer for Ramos is separate (as, too, is the interest in Bale) to the De Gea transfer is fairly crucial, too. It may well be smoke and mirrors – that’s 90% of the transfer window after all – and it may well be United simply testing the waters in a battle they don’t even expect to win. But if they can turn his head, great, if not, then they have caused Perez an unwelcome headache.
It’s far too early to suggest that United will be perceived as the equivalent of Madrid – our actions need to speak louder than our words, too – but these are the noises that need to be made in order for the perception to stand any chance of changing.
If the rumoured mutiny between Perez and some of the players continues to rumble then it may well end with him walking away for a second time and perhaps such an event will give cause for the media to reflect on what has been a relatively unsuccessful spell in light of the expense the club has gone to. Of course, while Madrid retain the favour of certain press organisations in their own country, there will always be a voice shouting that they are the greatest.
Should the move for Ramos be successful and then be followed up with a Schneiderlin or Schweinstiger (or, both?), these are transfers that will elevate the perception of United even further and place them firmly within that bracket of Europe’s elite without even a ball being kicked. Mission accomplished on that front. But if is one of the most loaded words of man kind.
Even after all of this, there are some who remain doubtful over Van Gaal. Some don’t think that Ramos is of the sufficient calibre required to improve United – or, at least, worth the suggested transfer outlay.
As far as the former point is concerned, then, will he be an improvement on Phil Jones and Jonny Evans? Undoubtedly. He can be the leader that Chris Smalling seemingly needs to flourish alongside (if either can adapt to playing that left hand side of central defence). Is he worth a transfer fee of £35m or more? On ability and considering his age then it’s a bit expensive, for sure.
But consider the potential repercussions, that Madrid will be seen as just as vulnerable, a word never normally associated with them. They would lose a player who has won it all at the peak of his ability in a transfer to another club they are presently attempting to wrestle another from. It would be a tremendous statement, akin to signing a Robson or a Keane at the peak of their powers from United (no, Ramos is not a Robson or a Keane, but in terms of what he has achieved at Madrid…).
At the very least, United have interjected an element of doubt into proceedings while toughening their own resolve over their own player. They have demonstrated the financial clout to compete with the very best, and, done it for the first time in the Glazer era. It is a tremendous statement of intent by Van Gaal. If the manager can manage to change the perception to have United considered just as an attractive a club as Madrid – or at least, have there be significant doubt – then that will be a welcome complement to any on pitch success.
Or, of course, Madrid could sign De Gea for peanuts and Ramos could say he was never interested in United at all. But that’s football, right?