Ken Early: money not doing talking for Manchester United
World football's most valuable brand are failing to act like it in the transfer market
Pedro had attracted interest from Manchester United before signing for Chelsea from Barcelona. He scored on his Premier League debut for the London side against West Brom. Photograph: EPA.
Twenty minutes into his Premier League debut, Pedro accepted a pass from Eden Hazard, dodged to his left and tried a quick low shot at goal through the legs of Jonas Olsson. The ball spun wickedly off Olsson’s ankle, and Boaz Myhill dived too late. Pedro was off celebrating his first Chelsea goal.
People always think deflections are lucky, but actually the goal showcased some of the qualities that make Pedro a good player. There was the decisiveness he displayed in trying such an early shot: it was the surprise as much as the deflection that beat Myhill. There was the cunning with which he used Olsson as a screen to hide his intentions from Myhill. And there was the way he unhesitatingly did all this with his “weaker” left foot.
These qualities all sound quite basic, but players who combine them all are rare enough that the £21 million Chelsea paid doesn’t seem like that much money.
A few minutes later Pedro had added his first Chelsea assist, albeit unintentionally, as Diego Costa slid in to divert his wayward shot into the roof of the net. “Are you watching, Manchester” sang the Chelsea fans, taunting the club who were supposed to sign Pedro early last week. If you’d asked most of the Chelsea fans what they thought of Pedro this time last week, most of them would probably have told you he wouldn’t get in their team.
To anyone who has watched the three ponderous Premier League performances Manchester United have produced, the idea that Van Gaal decided he would be as well off without the speed, directness and big-game know-how of Pedro is frankly rather fanciful.
If you believe that, you might even believe the line that Woodward’s trip to Barcelona last week was never actually about Pedro. Apparently, Woodward’s real quarry on that expedition was Neymar, who, some newspapers have now reported, is “open” to the idea of joining Manchester United at some future date.
Maybe there are some Manchester United fans who take pride in the idea that Neymar is at least willing to listen to an offer from their club whenever the time comes to renegotiate the terms of his contract at Barcelona. Presumably, whoever put the story out there was hoping to make these people happy.
And why wouldn’t Neymar think about joining Manchester United? His family is one of the most financially savvy in football. His father, Neymar Senior, will be well aware that Manchester United are the world’s most valuable football brand, according to a study released in June by the consultancy Brand Finance. They rated the United brand as almost $300 million more valuable than its closest rival, Bayern Munich. In 2016 United could even surpass Real Madrid as the wealthiest football club in the world by turnover.
This sort of story has become commonplace to any follower of football: the new Manchester United never ceases to boast of its growing financial strength.
The danger is that a section of the support might not be content to lie back and imagine a future in which someone like Neymar thinks seriously about playing for United.
On Saturday, United drew a blank at home against Newcastle United. The four-man home attack consisted of an attacking midfield line of Memphis Depay, Adnan Januzaj and Juan Mata, with Wayne Rooney as the centre-forward.
Memphis and Januzaj are potential world-class players who are still a couple of years from actually being world class. Mata is a Premier League star who lacks the speed and power of a really world-class player. And then there is Rooney.
Some players seem younger than they are. An example would be Pedro, who made his first-team breakthrough in 2008. People are often surprised to hear that he’s already 28. Rooney is the other kind of player. He’s been a first-team Premier League player since 2002. You find yourself asking: he’s really still only 29? His failure to score against Newcastle extended his current goalless run to nearly 10 full matches. Rooney still looks certain to break Bobby Charlton’s Manchester United scoring record – but not by much.
And yet while his counterparts at ostensibly poorer clubs like Barcelona and Bayern Munich can call upon players like Messi, Suarez, Neymar and Lewandowski, Louis van Gaal is currently fielding the sort of line-up Arsene Wenger used to have to cobble together for Arsenal in the years when they were worried about paying for the Emirates Stadium.
Over the next week, the pressure will come on Woodward to close the gap between rhetoric and reality.