With the Premier League being condensed by an embarrassment of riches, spending more money than everyone else and acquiring all the best players to ensure a run at the league title is no longer such a straightforward possibility for elite English clubs. Last week, Crystal Palace made an offer of €38m (around £31m) for Marseille forward Michy Batshuayi. Such an incredible offer confirmed what many had suspected for a number of months now – every club in England’s top flight has money and they all wanted to spend it.
Granted, Chelsea has now won the race to sign the Belgian forward but make no mistake, the Palace offer is seismic. To put it into context, the price that Palace was prepared to pay would have broken the transfer record at 15 of the 20 Premier League clubs, including their own of course. Only Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United have ever spent more on one player. Palace finished 15th last season. The game has changed.
So while Manchester United have already begun the recruitment process this summer ahead of Jose Mourinho’s first season in charge, it has already become clear that they cannot just splash the cash and expect success in return. The money will still be spent, though. In fact, it already has. Eric Bailly signed for something close to £30 million, Henrikh Mkhitaryan is close to completing a £26 million transfer to Old Trafford and of course, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a United player already after his free transfer from Paris Saint-German.
But United’s transfer dealings have bucked the trend of recent years. So far at least. There hasn’t been a prolonged “will he, won’t he?” transfer saga, nor have United kowtowed to a particular agent or club and paid hyper-inflated fees just to land the desired target. Also, given the swift conclusion to the negotiations for all three, we are unlikely to see the panic buys and the scrambling for new players in the final weeks of the window that saw moves for Marouane Fellaini and Radamel Falcao materialise in the boardroom but ultimately fail out on the pitch.
United are boxing clever. The business they have done will improve them and each addition addresses a particular need or issue within the squad. United needed defensive reinforcements; they signed Bailly. They lacked creativity; Mkhitaryan scored 23 goals and provided 26 assists last season. What about goals? United only got 49 in the last league campaign. No problem, Ibrahimovic scored 50 by himself in all competitions for PSG.
United are boxing clever because they have to. They cannot simply rely on the good name of the club or the lure of a big wage packet. They’ve had to identify who they need, move quickly and make the right signings. Not the most or the biggest, the right signings. Jose Mourinho has a plan and is keen to execute it correctly; the acquisition of both Mkhitaryan and Ibrahimovic are a testament to that, and prove how astute United have been in hiring Mourinho to replace Louis van Gaal.
This season will be the Premier League’s most competitive. For the first time in living memory, at least half a dozen clubs will have realistic expectations of challenging for the title, while Leicester will look to defend their crown from the chasing pack. All of a sudden the Premier League is not about the players as much as it will be about the managers; Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho, Antonio Conte, Arsene Wenger, Jurgen Klopp… the list goes on and on. So it will be about which manager can utilise his squad most efficiently over 38 games.
In a strange way, the Premier League riches might normalise football again. Clubs will be forced to show faith in their manager. Trust him to make the right decisions, recruit the right players, build the right squad. If everyone can spend over £100 million, the advantage of wealth is no longer there. If they get it wrong, it won’t be so easy to just sack the manager and spend the big bucks all over again.
As well as trusting the manager, clubs will have to show more long-term thinking. In addition to appointing Mourinho and signing players for the next couple of seasons, Manchester United have always invested heavily in youth and will continue to develop their own talent in the academy. United recently announced the appointment of 40 further scouts around the globe in an attempt to improve United’s ability to find and attract the hottest prospects in world football.
The message is clear. Football is changing. The wealthiest clubs will no longer have it their own way. The introduction of such vast wealth for the entire Premier League means each club will only find success on merit; from how they conduct themselves in the boardroom, through the first team out on the pitch to the academy staff coaching the next generation.
That starts this summer. If they don’t heed the warning, the likes of Crystal Palace, Watford or Stoke City won’t hesitate in following Leicester’s example and seizing any little opportunity to compete. Thus far the off-season has been kind to Manchester United. They’ve negotiated some good business, appointed a top manager and have conducted their affairs in private rather than on the front pages of the newspapers.
Only time will tell if United have made the right decisions. It’s down to Mourinho now. He is the self-appointed ‘special one’ and it will be up to him to prove he is worthy of that moniker.