Tears, chips and reserve team stints: The calamitous fate of Manchester United’s ‘Gaalacticos’

“We can do things in the transfer market that other clubs can only dream of.” In July 2014, Manchester United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward uttered these words of defiance and received a backlash of mockery as a result. On the back of United’s worst season in 25 years, it seemed unfathomable that the Red Devil’s could attract Europe’s elite talent, especially without the bargaining tool of UEFA Champions League participation.

However, just two months later, mockery turned to delight following the acquisition of two seemingly elite players. The arrivals of Champions League winner Angel Di Maria and clinical striker Radamel Falcao injected excitement into the veins of United fans. While the signings of two elite stars seemed overwhelmingly positive, it set in motion a chain of events that enhanced the decline of United.

In May 2014, Manchester United had ended a calamitous campaign in seventh place. Meanwhile, Spanish giants Real Madrid won their first Champions League trophy in 12 years defeating arch-rivals Athletico Madrid by four goals to one. In spite of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale being present, the Argentinian Angel Di Maria won the ‘Man of the match’ award. Following the Argentine’s superb performance in the biggest game in club football, it seemed almost laughable that Di Maria would join a team that would not be in any form of European competition the following season.

However, incredibly, on the 27th August 2014, Di Maria signed for United for a club record fee of £59.7 million. The signing of the Real Madrid superstar signified a statement of intent from United in the market, especially when the Glazer’s scarcely flexed United’s spending power. Furthermore Di Maria was the first in a series of ‘Galactico signings’, that many believe harmed the progression of the club. 

Upon his arrival, Angel Di Maria began his United career in superb style. In the forward’s first home game, he netted a sublime free kick, as well as providing an assist for Juan Mata in a 4-0 drubbing of Queens Park Rangers. Just a week later, Di Maria produced a sensational chip, while also providing an assist. However, United was defeated 5-3 by Leicester City in that encounter, and the extent of United’s defensive meltdown caused Louis van Gaal to tighten up the team defensively.

In spite of the more conservative approach adopted by Van Gaal, Di Maria still flourished in the following weeks. In a 2-1 home win against Everton, the Argentinian once again provided a goal and an assist, which proved vital in clinching three points. In the midst of his stupendous performances, Di Maria won the ‘Manchester United Player of the Month‘ award, as well as the ‘Goal of the month’ award for his sublime chip against Leicester. 

Unfortunately for both the club and the player, two events following his sensational run of form signified the beginning of the end for Di Maria. Following a hamstring injury against Hull City, Di Maria only started one of the next seven games for United. While the injury had a devastating effect on the forward’s form, it was an incident off the pitch that seemed to annihilate Di Maria’s confidence.

In February 2015, just hours after Di Maria played for United in a 3-1 win over Leicester, his home was broken into by burglars while his family were eating dinner. This terrifying ordeal seemingly affected Di Maria’s mental state significantly. His on-pitch endeavours following the break-in were nothing short of bizarre. In a 2-1 win at Anfield, Di Maria made the peculiar decision to catch an aerial pass, therefore conceding a free kick. In addition, in a key FA Cup quarter-final tie at home to Arsenal, Di Maria received an incredibly vacuous red card, for pulling on the shirt of referee Michael Oliver.

As a result of his strange decisions and his disastrous form, Di Maria played a bit-part role for the remainder of the season. Ashley Young replaced Di Maria in the starting line up, and performed magnificently, illustrated by his goal and two assists in a resounding 4-2 victory against Manchester City. Angel Di Maria scored a measly three goals in 27 appearances for United, meaning financially United had paid a club record fee for a ratio of £19 million per goal. It was therefore in everyone’s interests for Di Maria to depart the club, and in July 2015 he left for Paris Saint-Germain, for an estimated £45 million.

Following the arrival of Angel Di Maria, the Red Devils completed a deadline-day loan deal for Monaco striker Radamel Falcao. In the previous five years to his move to United, Falcao was statistically one of the most lethal strikers in the world. In 68 appearances for Athletico Madrid, the Colombian netted an outrageous 52 goals in 68 appearances.

Furthermore, following his transfer to Monaco, Falcao netted 65 goals in 107 games. This made Falcao one of the most coveted strikers in world football. However, in January 2014, Falcao suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury that put him out of action for six months. In spite of his injury, a loan deal, with an option to buy, seemed like some commendable business by United.

In spite of his sensational goal records at Athletico and Monaco, Falcao looked a shell of his former self at United. The so-called ‘El-Tigre’ appeared to be out of his depth in the Premier League, with his finishing on many occasions being woeful. The extent of his shortcomings came to the fore on 10th March  2015, when Louis Van Gaal ruthlessly instructed the forward to play for the under 23s team. The merciful decision by the Dutchman was seen as an act of disrespect in the eyes of Falcao.

His stint in the reserve team affected the number nine so much, that Falcao allegedly cried upon hearing the news. Unlike Di Maria, Falcao remained largely popular with United fans, who in spite of the striker’s performances recognised that he was genuinely trying his hardest on the pitch. The more cynical fans would say this was predominantly an act of pity, as opposed to support. Unsurprisingly, Falcao departed United following the conclusion of the 2014/15 campaign, with United declining to exercise their option to buy the forward for £43.5 million. 

More importantly than his on-pitch contributions, the transfer of Falcao symbolised a change in philosophy for United. Previously to the summer of 2014, United rarely signed ready made stars, with the exception of Robin van Persie in 2012. While the signings of Di Maria and Falcao were significant in their own right as they symbolised an adoption of a ‘Galactico’ transfer model, the context of Falcao’s transfer was even more poignant. While Falcao was signing the dotted line, a United academy product had departed the club: Danny Welbeck.

Welbeck was a player who Ferguson invested a lot of belief into, with many viewing the Englishman as a long term option to fill the number nine position. However, the sale of Welbeck to accommodate Falcao emphasises the influence of Woodward on United, discarding youth prospect in favour of an elite level 29-year-old. This set a precedent for United’s future dealings, which has led to Woodward receiving an onslaught of criticism in recent weeks.

The first two signings of United’s ‘Galacticos’ failed miserably, and ultimately cost the club substantial amounts of money. However in spite of the tears, the chips and the reserve team stints, United continued to invest in star names, and the stars that followed were to be a lot more damaging than the ‘Gaalacticos’.

Written by Alexei Braithwaite

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