Danny Welbeck's sale to Arsenal for £16m prompted Mike Phelan, second-in-command during the Ferguson regime at Old Trafford to say:
“What will happen in the future now, nobody knows, but that thread has been broken now. There is always the start of something and maybe this is the start of a new way of doing things at Manchester United and maybe that is the way football is going. Is it better to look at the instant rather than the future? It is a difficult one because youth is always the future. We all have to start somewhere and you just hope that product of youth can develop in the Premier League.”
The “thread” Phelan referred to was the end of a fairy-tale. A premature end to a story that could have transcended generations and inspired the next generation of players in Manchester – a local lad who not only went on to represent Manchester United, but became one of club's greats. Unfortunately, Welbeck, the boy from Longsight, never made the transition from good to great or to put it differently, didn't appear to be making that transition any time soon.
Louis van Gaal wielded his axe as he promised he would. Unfortunately again, Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck were among the group of players that the Dutchman thought were surplus to his requirement. Incidentally, both Cleverley and Welbeck are graduates of United's youth academy. The departure of the duo from the club sparked off a debate as to whether Van Gaal was veering away from Sir Alex Ferguson's youth player and transfer market policy? Was the club that prided itself on raising home grown talent now adopting the Chelsea and Manchester City approach?
Probably yes. But it is too early to judge the manager after just one transfer window.
There are numerous benefits of a strong youth system. For starters, you can instil the club's philosophy in the players in their formative years. The loyalty level of youth team players to their club is always very high. But most importantly, developing players capable of playing for the senior team and not having to sign them for a lofty fee from another club is the biggest benefit of a youth system. Barcelona's La Masia is the perfect example where every year the system throws up exciting new talent that is capable of being drafted into the senior team.
So, has United's academy churned out talent (since the class of 92) that has benefited their senior team in a substantial manner? That question would have to be answered negatively. The club's promising talents like Paul Pogba, Ezekiel Fryers and Ravel Morrison are all playing professional football for other teams. Pogba, for instance was a world-class talent. Despite coming through the ranks, he now is a Juventus player.
Apart from Adnan Januzaj, there isn't a player in the academy that will get fans off their seats. This is not to dismiss the quality of footballers emerging out of the youth system at Old Trafford, but James Wilson, Michael Keane and Tom Lawrence, at this stage in their careers, do not appear like world beaters. Though Tyler Blackett, another local lad has found favour with Van Gaal. So has Jesse Lingard, who unfortunately picked up an injury on the first day of the season. Hence there is reason to believe, Van Gaal still considers the youth players as part of his plans.
During his two-decade rule at United, Ferguson's transfer dealings were marked by his “value in the market” phrase. Fair play to the man for winning what he did without ever indulging luxury signings or shattering many British transfer records. However, he also lost out on players like Ronaldinho, who went on to transform Barcelona and Arjen Robben, who is undoubtedly one of the world's best today. Players like Eden Hazard and Raphael Varane snubbed United despite the club capturing its 20th league title.
Ferguson again echoed his sentiments regarding the transfer business while speaking at UEFA’s annual Elite Club Coaches Forum, where he said:
“My opinion is that it’s never going to change, the world is progressing, and transfer fees with it, and I don’t know if there’ll be an end to it. Fortunately, I’m not at the hub of it nowadays. Certainly it’s amazing, the amount of money spent nowadays.”
He was never fond of dealing with player agents. He hated having to pay more than what he thought was right price for a player. But he is right, the football world has changed and so has the approach of big clubs, players and their agents. Chelsea have emerged as United's biggest challengers in the past decade thanks to the unflinching monetary commitment of Roman Abramovich. Likewise, Manchester City are no longer the “noisy neighbours” Ferguson once called them. Riding on the billions from Abu Dhabi, the blue half of Manchester has risen out of sheer obscurity to capture the throne of British football. Likewise, Real Madrid and Barcelona can sign players at will, at any time, from any club.
By flexing the financial muscle of the club, Louis van Gaal has tried to re-establish the authority that a club like United must command in the transfer market. Signings of Angel di Maria and Radamel Falcao will send out a clear message that United are a club that wants the best players and are capable of mounting a serious challenge for the Champions League every year. Sections of the media and fans have accused United of “selling their soul” by wielding out products of the youth system for modern day superstars. A simple question to them would be - who gives the club a better chance of dominating Europe – Cleverley and Welbeck or Falcao and Di Maria?
Sticking by a youth system irrespective of the results it delivers does not make sense. However, adopting Florentino Perez's “Galaticos” policy is not the solution either. Finding a middle ground, a mix of youth and established international players is the way Van Gaal seems to be going. Hence, it does not matter if you are a youth player like Blackett with no top-flight football experience or a Champions League winner like Di Maria. Louis van Gaal is building a squad with a solid foundation. Hence, he has significantly digressed from the previous transfer policy of the club. Under the new regime, the club is willing to pay big bucks for big returns and is unabashed about breaking transfer records. This approach can catapult the club into a league with Real Madrid and Barcelona provided they deliver on the pitch.
A product of the famous Class of 92, Keith Gillespie, who couldn't make it big, like his teammates, at United and ended up playing only 9 matches for the club, said:
“In all honesty the players Louis Van Gaal has moved on would have been my choice too. Welbeck, Nani and Cleverley were never seen as United players. Drastic action was needed. Pursuing the path United was on was death by a 1000 cuts. Quality of competing clubs was way better. We're back. The United philosophy should be to compete and succeed at the highest level. It wasn't working I believe it will now. Change had to come. Reality United have to have the best players available to compete. Any youth system might assist in that quest but cannot be relied upon”.
Probably, Falcao will never feel what Welbeck felt for the club. But the question for Mike Phelan is - if he had an option of playing Welbeck or Falcao in his team, who would he choose?