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Money Talks: Manchester United’s Transfers

Quantifying and commodifying human talent is as intrinsically difficult as it is common. This rule of modern capitalism is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the global football transfer market, where superstars are not traded for one another or for draft picks, as in the NFL, NBA or MLB, but bought and sold for massive transfer fees—often measured in eight figures. But in football, as with all ventures in capitalism, some fall flat.

Few fans of Manchester United will tell you they were thrilled with Angel di Maria’s maiden season at Old Trafford, and not without reason. Last summer, Man U’s outlay of cash to secure di Maria’s services was astronomical: nearly £60 million for his initial fee, and a whopping £280,000 per week salary on top of it. These numbers aren’t quite the monstrous fees for players like Gareth Bale or Cristiano Ronaldo, but they’re close, and that proximity raises expectations for equally proximate performances.

Now, let’s be clear: Angel di Maria did not have a terrible year in 2014-15. After all, through his 20 Premier League appearances, he lead the team with 10 assists, and added three goals on top of that. Even if he wasn’t at his very best—which, it should be said, is close to best in the world at his position—the problem is not that di Maria suddenly stopped being a world class winger, the problem is price tags can skew our perception of what happens on the pitch.

This year, another new face in Louis van Gaal’s midfield may have a similar problem: Bastian Schweinsteiger. At roughly £15 million, the iconic German midfielder’s initial fee is not nearly as massive as what di Maria’s was, but look behind the financial curtain just a bit, and that number starts to rise.

Schweinsteiger is set to earn no less than £275,000 per week at Old Trafford, more than £14 million per year. Now, this kind of cash might not overburden the steeled veteran that is Schweinsteiger, but one does not have to be a student of ancient history to remember a player whose salary helped buoy expectations under which he was crushed. Rather, we need look back only a few months, to Radamel Falcao.

Falcao lacked the massive up-front fee, as Manchester United paid only £6 million for his season-long loan. But at £265,000 per week, the Colombian’s wages were likewise huge. During the 2014-15 EPL campaign, Falcao managed only four goals in 1,287 minutes, meaning he averaged a woeful one goal per 321 minutes on the pitch. Said differently, if you measure a striker’s value in goals, and apply Falcao’s salary to his goalscoring, Manchester United paid £3.45 million for every goal the Colombian scored.

These are not the kind of numbers that leave a club’s supporters in fits of glee.

With Schweinsteiger’s impressive resume, it’s fully understandable that he would want a big payday near the end of his career. But from Manchester United’s perspective, we must remember that this is precisely where he is: near the end of his career. Schweinsteiger will be 31 next month, and while there is no doubting he has some great football ahead of him, there is some doubt as to whether or not his very best is already behind him.

Having last season’s precedent of a combined lackluster di Maria with a truly abysmal Falcao might leave some fans at Old Trafford nervous about whether or not this season’s spate of new faces—including Morgan Schneiderlin, Memphis Depay and Matteo Darmian in addition to Schweinsteiger—will live up to the billing, literally.

Further, the departure of Robin van Persie for a mere £4.7 million, a fraction of the £24 million United paid Arsenal for the Dutchman just three years ago, will leave others scratching their heads. After all, for a fraction of what the German cost Manchester United, van Persie is only a year older than Schweinsteiger, with a similar pedigree as world-class player.

Schweinsteiger is a fantastic footballer, and a seasoned professional, but this transfer has a smack of nostalgia to it. Louis van Gaal managed Schweinsteiger from 2009-2011 at Bayern Munich, and made no secret of his admiration for the midfielder. Couple that with Robin van Persie’s recent comments about his falling out with van Gaal, and the “swap” of Schweinsteiger for van Persie might begin to look personal.

Is it likely that van Gaal’s decision was made, to some extent, through glasses tinted rose by his time in Munich? Absolutely. Does van Persie’s departure have something of a personal grudge behind it? Almost certainly. Does this mean van Gaal is poorly managing this transfer market? Surely not.

Schneiderlin is a fantastic player who has the potential to be perhaps even as dominant in defensive midfield as Yaya Toure. Depay is a young, exciting winger with a very, very high ceiling. Darmian is an established Italian international who can help secure United’s backline. And Schweinsteiger is a World Cup champion who brings a wealth of experience and provides a commanding presence in midfield.

It is distinctly possible that, in three years, perhaps even two, Schweinsteiger will find himself in a very similar position to where van Persie is now — a once close comrade of the manager now on the fringes of the team, somewhat forced into a move from one of the world’s biggest club into a less illustrious, less lucrative league, and fetching a mere fraction of the price for which he’d been acquired.

On the face of it, this may seem like bad business, “buy high, sell low.” But let the ledgers be as they may, the true business of any football club worthy of the name is winning matches, and thereby, winning trophies. Van Persie may have left frustrated, and with only a small percentage of his initial fee reclaimed for the club, but his goals were priceless in Manchester United’s 2012-13 Premier League-winning season — the last time they lifted a trophy.

If Schweinsteiger can help United do the same, regardless of how soon he leaves, how much he’s cost, it will all have been worth it. Manchester United supporters will hope that, unlike Falcao, Schweinsteiger can let the press and £ signs fall away, and keep his eyes where they need to be: on the trophy cabinet.

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