In recent times, Manchester United’s approach to transfers has been a bit like the man who sets off to buy a speedboat and instead comes back with four million Curly Wurlys. Whether its because new players are petrified of becoming trapped on Louis’ carousel of oppression, or whether its because Ed Woodward would struggle to buy broccoli from a school boy, Manchester United find themselves in a paradox where they are both disgustingly profitable and remarkably bad with money.
This month (or so the rumour goblins screech in our tired ears) they have failed again in a £30 million bid for Southampton running man Sadio Mané. That’s Sadio Mané who seems to have exchanged his dynamic form from last season for a faulty wristwatch. That same Sadio Mané with a slightly whimpering three goals from 23 league games (and absolutely no goals, or indeed assists, from his last 10 matches).
It’s a triumph for a scouting system that seems largely based on half-watching Match of the Day and occasionally being hit in the face by the back page of the Sun on a windy morning.
Even stranger than Mané’s clammy form and rather dozy approach to his responsibilities, is the fact that Manchester United could easily drive their big truck of money in a far more worthwhile direction.
Take, for example, the shining ruby who’ll be facing Mané’s Southampton this weekend – Dimitri Payet.
In his 16 league starts this season Payet has scored six times and created four goals. His set pieces are magnificent, his crossing is accurate and inviting, his work rate is impressive and the imagination and precision of his passing could instantly transform a defender’s legs into Vimto.
Admittedly with Payet there is a sense that some of us have been jabbed unsuspectingly in the neck with the hyperbole needle. But, if you saw him ruthlessly flog the entire Bournemouth team with a pillowcase filled with their own feet, you may well choose to believe that he’s as special as they say.
And, unlike Mané, he’s a player with a long history of doing extraordinary things. Last season the statistic about him creating more chances than anyone else in Europe’s top five leagues was tossed about like a c*ntish remark at a Donald Trump rally.
Before that, in 2012/13 he had another incredible season at Marseille – scoring 12 times and making 13 assists in the league. Earlier, in just his second season with Saint-Étienne, he scored 13 times, his personal best return to date. So it’s not surprising that scouts from the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool donned stripy jumpers and berets to go undercover throughout much of his career in France. What is surprising is that West Ham were the ones to finally bring him to England.
And, like all jewels that have been plucked from the earth, there is inevitably a little worm poo to deal with. Payet has had a reputation for being a difficult character and at times lacking motivation. At Saint-Étienne, a pointed remark from his captain about not showing enough aggression was met, ironically enough, with an on-field dust up.
Also, while Payet has been able to chomp through the challenges of domestic football like a velociraptor with a Twix, in his 15 Champions League appearances he hasn’t managed a single goal. Also, for a player who’s had so many impressive seasons in Ligue 1, he has earned just 15 caps – that’s less than the true people’s princess, aka Darius Vassell, got for England.
On balance though, his obvious talents – and ability to make an impact, wherever he’s been – surely outweigh such minor rumblings. And if Louis van Gaal continues to manage this season with all the imagination of a shower curtain, the Champions League thing shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
The logic for pursuing Mané is that he offers much needed pace. But even if we ignore Van Gaal’s reluctance to play in a style that utilises speed in a meaningful way, Mané appears to have all the makings of an equally pricey, equally flaky Memphis Depay.
Payet, on the other hand, is a different proposition. More urgent and spiky than Juan Mata, Payet has all the makings of a number 10 filled with thrust and filthy brilliance.
In the five league games he’s been used in that role for West Ham he’s scored four times and made two assists. Also, as well as creating 24 more chances this season than Mata, he’s engineered more opportunities to score than Jesse Lingard, Memphis Depay, Michael Carrick, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Ander Herrera and Ashley Young combined. (Of course that’s partly a reflection of Manchester United playing with all the forward drive of Ray Wilkins trapped inside the body of an actual crab.)
So, if United really are in the market for a player to add punch-to-groin incisiveness to their front line, Payet makes far more sense than Mané. Which is precisely why Ed Woodward will probably spend this summer the way he spends every summer – miserably chasing barrels down a hill, coming home with nothing more than a dirty suit and some chewy chocolate treats.