The world-record signing is not the first big-money buy to find the jury deliberating on his opening campaign
Everyone can agree that Manchester United are not as high up the Premier League table as they maybe should be at present, and there seems to be a majority consensus that the Europa League might be their best bet of a Champions League spot this term. But one subject which has got many disagreeing is the form of Paul Pogba.
The midfielder has been pilloried by many who believe he should be dominating games in light of his world-record £89.5 million transfer fee, while others are urging caution in judging the Frenchman in the context of the money United paid Juventus for his service.
The debate brought about a passionate defence of Pogba by Jose Mourinho on Wednesday ahead of United’s Europa League clash with FC Rostov, blasting those who have displayed envy and failed to show the Frenchman the requisite respect.
But what should we really expect of a big-money signing in his first season at Old Trafford? After all, didn’t David de Gea have a famously uncertain start to life as a United player before eventually becoming one of the world’s best goalkeepers as he is today? Critics of his form soon found out that the £18.9m Sir Alex Ferguson paid for him was money well spent.
So has Pogba dropped short of the acceptable level for a new signing, or is his return so far par for the course in a first full season at the Theatre of Dreams? Just how many big-money buys really deliver in Year One? Below, Goal looks at United’s 10 biggest signings by transfer fee and considers the form of each in their debut campaign.
PAUL POGBA – £89.5m – 2016
His stats fare pretty well, with a phenomenal number of passes completed in the opposition half and a goals and assists return to match some of the more notable young Premier League debutants of recent times, but the lack of some really outstanding displays to drive United on have led to many questioning his worth.
His form through the winter months coincided with the club’s best spell of the campaign so far, but United’s lack of consistency has been mirrored in Pogba’s own displays. Perhaps when Jose Mourinho completes the next stage of his rebuild, we will really start to see what the 24-year-old can do for the Red Devils.
ANGEL DI MARIA – £59.7m – 2014
Having arrived for a club-record fee on the back of a phenomenal season with Champions League winners Real Madrid, Angel Di Maria started like a man ready to make a huge impression at Manchester United.
But his early form soon tailed off and he found life in England difficult to come to terms with. By the second half of 2014-15 he had become the world’s most-expensive bench-warmer and it was clear he would soon be looking for employment elsewhere.
His inability to come to terms with Louis van Gaal’s tactical plan for him ultimately undermined his hopes of settling in at Old Trafford, and when he failed to board a flight for United’s summer tour to the USA in July 2015 nobody was in the least bit surprised that Di Maria was on his way out.
JUAN MATA – £37.1m – 2014
Juan Mata’s arrival – by helicopter, no less – in the winter transfer window was basically David Moyes’ last hope of working his way out of the mire at Manchester United, but it wasn’t always smooth sailing for the Spaniard and the Scot was memorably sacked just a few months later.
Mata didn’t really hit top form straight away, but his knack for scoring goals – he most noticeably struck twice in an excellent performance at Newcastle and another double as a substitute in Ryan Giggs’ first game in temporary charge against Norwich – was always going to buy him time with the critics.
He quickly settled into the surroundings in Manchester, which helped him to acclimatise on the pitch, and in the grand scheme of things he proved to be one of the more successful buys both in the short and long term of recent years at Old Trafford.
ANTHONY MARTIAL – £36m – 2015
A goal on his debut against Liverpool, two more a week on at Southampton… It is fair to say that Anthony Martial settled in to life at Manchester United pretty easily. Moreover, he finished his first season at Old Trafford as the club’s top goalscorer and became a Euro 2016 squad member with France off the back of his achievements in Year One at the Theatre of Dreams.
It was a hell of a response given that, like Pogba, there was plenty of talk about the fee involved in his transfer, but that debut goal against the Merseysiders doubtless helped to calm any nerves. While he has struggled somewhat in his second season in Manchester there can be no claims that Martial was anything other than a supreme success in his debut campaign, even if he spent far more time succeeding on the left wing than he did up front.
DIMITAR BERBATOV – £30.75m – 2008
For many, Dimitar Berbatov’s 2008-09 campaign with Manchester United was a relative success despite his paltry return of nine goals in the Premier League. The fact that United were excelling at the time helped to take some of the spotlight away, with a third straight league title and second successive Champions League final appearance underlining the club’s position as a continued powerhouse.
But in real terms, the Bulgarian had not matched expectations. After four consecutive 20-plus goal seasons at Bayer Leverkusen and Tottenham, Berbatov netted just 14 times in all competitions first time around with United despite registering a then career-high 49 games. Those who remember the striker’s United spell in a positive light do so more often for his 2010-11 campaign than for his early showings.
ERIC BAILLY – £30m – 2016
It would take an incredible downturn in form between now and May for anyone to consider Eric Bailly not to have excelled in his first season with Manchester United. While he has arguably seen his form dip since his blockbusting early-season displays, he continues to deliver at a high level when regularly paired with Chris Smalling.
The form of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo as a partnership has made United far less reliant on the Ivorian in recent months, with his knee injury suffered against Chelsea in October having resulted in nowhere near the drop-off in quality that some had anticipated.
His return from the Africa Cup of Nations has seen him once again become first choice for the most part, and while there is great competition for places at the back and potential reinforcements could arrive in the summer Bailly remains most people’s choice for the right-sided centre-half slot.
RIO FERDINAND – £29.3m – 2002
Rio Ferdinand has himself admitted that he got some things wrong during his first season at Old Trafford – not least the suit he arrived in – but overall he looked the part by the time United pounced to capture the 2002-03 Premier League title.
The former West Ham and Leeds defender was the second most expensive defender of all time when he became a United player, and his overall transfer fee would eventually rise to £33.3 million. But despite trying to tone down his natural game at times, Ferdinand soon made the centre-half position his own whether alongside Laurent Blanc, John O’Shea or Wes Brown.
Already an England international and World Cup star, Rio’s position in the English game only grew after his switch to M16.
ANDER HERRERA – £29m – 2014
Twelve months on from the episode which saw a trio of Spanish transfer chancers attempt to close a deal on Manchester United’s behalf for Ander Herrera, the Spaniard arrived from Athletic Bilbao in the summer of 2014 for a not-insignificant fee.
Herrera quickly became a fan favourite at Old Trafford thanks to his all-action displays, picking up timely goals and assists early in the campaign to help to make his transition to Englsih football smoother. He then spent a fair portion of the season waiting for opportunities from the substitutes’ bench as Louis van Gaal hit upon a winning formula which didn’t include the midfielder, but by the season’s end he had racked up a run of 15 straight starts as he benefitted from the Dutchman’s switch to the 4-2-3-1 which spelt the end of Angel di Maria’s United career and Wayne Rooney’s time in the midfield.
JUAN SEBASTIAN VERON – £28.1m – 2001
On the face of it, adding one of the most gifted midfielders in the world to a champion side like Manchester United should have been a winning move from the start, but Juan Sebastian Veron’s move from Lazio to Old Trafford always carried a hint of risk about it. Sir Alex Ferguson would famously storm out of a press conference, calling journalists “f**king idiots” after he’d been questioned on the Argentine’s use to his side.
But after a relatively positive start, Veron just never really fit at United. Fitting Veron, Paul Scholes and Roy Keane into the same side forced Ferguson to change his team’s natural shape, while the player himself admits he struggled with the differing demands of English football.
“The first six months I coped with it well… really well,” he told FourFourTwo. “But after December, it was very difficult for me to keep up. I would suffer from the lack of a fitness base, I wouldn’t be able to last the whole game, and I would pick up injuries.”
MAROUANE FELLAINI – £27.5m – 2013
Still to this day labelled by some as the emblem of David Moyes’ Manchester United stint, Marouane Fellaini would also be called a “panic buy” by Ryan Giggs. After chasing the Belgian and Leighton Baines from his former club Everton for most of the summer, Moyes forked out almost the entire budget for the pair on the midfielder alone.
As it turned out, Fellaini was just not unable to bail out his former boss – admitting later that he was in tears after hearing of Moyes’ April sacking – but actually has become a more central figure within a specific framework under both Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho. While he has never struck anyone as an archetypal Manchester United player, he first season was arguably the one in which his shortcomings stuck out most glaringly and he has always found it difficult to win over the majority of United supporters since.