(Ed. note: This week, VICE Sports previews the start of the 2015 Premier League Season. You can find all the stories here. This story originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.)
Rafael's departure from Manchester United has led to the sad breakup of their most famous midfield quartet since the superstar 1999 team. David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs are long gone, but now joining them are another team that prevailed in a famous match over Arsenal: Rafael, Darron Gibson, John O'Shea and Fabio.
Rafael's occasional stints in midfield were allegedly what convinced Paul Pogba that it might be a good idea to seek out pastures new, and United have been kicking themselves over that decision ever since. They've lacked truly world-class players for a very, very long time, which for a club like United poses a severe problem. United's brand has always been built on a hint of stardust. Foreigners think of them in the same way Englishmen view Real Madrid or A.C. Milan. Even in the relatively barren years of the '80s they had Bryan Robson. But since Ronaldo left, they've had wheezing past-it stars on the wane and a rotating cast of above-average backups.
It's not good enough, and United have spent the post-Alex Ferguson years trying to rectify that.
Since Ferguson retired, United have spent well in excess of £250 million on transfer fees. Nearly £200m of that has been under current boss Louis van Gaal's tenure, without even paying attention to the wages handed out to flops like Falcao and Angel di Maria. To show for it, United have a team that has a good but not great midfield, a weak defence, and an undermanned and lacklustre frontline. Their one world-class player, David de Gea, is almost certain to leave either this window or next. Current players who have a hope of being world-class in the future consist of Memphis Depay and a couple of youngsters who were already there. From whatever angle you consider it, things are bad.
There are a number of reasons for this, of course. There haven't been that many great players moving about since the Glazers finally took a sledgehammer to their piggy bank, and those that have, like Gareth Bale, have been snapped up mostly by Real Madrid and Barcelona (and even then, Ivan Rakitic and James Rodriguez aren't exactly Ronaldinho and Zidane.)
United's attempts at opportunistic grabs have been miserable failures, with Falcao and Di Maria now up there with the club's worst signings. The pressure from United's board to deliver 'marquee players' hasn't helped, and some players that were missed out on proved to be oversights, like Alexis Sanchez.
United wouldn't be the first team to be criticised for this. It's turned out to be something of a problem for cash-rich English clubs. Manchester City haven't bought a great established player since Sergio Aguero, and have pissed away millions since on Fernando, Stefan Jovetic, Eliaquim Mangala, and a whole host of other rot. The number of truly world-class players – if we take the definition of 'world class' to mean those who would be considered for Earth in a Space Jam kind of scenario – seems to be becoming smaller and smaller, with Real, Barcelona and Bayern Munich almost completely cornering the market. English clubs need world-class players to compete for the Champions League, but they need to be competing for the Champions League to get world-class players.
So, how can they find a way into the exclusive club? Throwing money at the problem hasn't helped, as we've seen. Building a team from youngsters over a few years would work, but hardly anybody has the patience for that. Van Gaal and United might curse the fact that Ferguson did drive Pogba away, but even though picking Rafael ahead of him was a horrendous blunder in the long-term, it might be worth checking out what the short-term achievement of that was.
Simply put, Ferguson was making do. All of his great teams were compromises that made use of his tremendous resourcefulness and squad management ability. Ferguson spent the years either side of 1999 trying in vain to sign world-class continental player, and compromised by fielding the kids and filling in the gaps with carefully-deployed top talent in the Premier League. The class of 2008 was built on a budget, with the team organised in such a way that its severe weaknesses (the lack of a dynamic midfield, an over-reliance on wing play) weren't able to be exploited until they met one of the greatest teams of all time in Barcelona.
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Ferguson wasn't doing anything revolutionary. He was simply doing what he was paid to do: build the best team he could with the resources available and get the most out of the players he had. He wasn't able to build a team of world-class players in every position, through financial restrictions and his own mistakes, so he made up for it by getting the most out of a flawed team, enhancing their strengths and minimising their weaknesses. He was, in other words, being a good football manager.
This is now the only route available to Van Gaal and United. It's the same thing that Juventus, Atletico Madrid, and now José Mourinho at Chelsea have done. They might have a bottomless pit of cash, but it's pointless without being able to attract the players. Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich can do it because they already had great set-ups and are remarkably stable clubs. In recent decades, English football has not had a dominant team with the money to keep it that way – austerity followed 2008, Chelsea's Champions League winners were a rabble, and United's effort in 1999 led to Ferguson blundering over Veron and taking half a decade to work out the difference between 4-3-3 and 4-5-0-0-0-Van Nistelrooy.
If Van Gaal wants to make a success of his time at United – and it still could be a total, comprehensive disaster – then he needs to start being an effective manager. Getting the most out of his players and finding a system that works should be the priority of anyone, but he's weirdly gotten a free pass despite his complete failure to do either of those. Without a reliable system, effective use of the squad, and developing youngsters, it's madness to suggest that United are going to be able to simply fix all their problems by buying Gareth Bale or Thomas Muller, even if they wanted to move to Old Trafford.
Finishing fourth bought Van Gaal time – now he has to make sure he uses it.