In times of pure turbulence for Manchester United, it seems not that much has changed for the dethroned Premier League champions. A defeat against Barcelona last night – albeit in a money-spinning pre-season friendly and on penalties - appears now par for the course, as does missing out on a player ear-marked for success at Old Trafford.
The elongated list of failed deals in recent years stretches down Sir Matt Busby way and pricks through the ego of English football’s most dominant force. For a certain generation of football followers, all they have known is an imperious force from the north-west getting what they want and sweeping all before them. If United were in for a player, then nothing else mattered. That was so usually the way.
When did United’s stumble from grace finally happen? Where did it all go wrong for a team that has won two league titles in four years and hasn’t finished below second since 2004?
United have never had a more successful period in their history when it comes to European competitions than in recent years either; their three Champions League final appearances in the last five years easily surpasses anything they have done before on the continent.
But that matters not a jot to the players they chase so fruitlessly in the transfer market. Samir Nasri, Eden Hazard, Luka Modric (soon enough) and now Lucas Moura have been grasped firmly round the neck ready only to wriggle free, lured away by the promise of an embellished future.
United fans have enthusiastically welcomed Shinji Kagawa on board this summer but with each embrace they will be forgiven for glancing admiringly at Hazard over his shoulder. They pine for a new face to fill the midfield void, yet still Wesley Sniejder and Luka Modric resist.
When Moura’s move to Paris Saint-Germain was confirmed last evening despite his agent revealing that a deal was already in place with United, Ferguson grasped hopelessly for Financial Fair Play regulations in his exasperations; how the hunter has become the hunted. Each time a player heads to pastures new and it isn’t Old Trafford the club’s supporters have nothing else to take solace in but brand their would-be heroes as money-grabbers.
So far this summer, PSG have spent £123 million on the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic,Thiago Silva and now Moura. Chelsea have breached the £70 million mark on Eden Hazard and Oscar, with more to come. Manchester City are lying dormant but are safe in the knowledge that they already possess one of the most richly assembled squads on the planet and are more than capable of making a move if needs be.
No matter how hard they try Manchester United haven’t been able to spend much beyond the £17 million they paid for Kagawa – while the club's chief operating officer, Michael Bolingbroke revealed they expected to spend around £40 million this summer. That would barely cover the £34 million PSG paid for Moura, and he won’t even join the club until January. In the last five years, United have spent only £30 million or so more than PSG has spent this summer.
Equally United struggle with the wages when compared to their rivals too. Moura’s fee was enough to make eyes water alone, but when his £3 million-a-year wages are thrown into the mix then it really does paint a dramatic picture of how big the difference is between United and the leading pack.
In the Premier League alone United trail behind Chelsea and Manchester City in terms of their wage bill. Chelsea spent a record £191 million on wages in 2010/11 while City were marginally behind having splashed £174 million. Manchester United spent £153 million.
Simply put, in a world where Financial Fair Play is treated with reckless abandoned by the owners driving transfer fees exorbitantly high transfer fees and wages, United are left to flounder behind.
The reason? The three words usually enough to send shivers down the spines of the even the most hardened United supporter, the Glazer family.
It is an unanswered question that surrounds United and their transfer plans; just how much have the Glazer's affected action on the pitch? After all they spent £18 million on David de Gea, £16 million on Phil Jones and a similar fee for Ashley Young last summer. Conversely they may indeed miss out on Robin van Persie still because of their reluctence to spend around £25 million on him (perhaps rightly, perhaps not), a fee Manchester City won't blink at if, as expected, Roberto Mancini's announcement that he is out of the race for the Dutchman proves to be a bluff.
They are willing and able to put their hands in their pockets when they need to in some respects – but the problem is that these fees are a far cry from what is the ‘norm’ in modern football for the biggest-spending clubs.
The problem for United now is that the very clubs at the sharp end of European football are the ones who spend with gay abandon thanks to the backing of owners from the far corners of the earth, and the levels of debt generated by the Glazers means they cannot afford to join in on the fun and games – although whether Ferguson would want to given his endless pursuit for value in a market that places an equal price on the head of an unproven 19-year-old Brazilian and Andy Carroll remains to be seen.
United are not shackled but they do not have the ability to compete with the clubs bankrolled by wealthy individuals because of their own levels of debt, and in the battles between the two it is always United who are going to come of worse. They are at the mercy of other, richer, clubs now where once they ruled the roost.
Even their reputation and the constant focus that is on them because of the Glazers is likely to affect the way the club is viewed by incoming players. Their crown has slipped in more ways than one.
Money grabbing these players may be but when confronted with the option of moving to a team where millions will be spent snapping up the best players or going to one struggling to land a world class player, the decision appears straight forward. Now the wheels of this dynamic has been set in motion it is nigh on impossible for United to stop – players will continue going elsewhere while newly emerging rich clubs can offer money as well as trophies.
When the footballing god’s were handing out owners it just so happened that the wealthy Arab royal family went to the Etihad Stadium and the wealthy American family who bought the club and put the debts wracked up in doing so in the name of the club to Old Trafford.
With the impending stock market floatation and estimated debts of £500 million dollars there will be no knight in shining armour that will help propel United back to the top of the pile anytime soon. Whether United fans like it or not the Glazers are in it for the long haul now.
There will always be money available but unless Financial Fair Play is properly enforced (and there are serious doubts about this) then United will be lagging behind. Sir Alex Ferguson and his dented aura are at the mercy of European football’s governing body.