The recruitment at Manchester United at times hasn't been good enough, and the wrong players have been brought in too often. In 2018 however, the squad is strong, as Jose Mourinho's puts his vision for a United team together. But it could have been much simpler for Mourinho if United's executives and previous managers hadn't made such questionable decisions when other available players were out there.
This list will put together ten players Manchester United should have bought when they opted for someone else.
To keep it in the realm of possibility, each potential transfer I mention has either been linked to United or that player was transferred around the same time United bought an alternative.
10. Gonzalo Castro - Matteo Darmian (Summer 2015)
Was Darmian ever bought to be anything more than a squad player? With the ability the play either full back, the slight Italian was bought in 2015 by Louis Van Gaal, and like nearly every other United defender, has failed to cement his place in the starting XI. Showing initial promise, Darmian has been in and out of the match day squads since, and seems to be on the fringes of Jose Mourinho's current squad, and will surely depart in the summer of 2018.
If it was a versatile utility man United were after, Gonzalo Castro was a much better option. Like Darmian Castro has made his name as a utility player, comfortable in any defensive position, Castro can also play midfield and play in wide attacking positions. Borussia Dortmund snapped Castro up in the same transfer window as United signed Darmian, an offer from one of the biggest clubs in the world should have been able to tempt Castro with a move to England. This underrated German would have fit well into the Premier League and remains over looked by bigger clubs.
9. Martín Cáceres - Bebé
In Summer 2010, Manchester United signed an unknown, homeless Portuguese teenager for £7.4 million just five weeks after signing for his club at the time. After a tip from Carlos Queiroz (former assistant manager), Fergie paid the buy out clause for Bebé, and that summer, he arrived in Manchester. It's still hard to believe this transfer really happened. Unsurprisingly, Bebé didn't have the quality to play for a team like United and has since spent his career on short term loan spells, unable to find stability anywhere.
That £7.4 million would have been better spent on virtually anyone. However, a sensible suggestion would be to look at the problematic right back position in 2010. Gary Neville's career was winding down and nobody in the squad had really staked a claim for the position long term.
The £7.4 million may have been enough to tempt Barcelona into selling Martín Cáceres, a player with potential but infrequently used by Barca.
A part of the third place finishing Uruguay squad at the 2010 World Cup, Cáceres is quick, composed, and versatile, and would have been a good addition to United's defence at the time, where we could have learnt alongside the experience of Evra, Vidic, and Ferdinand. Cáceres's career didn't reach the heights it should have. Not being able to establish himself in a top team, now in his thirties, Cáceres won't get another big move. But he would have been a fine alternative to the £7.4 million spent on Bebé
8. Aymeric Laporte - Marcos Rojo
Marcos Rojo is a decent player and he's put in some good performances for United since his arrival in 2014. He'd been apart of the Argentinian squad that reached the World Cup final of 2014, making most of his appearances at left back in the tournament. It's likely Rojo was bought to play left side in a back three, a formation preferred by Louis Van Gaal, but as this United squad didn't really suit that style of playing, Van Gaal reverted back to a back four. Comfortable and skilled on the ball, but not good enough defensively, it was apparent Rojo would not be the answer to United's centre back position long term.
Like I said, Rojo is a fine player, but just not suited to what United needed (like the vast majority of Van Gaal's signings). United should have been looking for a more conventional defender.
Aymeric Laporte was another talented young player at Athletic Bilbao in the early 2010s. Though it was notoriously difficult to prize players off the Basque club, United should have pushed to sign the then 20-year-old Laporte instead of Rojo. Laporte could have developed into the complete defender at United, solid at the back and an imposing physical presence, Laporte is just as comfortable defending as he was comfortable bringing the ball out of defence. In 2018, these traits haven't gone unnoticed and he has finally arrived in Manchester, just for Pep Guardiola and Manchester City. Though Laporte would have come at a price, United could have got one of the most promising defenders in Europe.
7. Mousa Dembele - Marouane Fellaini
David Moyes signing Fellaini when he came to United was perhaps the most predictable transfer of the year. Fellaini had performed well at Everton, used as either a box-to-box midfielder by Moyes or a physical presence up front, Fellaini was effective and had shown his worth against United several times, most notably the opening day of the 2012/13 Premier League season at Goodison Park. Fellaini's first season at United was near disaster, with Moyes seemingly reluctant to use him as he did at Everton, and instead opting to play Fellaini as a defensive midfielder, and it was unsurprising when many United fans demanded he was sold as soon as Moyes left. He's proved his worth since, particularly under Jose Mourinho, who seems to know how to get the best out of Fellaini amongst this current United squad.
In 2013, Fellaini was not what United needed, this was clear—energy and composure in centre midfield—and Mousa Dembele would have been a much better option. Linked with United for just £10 Million that summer before, Dembele would have been a bargain for what United would have gotten. Often a regular for Spurs, Dembele is comfortable both in front of the back four and getting forwards to join the attack. He has the composure and technique on the ball and is often seen driving forward with the ball from deep, traits that were missing in United's midfields. Many of Dembele's trademark characteristics were exactly what Fellaini lacked.
6. Markel Susaeta - Shinji Kagawa
First of all, Shinji Kagawa is a great player. He proved this in both of his spells at Dortmund, winning the League title twice, with his contribution to the team being recognised both in Germany and his home in Japan where he has earned close to a hundred caps for his country. I even think Kagawa was underrated during his spell at United where he got his share of goals an assists in the two seasons he was at Old Trafford. As a central attacking midfielder, Kagawa couldn't find a place in Sir Alex Ferguson's preferred 4-4-2 formation which often featured Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney up front, and thus Kagawa had to try and impact the game out wide. His best appearances for United came when he played through the middle behind Robin Van Persie early in the 2012/13 season, however his efforts were futile as he played under two United managers both of which preferred the 4-4-2 formation.
If Sir Alex Ferguson was in the market for another attacker in the summer of 2012, Markel Susaeta would have been a quality additon to number of wingers at Old Trafford. Often rotated, Luis Nani, Antonio Valencia, and Ashley Young were the wide-men for United and Susaeta would have offered another dynamic to that trio. In a Manchester United team playing with two world class centre forwards at the time, Susaeta's crossing and dead-ball delivery would have been perfect for a United team preferring 4-4-2, especially with him being both comfortable on either flank and willingness to get back and defend. Again he would have come at a price from Athletic Bilbao, but I'm sure he would have justified his acquisition.
5. Javier Pastore - Radamel Falcao
Another strange Van Gaal transfer. Danny Welbeck left Old Trafford in Summer 2014 and his replacement was highly rated striker Radamel Falcao. Very exciting time for United fans as the underwhelming Welbeck was replaced with one of the best strikers in Europe...or at least Falcao had been before his ACL injury. It's hard to blame Falcao for his disappointing spell with United, few players excelled under Van Gaal and it was clear Falcao was not as sharp as he should have been. He's since regained his match fitness and become a key player back in Monaco, albeit not reaching the heights he did whilst at Atletico Madrid.
Though Javier Pastore would not have been a direct alternative to Falcao, if Van Gaal wanted to add more attacking firepower in his first United season, Paris Saint Germain could have been tempted to sell their Argentinian playmaker. PSG were putting together their own brand of "Galacticos" with huge investment and the talented Pastore fell down the pecking order at PSG, with talent like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani ahead of him. Pastore's skill and technique could have offered a different dimension to United's attacking play with his ability on the ball and effectiveness in both central and wide attacking areas. Pastore could have offered a longer term option to United's squad, as he is still only 28 in 2018, and could have developed into a better player featuring regularly at United, rather than benchwarming at PSG.
4. Ricardo Rodriguez - Luke Shaw
Luke Shaw's United career still may be a success. His recent performances seem to have won Mourinho over, who has been publicly praising Shaw's ability and how happy he is with him, although many of us remain unconvinced. Bought for more than £30 million in 2014, Shaw was tipped to be United's left back for the next ten years and he looked destined to be one of the best left backs in the world. However fitness and injuries have plagued Shaw's United tenure. Both managers he worked under at United and England manager Roy Hodgson have all questions his commitment to his fitness, and for a young talented footballer, keeping fit shouldn't be the issue it seems to be.
Though I would have said Danny Rose would be a perfect fit for United, prizing him away from Tottenham would have been extortionately expensive, if not impossible, so another alternative would be Swiss full back Ricardo Rodriguez. He made a name for himself being a regular for Wolfsberg in the German Bundesliga and his Swiss national team. Solid in the defence and comfortable getting forward, Rodriguez is just as skilled at contributing to his teams defensive duties as he is getting up and down the left wing often delivering quality crosses into the box. Rodriguez' main strength is reliability, something United needed at left back with players such as Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo, Ashley Young and Matteo Darmian all rotating over the past few years in that position due to the absence and poor form of Shaw. Rodriguez could have contributed a lot more to the United team over the past three-and-a-half years Shaw has been with the club, and he would have for a much cheaper price. Though he's still young, it remains to be seen if Shaw can justify his transfer to Old Trafford.
3. Toni Kroos - Morgan Schneiderlin
Another player to graduate from Southampton's impressive academy and then sold on to a bigger club, Morgan Schneiderlin joined United in the summer of 2015. Schneiderlin was a decent player, although he had many good attributes—nothing great. However investing in the younger Frenchman seemed like a good move, with United still needing central midfield reinforcements. Schneiderlin lasted just eighteen months before being sold to Everton. Hard to say exactly why his move to United didn't work; Van Gaal had bought him, then almost immediately seemed to not fancy playing him. A handful of sloppy performances and just one goal, he didn't contribute much to the team, and Mourinho quickly got rid.
The ongoing central midfield issue should have been solved much sooner, if not 12 months prior, when Real Madrid had made one of the best transfers of the decade.
In 2014, Real Madrid had signed Toni Kroos for £25 Million, a bargain even then, seems even better now with inflated transfer fees. Kroos is the complete midfielder, a UEFA team of the year regular, multiple league title winner, and the first German to win three Champions League trophies, Kroos has been at the heart of what Real Madrid have accomplished since he signed. United should have acted like Real Madrid, though a move to Madrid can only be tempting for a player, (the tough competition from Madrid for his signature keeps Kroos at #3) United should have done all they could to sign someone of Kroos' quality, and United have paid for sub-par transfers since then; while Kroos, still only 28, remains one of the best midfielders in the world.
2. Juan Mata - Javier Hernández (Summer 2011)
It's easy to argue Javier Hernández's tenure at United was a success—a good goal scoring record, cult hero status and a two premier league winners medals. "Chicharito" was a favourite among the Old Trafford faithful; however, this was an era where United were crying out for creative players. Hernández wasn't that, he was a goal poacher and a "super-sub" waiting to come on a nick a goal. Useful in many situations, but his contribution wasn't enough to truly make his mark. In late 2011, Wayne Rooney threatened the leave United due to a lack of talent coming in. Hard to argue when Rooney had seen United's rivals in Chelsea and Manchester City bringing in world class talent in the summer of 2011. Most notably, Juan Mata arrived in England that summer.
United eventually got their man, but far too late. Juan Mata was one of the stars of the Valencia team pushing Real Madrid and Barcelona every season in Spain and regulars in the Champions League. David Villa and David Silva had already been snapped up by Barcelona and Manchester City and it seemed the third world cup winning Spaniard was soon to follow in leaving Valencia, and it was Chelsea that acted first. Mata's time at Chelsea earned him a Champions League Winners medal and two consecutive player of the year awards, and the biggest thing he offered Chelsea's team was creativity—something Manchester United were crying out for in the early 2010s. United should have acted and bought Mata three seasons before they finally did.
1. Gareth Bale - Ángel Di María
Ángel Di María is very talented player. A quick, skillful winger, comfortable either cutting in or taking players on crossing into the box. Di María was possibly the closest player to Cristiano Ronaldo in terms of style and ability at the time, and the both shone while playing together at Real.
Di María was sold by Real Madrid however during the summer of 2014 to make way for a certain Welshman and United snapped him up. After a disappointing Summer 2013 under Moyes signings like Di María , it got the fans excited and seemed to be an indicator of the quality of player United wanted to bring in, and after his first few games, he seemed to justify his transfer. However as the season progressed, it was clear English football did not suit Di María. He struggled to find form and to not have the mental temperament or ambition to cope with the demands and physicality of the Premier League. Di María was a flop and was sold to PSG twelve months later. One disappointing season, and sold at a loss of £15 million for United.
If only there was a left winger available who could shine in the Premier League...
I have been very critical of United's transfer policy and, without question, I feel the biggest mistake was not doing everything in the club's power to sign Gareth Bale.
Bale was easily the best player in the league. In his last few seasons at Tottenham, he'd won nearly every individual accolade there was in this country and it was inevitable he would move to a club where he would win regular silverware. Manchester United should have seen a player of Bale's ability and stature would have revolutionised the team. His pace, power, skill, goals, and proven ability in the Premier League would have filled the gap of a world class talent left by Cristiano Ronaldo four years prior. Though Bale may still sign for United with shake-up expected this summer in Madrid, the romanticism following in the footsteps of hero Ryan Giggs (and lots and lots of money) could have persuaded Bale to stay in England and lead Manchester United for the next several years.
Extra: How United Could Have Lined up in 2017/18
United's squad is still strong in 2018, but it could have been more considering some of the questionable signings made over the past five years. Here's how United could have lined up at the start of this season if some of these transfers had gone through...
10 Castro - Darmian
9 Caceres - Bebe
8 Laporte - Rojo
7 Dembele - Fellaini
6 Susaeta - Kagawa
5 Rodriguez - Shaw
4 Pastore - Falcao
3 Kroos - Schneiderlin
2 Mata - Hernandez
1 Bale - Di Maria