Sir Jim Ratcliffe once described Manchester United as being “the dumb money,” even singling out the £47 million signing of Fred from Shakhtar Donetsk in 2018 as an example of the club’s ability to get it wrong in the transfer market. It is why he wants full control of football operations at Old Trafford in return for his proposed £1.5 billion ($1.82bn) investment in the club.
Sources have told ESPN that Ratcliffe, Britain’s second-richest person with a wealth of £29.7 billion ($36.09 billion) according to the 2023 Sunday Times Rich List, is undertaking an audit of United’s transfer business over recent seasons. He wants to ensure that the wasted millions of the past are not repeated when his senior management team assumes responsibility for what happens on the pitch at the Premier League‘s most successful, but repeatedly failing club.
Ratcliffe’s proposal to buy a 25% stake in United from the Glazer family, the club’s owners since 2005, has yet to be rubber-stamped. However, sources have told ESPN that it is now regarded as a formality and that Ratcliffe’s investment will be confirmed within weeks — in time for the January transfer window.
Financial fair play restrictions, a consequence of United spending in excess of £220m ($267m) during the 2022-23 season, are likely to continue to impact on the club’s ability to sign new players in January. Nevertheless, sources have said that Ratcliffe along with Rob Nevin and Sir Dave Brailsford, his closest advisors at his company INEOS, have already identified the recurring fault line in United’s transfer dealings.
While the old adage among smart investors is to buy low and sell high, United have developed an expensive habit of doing the opposite. According to Transfermarkt, only Chelsea (£1.4bn/$1.8bn) and Paris Saint-Germain (£880.5m/$1.07bn) have spent more on new players than United, whose outgoing transfer spend amounts to £867.84m ($1.06 bn) since the start of the 2018-19 season.
Over the same period, however, United have raised just £210m ($255.5m) in outgoings, which is a substantially lower figure than many of their rivals including Chelsea (£681m/$828m), PSG (£438.1m/$533.1m), Manchester City (£490.8m/$597.2m) and Liverpool (£241.9m/$294.3m). Juventus, Tottenham Hotspur, Barcelona, Real Madrid and West Ham United have also raised more from outgoings than United since 2018.
A cynical view could be to suggest that United have overpaid for average players and then discovered their true market value when attempting to dispense with them two or three seasons later. But this is not a new issue for the club, as identified by Ratcliffe in an interview with The Times in 2019.
“[INEOS] never wants to be the dumb money in town, never,” Ratcliffe said. “They [United] are in quite a big pickle as a business. They haven’t got the manager selection right, haven’t bought well. They have been the dumb money, which you see with players like Fred [who left for Fenerbahce in the summer for a fee of €10m/$10.9m.]
“United have spent an immense amount since [former manager Sir Alex] Ferguson left [in 2013] and been poor, to put it mildly. Shockingly poor, to be honest. United have done it really poorly. They have lost the plot.”
Sources have said that several signings have been pinpointed by Ratcliffe’s team as examples of United being reckless with their transfer funds. Jadon Sancho was signed from Borussia Dortmund for £73m ($88.7m) in 2021, despite no other club being in the race to sign the England winger. Then-manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer also said recently that Sancho was identified by the club’s scouts as a solution to the team’s right-wing problem, despite admitting that the player preferred to play on the left.
Donny van de Beek (a £40m/$48.6m signing from Ajax in 2020) and Antony (£82m/$99.6m) from the same club last year) are also regarded as unnecessarily excessive transfer fees. The United hierarchy also sanctioned huge pay deals for ageing forwards Cristiano Ronaldo and Edinson Cavani while failing to recruit a younger forward — an issue finally addressed by the £65m ($79m) signing of Rasmus Højlund from Atalanta this summer.
Since 2018, United have also failed to close deals to sign Jude Bellingham and Erling Haaland from Birmingham City and FC Salzburg. On both occasions they missed out to Borussia Dortmund, despite having lengthy negotiations with two players who have now become global stars following moves to Real Madrid and Manchester City respectively.
Sources have told ESPN that Ratcliffe believes United can be smarter in the transfer market and use their financial resources more wisely with greater expertise off the pitch. That will lead to scrutiny of the roles played by chief executive Richard Arnold, director of football John Murtough and technical director Darren Fletcher. There is also an acceptance that Arnold and Murtough, in particular, have had to fulfil their roles while working within what one source has described as the “painful micro-management” of the Glazers.
Former Tottenham, RB Leipzig and Monaco director of football Paul Mitchell has been linked with a role under Ratcliffe at United. But while sources have told ESPN that INEOS are aware of the 42-year-old’s work, no decisions have been made on additions to the existing football staff at Old Trafford. Expertise is highly prized by Ratcliffe, however, and boosting that at United is regarded as a key element in helping the club to become winners off the pitch again.
Until they achieve that objective, winning on the pitch will remain as elusive as it has been since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013.