Manchester United have had a couple of once-in-a-lifetime signings, and the problem with those is that they’re tough to replicate.
It took the Red Devils years to find another goalkeeper close to Peter Schmeichel’s level, while the wingers who have arrived since Cristiano Ronaldo showed up in 2003 have mostly failed to have the same impact.
We’ve gone back through the 13 who have signed and played since the man from Madeira, to give a feel for what number 14 – Daniel James – has to live up to.
Considering the effort United went to in order to sign the Serb, his input feels almost less than useless.
Joining in what was meant to be a joint deal with compatriot Adem Ljajić, the former Partizan player didn’t even manage a start for the club, with his last league minutes coming against Hull City in a squad which also included Richard Eckersley and Lee Martin.
Worse still, Ljajić – who didn’t end up completing his part of the move – ended up being the more accomplished player.
At least Zaha earned a start (two if you include the Community Shield), but what a waste this was.
£15million for a player quickly considered inferior to what United already had, only for him to leave and subsequently demonstrate he’s streets ahead of most of the current squad.
At least a sell-on clause could now ensure United get their money back… five years later.
On the plus side, United didn’t have to pay a transfer fee for Alexis.
Also, erm, he scored that goal against Arsenal. Anything else? No? Yeah, you’re probably right.
In United’s defence, they couldn’t have seen this coming. What’s that, they could absolutely have seen it coming? Yeah, you’re probably right.
Rashford, Pogba & Lingard have scored 19% of Man Utd's PL goals since Alex Ferguson retired. Climbs to 20% if you add in Alexis Sanchez.
— Duncan Alexander (@oilysailor) July 1, 2019
We had a couple of weeks at the start of the 2015-16 when it looked like Memphis would prove money well-spent after instantly forming a rapport with Luke Shaw. Then Shaw broke his leg, and everything quickly went downhill for the Dutchman too.
This one was especially frustrating. Not just for the fee, though it was substantial, but because Louis van Gaal was supposed to get the best out of him with little difficulty.
Since leaving Old Trafford, he has impressed for an exciting Lyon side. That has to sting.
We know what you’re thinking, Obertan surely shouldn’t be ahead of so many, but at the very least he was cheap – he played to his level, not substantially below it.
If he hadn’t been signed in the same window that Ronaldo moved to Real Madrid, he’d be remembered for what he is: a distinctly average winger who passed through Old Trafford with minimal incident.
This being enough for him to escape the bottom three says more about the players below him.
United made a huge loss on Di María, but he also scored that beautiful scoop against Leicester City, so who can say for certain whether or not he was a good signing.
The Armenian edges out Di María by virtue of helping United to a trophy with his goal in the 2017 Europa League final.
That feels so long ago, doesn’t it? As if entire lifetimes have passed since Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba scored to break the resistance of an exciting young Ajax team including Davinson Sánchez and Davy Klaassen, with the Dutch side turning to their bench to give game time to backups David Neres, Frenkie de Jong and Donny van de Beek.
Mkhi carried that form into the opening game of the following season and then… very quickly stopped.
Martial is somehow simultaneously too low and too high on this list, the paradox of a player who is simultaneously under- and over-rated.
That home debut against Liverpool might have forced us to expect too much of the Frenchman, in retrospect. He has had some brilliant high points, but far too many low ones too.
The worst part? He’s forced us to confront the idea that José Mourinho might have been right about something post-2015.
We’re not talking about Young the converted full-back but rather the exciting winger plucked from Aston Villa at more or less the peak of his powers.
It’s easy to forget how good Young was at times in that first season, not least in the 8-2 victory over Arsenal, and even his downhill trajectory took longer than you realise.
We reckon he’d be more highly thought of if he’d left years ago, which brings us on to…
That exciting ex-Wigan winger was a huge part in Wayne Rooney’s frankly ridiculous goalscoring campaign in 2009-10, and he offered plenty of leadership and experience even after moving into defence.
Is the Ecuadorian’s longevity a sign of a broken club whose recruitment needs several years of reform just to bring it close to the level it was on before he signed?
You should probably ask Ed Woodward.
Instantly elevated to the top five by virtue of arriving by helicopter wearing an immaculate pocket square, bumped up to fourth by the blog, elevated to third by his goals in that win against Liverpool.
Should that be how we measure these things? Absolutely.
There’s a scene in the Simpsons episode ‘Homer at the Bat’ where the titular character approaches Darryl Strawberry, a pro baseball player brought in as a ringer for Mr Burns’ company softball team, and notices they both play right field.
“Are you better than me?” asks Homer, to which Darryl replies “I’ve never met you… but yes.” This is Nani’s relationship with the last Portuguese winger to join United before him.
If Cristiano Ronaldo had never existed, we’d think a great deal more of Nani. He just had the misfortune of playing for the same country (and, briefly, the same club) at the same time as one of the best players in history, in the same position.
He achieved a fair deal, including – but not limited to – the cross for that Wayne Rooney goal in the derby. We reckon history will be kind to him.
It says a lot about the last few years of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign that the best winger he signed after Ronaldo was great for reasons other than his wing play.
The former PSV man was Fergie’s archetype of a Big Game Player, coming in and doing whatever was required of him, whether that meant working as a ball-carrier, a destroyer or a man-marker.
Others might have been more exciting, but none were more important than the South Korea international. What’s more, he was only useful in that particular set-up, as QPR would later discover.