Manchester United may be the most successful club in Premier League history, but their transfer dealings haven’t always been on point – and Old Trafford regulars will be relieved they never got deals for this XI over the line.
The Sir Alex Ferguson era was defined by clever signings, although even the greatest manager in the club’s history wasn’t immune from transfer cock-ups, but United’s movements in the market since Ferguson’s retirement in 2013 have frequently made their supporters scratch their heads.
We’ve compiled an XI of players United reportedly targetted but will be relieved they never signed, lining up in a traditional 4-4-2 formation.
GK: Rene Adler
“Everyone here knows that I have higher ambitions and everyone knows that Manchester United is my dream club,” Adler announced during the early days of 2011. “The board of the club are aware of the special clause in my contract.”
Adler was keeping goal for Bayer Leverkusen at the time and dispensed with the usual coquettish flirting techniques favoured by footballers to offer his services to United.
With Edwin van der Sar in his final season as a professional, Ferguson was in the market for a top-class keeper. But the outgoing Van der Sar recommended a different replacement: David de Gea.
De Gea was United’s first-choice No.1 for the past decade while Adler spent the rest of his career at mediocre Bundesliga clubs. It’s hard to see United having many regrets over their decision.
After winning the World Cup with Cafu and Roberto Carlos bombing down the flanks, Brazilian full-backs were all the range in the mid-2000s and Cicinho was heavily linked with a move to United in 2005.
Ferguson viewed the Sao Paolo defender as the long-term successor to Gary Neville but, despite being on the verge of joining United, Cicinho ultimately chose a move to Real Madrid following an intervention from Roberto Carlos.
“He asked me if I wanted to come and play with him for the Galacticos,” Cicinho wrote on social media about his £3.5million move to Spain.
“It was almost all right for me to go to Manchester United, but how could I say no to the chance to be friends with Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, [Zinedine] Zidane, [Luis] Figo, [David] Beckham, Robinho, Raul, Julio Baptista, [Iker] Casillas, Sergio Ramos and so on?”
But Cicinho was shipped off to Roma after just 18 months and 32 appearances for the club. The defender later confessed his time in Spain was marked by alcoholism.
While at Roma, he had spells on loan with Villarreal and former club Sao Paulo, before joining Turkish side Sivasspor.
Cicinho was capped 15 times by Brazil, but a promising career faded into mediocrity after his stop-start time in Madrid and United ended up dodging a bullet.
Palmeiras 0 x 1 São Paulo
Copa Libertadores da América 2005
Gol: Cicinho pic.twitter.com/cDwY5K2WjO
— History São Paulo FC (@HistorySPFC) January 16, 2017
CB: Issa Diop
Diop is now at Fulham following four increasingly underwhelming years at West Ham but the defender had his admirers at Old Trafford.
“Congratulations to the scout that found a 21-year-old kid Diop – a monster who dominated in the duels,” Jose Mourinho said following their defeat at the London Stadium in September 2018.
And United were linked with the defender in both the 2019 and 2020 summer transfer windows, only to be deterred by West Ham’s £45million asking price.
Considering the run-around Diop was given by Kidderminster Harriers in last season’s FA Cup, the last thing United needed was to sign another error-prone defender.
CB: Samuel Umtiti
Umtiti was immense during France’s victorious 2018 World Cup campaign but his time at Barcelona has been dogged by injury problems and United were offered the defender in a cut-price deal in both 2019 and 2020.
Not even Ed Woodward and the various Glazer goons would’ve fallen for that one.
LB: Thomas Vermaelen
There are plenty of United fans who believe Louis van Gaal wasn’t given a fair crack of the whip but he loved nothing more than signing ageing veterans: Bastian Schweinsteiger and Radamel Falcao are two that spring to mind instantly.
And Van Gaal was extremely interested in signing Vermaelen in 2014. Never mind his appalling fitness record or the fact he now turned slower than a milk float, the former Belgium international was identified as the man to bring the good times back to Old Trafford.
Luckily, Barcelona beat United to his signature. After not making his club debut until May 2015, Vermaelen made just 53 appearances in four seasons for Barca. Enough said.
RM: Steve Stone
Stone was a serviceable Premier League performer and was touted as a replacement for the outgoing Andrei Kanchelskis in 1995.
But Ferguson, who also sold Paul Ince and Mark Hughes that summer, decided to place his faith in one of United’s academy products instead.
His name? David Beckham.
CM: Sean Longstaff
United were quoted £50million for Longstaff in the summer of 2019. Unsurprisingly, they told Newcastle to do one and spent roughly the same amount on Bruno Fernandes six months later.
CM: Kevin Strootman
With the kind of all-action displays that led him to be labelled as the ‘Dutch Roy Keane’ in some quarters, it was no surprise that United were keen on acquiring Strootman during the mid-2010s.
They weren’t even deterred when a knee injury ruled the former Netherlands international out of the 2014 World Cup but perhaps that was a blessing in disguise. Strootman suffered an injury-plagued time at both Roma and Marseille and hasn’t played for the national team since 2019.
LW: El-Hadji Diouf
After impressing for Senegal at the 2002 World Cup, Diouf moved to Liverpool for £10million but failed to replicate anything like the form he showed that summer in the Far East and has since said he should have gone elsewhere.
“I can say today that the shirt that I regret wearing the most was Liverpool’s, because if I were to do that part of my career again, I would have gone to FC Barcelona or Manchester United. At the time, they wanted me too,” Diouf told French outlet RMC.
We can’t imagine United have endured many sleepless nights over their failure to lure Diouf to Old Trafford. Although we can’t help picturing Roy Keane’s face as Diouf spat his way around English football wearing United red…
ST: David Hirst
The year was 1992 and United’s quest for a first league title in 26 years was becoming undermined by a severe goal drought.
After four goals without a single goal, and prevented from signing Southampton striker Alan Shearer, Ferguson turned his attention to Hirst who was banging them in for Sheffield Wednesday at the time.
United offered a British record £4.5million for the England striker but Wednesday manager Trevor Francis refused to sell his star asset.
“One thing I never did in my career was knock on the manager’s door because I’m not in the team or I want more money,” Hirst said in 2015. “If you’re not happy with the contract, don’t sign it. Sitting here now, I should’ve banged the door down.”
United ended up signing Eric Cantona instead. The rest, as they say, is history…
ST: Marko Arnautovic
Nobody quite realised the extent of United’s desperation for new signings in the summer of 2022 until they had an £8million bid for Arnautovic rejected by Bologna.
While the Austria international did okay with Stoke and West Ham, he was firmly in the autumn of his career and a history of racism outraged the United supporters.
Any plans of a follow-up bid were quietly shelved and everybody agreed not to speak of the sorry episode again.