The fee itself, as gargantuan as it is, isn’t really an issue. Manchester United are one of the few clubs in the sport for which money truly is no object, and so their decision to break the defender transfer record is no cause for alarm. If there is an issue with the Red Devils paying Leicester City £80 million for center back Harry Maguire, though, it’s a matter of who, not what.
Maguire is good—probably even very good. He is big, strong, outstanding in the air as both a defender and an attacker, and is surprisingly great at carrying and passing the ball. Combine all that with his age (he’s 26), his ability to play well on the left side of a center back pair, and his status as a homegrown Englishman, and it’s no surprise that he would fetch a hefty fee on the open market.
Maguire is a highly valuable asset, and United are a club in desperate need of valuable assets, with the wherewithal to purchase them at virtually any cost without much concern about how it might affect them going forward. The question, then, isn’t whether Maguire is “worth” £80 million to United, but if Maguire is the best United could do with £80 million to spend on a defender. Put another way: Who could United have signed who would’ve been better?
Matthijs de Ligt’s €75 million transfer from Ajax to Juventus this summer is a useful comparison. De Ligt is probably the better player today, is much younger at only 19 years old, and has a considerably higher ceiling than the newest Red Devil. United themselves likely agree with that assessment, since reports had them as one of de Ligt’s most dogged pursuers before he settled on Juve.
Had United succeeded in bringing de Ligt to Manchester, for the €75 million Ajax eventually accepted or even the £80 million they just paid for Maguire, no one would’ve balked. To get back where they belong, United must shop at the top of the market, and the fees at the top of today’s market are absolutely insane. But while United have the money to sign players like de Ligt, they don’t have the ability to convince players of that caliber to join them, which is why they have to settle for a good-but-not-exceptional substitute like Maguire.
United’s failed attempt to sign de Ligt isn’t this transfer window’s only example of the club’s fallen standing. Neymar is by all reports available on the market. United are one of maybe three or four clubs in the world with enough money to theoretically go after him, and yet they have never been mentioned as an even hypothetical destination for him. The ongoing Romelu Lukaku saga is another indicative case. Juventus were reportedly dead set on partnering the big Belgian with Cristiano Ronaldo, so much so that they were willing to throw Paulo Dybala into the deal as a makeweight. And yet, even after Juve reportedly tried to force Dybala into United’s arms by telling the Argentine his services were no longer valued, Dybala effectively rejected United with his exorbitant salary demands. Even Nicolas Pépé, a really good forward who isn’t quite world class, chose Arsenal over United. United’s closest involvement with the potential transfer of a legitimately world-class player all summer has been their efforts to keep Paul Pogba out of Real Madrid’s grasp.
The reasons why United aren’t in the hunt for Neymar and couldn’t seal the deal with de Ligt or Dybala and are at risk of losing Pogba are obvious. Money is great, but it doesn’t matter much when you can’t convince the best players to take yours. And so United have to settle for Maguire instead of de Ligt, paying record-breaking prices for less-than-earth-shattering players. Adding Maguire to the fold does make United a better team today than they were yesterday, and for that reason alone it’s perfectly fine and maybe even smart that the club stumped up the cash for him, even if it doesn’t represent great value for money. But that the club’s £80 million can’t buy them more than a Harry Maguire is why Manchester United will spend yet another season a rung or two below Europe’s true elite.