Let's talk about that Manchester United offseason.
It was United's first under new manager David Moyes, so it was important. United are the defending Premier League champions, but they won that title under the best manager in the history of the sport. Sir Alex is retired now, though, so the world waited all summer to see what these new Red Devils would like. It's very early, but they hardly look like locks to repeat.
United smacked Swansea away in the first game of the season, but then drew Chelsea at home before Sunday's loss away to Liverpool. They're already five points off the lead, and some of their players are looking pretty old, but that's not what everyone is talking about. Everyone is wondering how United, the greatest club in England and one of the top clubs in the world, were unable to attract players after winning the Premier League just last May.
Because when the transfer window closed, the Red Devils made two signings: 20-year-old Guillermo Varela, from a Uruguayan team you've never heard of, and Belgian midfielder Marouane Fellaini, who played under Moyes at Everton and snuck in for a reported £27.5 million just before the deadline. Fellaini's a very good player and intimidating presence on the field, but he's not what Manchester United needed. Moyes had one job: get an attacking midfielder, a number 10 to play behind Robin van Persie and create chances for the team. Slight outcast Wayne Rooney could do it, as well as Shinji Kagawa if given the chance, but these aren't real solutions. United's faithful wanted a permanent fix.
They didn't get one. And that's ok. Clubs aren't going to have perfect transfer windows. But the reason why they didn't get an attacking midfielder is surprising. They didn't get one because they couldn't get one.
Domestically, their poor transfer dealings were most likely a result of their own past exploits. Take last year. After finishing second, United bought van Persie, the best striker in the league, for just £24 million. He then tallied 26 goals and eight assists to lead the Red Devils to a Premier League win with over a month to go in the season.
The league's managers learned a lesson from that. There's a relative dearth of attacking midfielders in the Premier League who could contribute at United, and no one is willing to let the ones who can go. José Mourinho looks set to play Juan Mata, who last season was named Chelsea's player of the year, sparingly. But the two sides couldn't reach a deal. Chelsea wanted Wayne Rooney. Because of van Persie, Moyes said something that probably sounded like fuuuuuuuck that. Even though United wanted Mata, Mourinho would rather his player rot than potentially run the show at a rival club.
That's how sports are supposed to work; you're not supposed to be helping your top rivals win. Still, every player has a price, and United is one of the richest and most prestigious clubs in the world. They just won a trophy. Most years, they'd have their pick of virtually any player in the world.
Times are changing, though. Teams have oil, royal, and fishy Russian money now. It's leading to market inflation as clubs buy players for £50, £60, £80 million, but it's also creating more parity around the continent. In England alone, what was the big four is now looking a little more like a big six due to Tottenham's ascendance and Manchester City spending about a net £560 million on players alone since 2007. That's almost a billion dollars.
You see it elsewhere, too. Paris Saint-Germain and AS Monaco in France are buying up everyone. Barcelona and Real Madrid aren't going anywhere in Spain, but Málaga came under Qatari ownership and made it all the way to the Champions League quarterfinal last year. (They're in UEFA jail now, but still.) Some of the world's best players are signing for clubs in Russia and Turkey now.
United is perhaps the only English team that hasn't been touched by the turbulent nature of the soccer economy and of the passage of time. But now, new, attractive sides have joined the old guard of historically great clubs like United.
And so players have options now. United were in for Barcelona playmaker Cesc Fabregas. Didn't happen. They were in for Barça star-to-be Thiago Alcântara. After coaxing from ex-Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola, Thiago elected to join the crowded midfield at FC Bayern in Germany. They were in for Real Madrid's Mesut Özil, but Arsenal somehow beat them out on deadline day. They were interested in Ander Herrera from Athletic Bilbao but something or other happened, and that didn't work out either. So United bought Fellaini for an inflated price. If Moyes hadn't just left Everton for United, the Belgian most likely wouldn't have pushed so hard to leave.
This isn't the end, or anything close. This is still Manchester United, after all. Ferguson left, and supposedly Rooney, Nani, Patrice Evra, Chicharito, and everyone else this side of Ryan Giggs wanted to follow, and yet the Red Devils held on to everyone. They may be coming down in the world ever so slightly while other clubs are coming up, but they just won a few months ago with this same squad of players, and so we think they can pull off a title run without strengthening. But... what if they can't? What then?