Should how much money is spent or has been spent on a player determine whether he should be in the Manchester United starting line-up or not?
It is an assumption that has crept into the general discussion about who can and cannot be dropped, or sold, that bears further inspection.
The first case relates to the goalkeeping situation. There is constant debate about whether David de Gea or Dean Henderson should be United’s number one going forward and regardless of which side you fall on in terms of ability, an issue that keeps coming up is de Gea’s wages.
‘Perhaps Solskjaer is not yet ready to have the Premier League’s highest paid player sat on the bench – what could yet prove an insurmountable obstacle given that De Gea still has over two years to run on a £375,000 a week contract and, on those terms, would be practically impossible to offload,’ says The Telegraph’s James Ducker, in one of those typical analyses.
‘Maybe it is a battle Henderson – for all his talents – is simply unable to win because of that.’
In other words, nobody is daft enough to pay him what we are, and we can’t pay someone that much money to sit on the bench, even if he is making bad mistakes that are costing United points.
The second case relates to Harry Maguire. It is generally agreed that his centre back partnership with Victor Lindelof is not strong enough and that United need to sign a world class defender to complement Maguire’s style and compensate for his weaknesses. Again, regardless of where you stand on the debate of whether Maguire is better than Lindelof, or Eric Bailly, or even Axel Tuanzebe for that matter, it is generally accepted that because he is the world’s most expensive defender, he cannot be dropped no matter what.
The thing is this. Let’s say you were a general, defending your position against invading troops. You have two cannons and there’s only room for one. One you spent a fortune on, but it has the tendency to misfire and the pin keeps getting stuck. The other cost you next to nothing, it isn’t as flashy but it does the job and does it well. Which one would you choose?
It’s a no-brainer isn’t it? So why should it be any different in football?
What’s done is done. Maguire cost £80 million, it’s irrelevant now. De Gea will cost another £39 million until his contract expires, nothing can be done about that. But when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer comes to pick his side before every game, or when he comes to choosing who he buys in the next transfer window, if he has those things in mind when doing so, then he is not acting in Manchester United’s best footballing interests.
It is also debatable whether choosing players based on investment is even in the club’s best financial interests. On the surface of it, dropping De Gea or Maguire (if Solskjaer indeed wanted to) would be a public acknowledgement that they are not valuable assets. Their market values would go down, so United’s balance sheet would be affected. But what if their poor play costs United a place in the Champions League (around £15 million), or qualifying for the knockout stages (another £10m, approximately), or even reaching the final (approx. £15m more)?
An increase in one Premier League place at the end of the season is worth around £2 million. So if a bad defence costs United, say, 3 positions in the league, that’s £6 million right there.
Then there is the fan interest, merchandising sales, club membership and, once Covid is over, ticket sales. All are affected by how well the team is doing.
It is almost certainly true that no club will match the ridiculous salary that Ed Woodward quite inexplicably offered to De Gea in July 2018 that I wrote at the time would come back to bite United in the backside. But is that reason enough for him to keep his place ahead of Henderson?
Let’s say that in June, a team was willing to pay De Gea £100,000 a week and pay £5 million for him. United could buy out his contract for £39m – (£10.4m salary + £5m fee) = £22 million. Better than him sitting on the bench for two years and costing £39 million. But even that is better than playing him because he is costing £39 million when he is making costly mistakes.
As for Maguire, the situation is even simpler. There is really no value to protect. His contract runs until 2025, by which time he’ll be 32 years old. So resale value is not an issue. There is no reason whatsoever to keep him in the team just because he cost so much. That decision has to be made on merit.
Whether or not either player will keep their place on merit, going forward, remains to be seen. But we should stop bringing their transfer fees, wages and transfer values into that debate and into that decision.
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