What seems like better value: Bruno Fernandes and Donny van de Beek for a shade under £90million, initially, or James Maddison and Jack Grealish for around £160m?
It’s a no-brainer, of course. This isn’t meant to disparage the quality of Maddison and Grealish, who have both had good seasons at Leicester City and Aston Villa, but instead it shows the financial perils involved with ‘buying British’.
That’s a slogan that seems more appropriate to the National Beef Association than a football club with designs on winning the Premier League and the transfer activity United have conducted in 2020 should edge them away from the desire to sign homegrown players.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made it a priority to focus his rebuild on domestic talents when he got the United job on a permanent basis and in his first summer in charge they stuck to that plan, spending £140million on Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Harry Maguire and Daniel James.
But the fact United had to pay £80million in one go to prise Maguire away from Leicester City shows how the selling club in the Premier League almost always hold the aces.
That was the case with the Foxes again, with Maddison influential in their impressive first half of the season, and with Aston Villa once they’d secured survival on the final day of the season. It was Grealish who scored that goal to keep his boyhood club up, but it also meant his exit from Villa Park became more complicated. The fact Villa wanted twice the fee Ajax did for Van de Beek shows the madness in the domestic transfer market is unlikely to be halted by the coronavirus pandemic.
In essence United got two attacking midfielders for the price of one in Fernandes and Van de Beek. Add-ons will bump those fees up slightly, but still not to the kind of level that two Premier League teams who wouldn’t be considered part of the ‘big six’ are demanding for players unproven in Europe.
That wasn’t the case with Fernandes and Van de Beek. The former has played in the Champions League and Europa League with Sporting Lisbon while the Dutch midfielder was influential in Ajax’s stunning run to the last four of the Champions League in 2018/19.
At £47million Fernandes already looks like a bargain and from the evidence of his performances for Ajax you would expect the same of a £40million investment on Van de Beek.
You can understand why Solskjaer wants players used to the Premier League, but they don’t come cheap, and with United still counting the cost of the COVID-19 pandemic now might be a sensible time to move away from that strategy.
This is a squad already stacked with British players. It could yet be swelled by the addition of Jadon Sancho if United can do a deal for the 20-year-old England winger. There is little need to continue to shop in that market when prices are seemingly unaffected by the prospect of a global recession. The Premier League is immune from such realities.
Instead United have found that European clubs can charge far more reasonable fees when they realise players want to depart. Dortmund might be playing hardball for Sancho at the moment by sticking to their £108million asking price, but then he is not only English, but also a once-in-a-generation talent.
There are plenty more examples of players on the continent being traded for reasonable fees, rather than the excessive valuations placed by Premier League clubs. Inter Milan signing Achraf Hakimi for £36million also stands out this summer, as does AC Milan landing Brescia midfielder Sandro Tonali for £26.8million.
There is a realisation in Europe that clubs have to sell to keep the books balanced. That’s not the case in the Premier League. The remarkable TV deals mean every club in the league is basically financially secure. They don’t need to sell and if their player is under contract for more than one more year they aren’t going to consider a cheap deal. That’s why Leicester and Villa stuck such eye-watering price tags on Maddison and Grealish.
United have tried to focus their attentions on buying British talent. In some cases they’ve been successful, but the bargains they’ve landed in Fernandes and Van de Beek should encourage them to spread their attentions wider as well. There’s some good deals to be had in Europe.