On this day eight years ago, the football landscape shifted. Manchester United’s failure to resist the overtures of a team Sir Alex Ferguson once said he wouldn’t sell a virus to heralded the beginning of Cristiano Ronaldo’s reign as Real Madrid’s greatest ever Galactico. Three Champions Leagues, two Liga titles and a trio of Ballon d’Or trophies followed as Real and Barca traded blows in a decade of dominance for Spain’s big two.
Since then, United’s own prestige has dwindled. Fans are continually forced to wonder what might have been had Ronaldo stayed, and how much fuller their trophy cabinet would be had the Portuguese wonder scored his 406 goals in a red shirt rather than a white one.
In the immediate season that followed Ronaldo’s departure, United’s only success of note was their League Cup victory over Aston Villa. Ferguson was forced to raid north London twice for ageing strikers in the years that followed to give United the competitive edge – albeit only in the short-term – that they lost when Ronaldo left. First Dimitar Berbatov came, then Robin van Persie, but just two titles in eight years has seen United’s prestige fall considerably.
Last season they finished only sixth, sneaking back into the Champions League via the backdoor of Europe’s infinitely less esteemed competition. Much of United’s woes can be traced back to the poor recruitment carried out after Ronaldo moved to the Bernabeu. Despite receiving a world-record fee, and despite plenty of advance warning that CR7 was leaving, the club still spent poorly.
It is a mistake many clubs have repeated since, from Tottenham to Liverpool, with the task of replacing a talisman not an easy one. Some have tried signing just one supreme talent to fill the void, though most opt to sign multiple players.
It is a dilemma that Arsenal now face with Alexis Sanchez. The Chilean looks increasingly certain to depart for Manchester City this summer, and it appears as though Arsene Wenger’s first instinct was to replace one talisman with another as he lined up an audacious bid for Monaco sensation Kylian Mbappe. But that dream now looks dead, and instead the Gunners are chasing deals for three new attackers: Alexandre Lacazette, Thomas Lemar and Riyad Mahrez.
Alexis Sanchez on his Arsenal future
When asked if he will be Claudio Bravo’s team-mate at City next season during a press conference with Chile’s national team, Sanchez replied: ‘Good question! Right now I’m focused on the Confederations Cup.
‘When this is finished I will see if I stay or go. I don’t know.’
Asked if his decision is clear in his mind, Sanchez replied: ‘Yes, it’s clear. But I can’t tell you.’
When directly asked by Sky Sports about his chances of staying at Arsenal, the Chilean said: ‘I don’t know, my friend. I don’t know.’
None will replace Alexis Sanchez’s star power on their own, but together Wenger will hope they can emulate, or even eclipse, the Chilean’s 43 goals and assists in all competitions. However, anything less than signing players of that calibre could prove a costly mistake, and both Ferguson’s attempt to replace Ronaldo – and the trials and tribulations of other Premier League clubs in similar situations – makes grim reading for Arsenal.
Manchester United after Cristiano Ronaldo – 2009
How Man Utd spent the Ronaldo money
Antonio Valencia (from Wigan) – £16m
Mame Biram Diouf (from Molde) – £3.8m
Gabriel Obertan (from Bordeaux) – £3.4m
Michael Owen (from Newcastle) – Free
Looking back, United’s transfers after Ronaldo left seem even more bizarre now than they did at the time. Admittedly Antonio Valencia has proven to be a successful acquisition, though it was only after he had been redeployed as a right-back that he really nailed down a starting spot in the United XI. A versatile, hard-working fans’ favourite, but not a replacement for Ronaldo despite initially being signed as a creative winger.
Valencia has to date scored just 22 times for the Red Devils, which is at least more than Gabriel Obertan and Mame Biram Diouf managed. That unspectacular pair netted just a single goal apiece, against Bursaspor and Burnley respectively, while Michael Owen managed only five goals in the Premier League. The only thing harder to comprehend than United’s decision to replace Ronaldo with Obertan would be the decision to spend £8m on Bebe the following summer.
Tottenham Hotspur after Gareth Bale – 2013
How Spurs spent the Bale money
Roberto Soldado (from Valencia) – £25.5m
Erik Lamela (from Roma) – £25.5m
Paulinho (from Corinthians) – £16.7m
Christian Eriksen (from Ajax) – £11.5m
Etienne Capoue (from Toulouse) – £9.3m)
Vlad Chiriches (from Steaua Bucharest) – £8m
Nacer Chadli (from Twente) – £6.9m
When Tottenham lost Gareth Bale to Real Madrid four years ago, they did at least show some serious intent in the transfer market. Many quipped that they had sold Elvis and bought the Beatles, investing in seven new signings. But magnificent they were not. Only two of that mob still remain in north London, with Paulinho, Roberto Soldado and Vlad Chiriches all patently not suited for Premier League football.
Soldado, who had scored 81 goals in 141 games for Valencia, would net just twice from open play in his first season at the club, and only once in his second. The task of replacing Bale proved too difficult, and both Andre Villas-Boas and Tim Sherwood would pay the price in a tumultuous 12 months.
Mauricio Pochettino offered a shot at redemption, though, and at least in Christian Eriksen Tottenham can lay claim to a world-class talent. Spurs just about made their money back on their five rejects, but were they to sell Eriksen they would make a handsome profit. His supreme playmaking talent – he created 112 chances last season, the most in the Premier League – shows that sometimes throwing enough s*** at the wall can produce a diamond.
Liverpool after Luis Suarez – 2014
How Liverpool spent the Suarez money
Adam Lallana (from Southampton) – £26.3m
Dejan Lovren (from Southampton) – £21.5m
Lazar Markovic (from Benfica) – £21.3m
Mario Balotelli (from AC Milan) – £17m
Alberto Moreno (from Sevilla) – £15m
Divock Origi (from Lille) – £10.7m
Emre Can (from Leverkusen) – £10.2m
Rickie Lambert (from Southampton) – £4.7m
Liverpool used Luis Suarez’s £70m departure to fund wholesale changes to the squad, reinforcing in multiple positions. But finding a striker that could replace the Uruguayan’s goals and dynamism was just not possible. In the end, they bought three strikers to try and do the job of one – and would sign another trio (Christian Benteke, Roberto Firmino and Danny Ings) the following summer.
But it did not work. Just 14 months after agreeing to sell Suarez, Brendan Rodgers would be out of a job having left the club in 10th place, with the replacements signed simply not up to the task. Mario Balotelli was an error of judgement that hinted at the difficulty Liverpool were having in signing a world-class substitute for Suarez. It turns out there’s a reason that such players are bought for astronomical sums, and trying to find a hidden gem who can replace that output at a fraction of the cost is just not possible.
Arsenal after Robin van Persie – 2012
How Arsenal spent the Van Persie money
Santi Cazorla (from Malaga) – £16.2m
Lukas Podolski (from Koln) – £12.8m
Olivier Giroud (from Montpellier) – £10.2m
As is the case now with Sanchez, Arsenal allowed Robin van Persie to run down his contract and force through a move to United for a fee of just £26m. He fired the Red Devils to the title, with each of his Premier League goals in that first season costing a bargain £1m. Arsenal finished fourth, as they so often would, but by strengthening a rival it felt like a moment that marked the end of the Gunners as a legitimate title contender.
Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud would both score a modest 11 goals in the Premier League in their maiden campaigns – out-gunned by top scorer Theo Walcott (14). At least the Frenchman became an established, normally reliable frontman, though the fact that he was not Van Persie has always counted against him.
The shadow of the Dutchman hung around Arsenal for several years, until Ozil and Sanchez arrived. Finally Wenger was prepared to spend money, finally Arsenal had filled the superstar void left behind by Van Persie. But even now they lack a striker capable of firing them to the title, with Giroud the odd one out in a season when the clubs around Arsenal could count on Diego Costa, Harry Kane, Sergio Aguero and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Now Wenger finds himself in that same position again, with plenty of lessons to heed. Ferguson did not spend enough, Tottenham spent too much, Liverpool signed too many strikers, and Arsenal did not sign enough. As all the superstars from Ronaldo to Bale prove, there is no immediate fix. In time, a new talisman might emerge. But the issue for Wenger is that neither he, nor Arsenal, have time on their side.