Cheap Labor: Why Alejandro Garnacho is becoming Manchester United's most important player
Years of neglect to the academy and tighter FFP laws means the young Argentine will be crucial to any potential title bid Erik Ten Hag hopes to have
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Who is Manchester United’s most important player?
A very strong argument exits that it’s Casemiro. Or it could be Marcus Rashford. Or Bruno Fernandes. Maybe you even want to get fancy and say Lisandro Martinez?
Right now, amidst the 2022-23 season, those players would be the correct answer. But looking further ahead, to what United are looking to achieve next season or the year after the answer could very well be 18 year old Alejandro Garnacho.
Garnacho has yet to force his way in to Erik Ten Hag’s preferred starting XI - and given that he plays the same position as Marcus Rashford, that may take a while. He seems to project to be someone who will become a really really good player but short of a superstar.
So how is an 18 year old with two goals and two assists in the leaguesuddenly Manchester United’s most important player for the future?
To understand that we have to understand how Manchester United got here and where the sport appears to be going in the future.
When the Glazers took over Manchester United in 2005 they saddled the club with debt. Despite the debt they did just enough to keep the first team operating at a high level. In the early years that basically entailed leaning on Sir Alex Ferguson to squeeze every last bit out of his team to keep winning trophies, but since Ferguson retired only Manchester City have spent money on players. Whether United spent their money on the right players is a different question entirely.
With the Glazers doing just enough at the first team level something had to give in order to service the debt. That has obviously come from (lack of) investment in the stadium and more importantly they stopped investing as heavily in the club’s academy.
This flew under the radar at first because the academy was still producing. Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley made it into the first team and won Premier League winners medals, and in 2011 the club won the FA Youth Cup. Things seemed to be good!
The FA Youth Cup represents the highest level of academy football. Most of the players in that team had been with the club since before the Glazers arrived. The lack of investment was coming in the lower age groups. That wouldn’t be felt in the academy for a few more years and not for an eternity in the first team.
At the time it felt like this was just the next generation of academy players coming through the ranks, a tradition the club is proud of. It turns out, it was the last generation of academy players coming through the ranks.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. Louis van Gaal gave debuts to just about anyone and everyone. Only Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford caught on. Jose Mourinho, who has a reputation for not playing youngsters, heavily used Rashford, Lingard, and - for better or worse -Scott McTominay. In Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first season Angel Gomes, Tahith Chong, Mason Greenwood, Brandon Williams, James Garner, and Axel Tuanzebe were all part of the first team picture. None of them are now.
I’ve written about this before. In the fall of 2019 I looked back at United’s academy players from the start of the 2010’s. Throughout the decade players who didn't make it out of United's academy were populating the squad lists of teams in the bottom half of the Premier League table. You may not have been good enough to play for Manchester United, but you were good enough for the Premier League.
That’s no longer the case. Look at the players mentioned above. Chong is in the Championship, Tuanzebe had failed loans in the Premier League and Serie A last season and is back in the Championship this year, Brandon Williams had a Premier League loan last year but didn’t garner interest from other clubs this year. Think of all the players who made their debuts in that Europa League match against Astana. They were touted as the future but most of them now are in the lower levels of the English Football League or in Scotland. The fact that the largest transfer fee United have been able to get from this group was less than £10 million for James Garner tells you all you need to know about the quality of the academy over the years.
In 2019 there was renewed investment in the academy. The club splashed out big money to sign players with bright potential such as Hannibal Mejbri, Charlie McNeil, Alvaro Fernandez, and the aforementioned Garnacho. These signings were at the top end of the academy and by 2022 United had captured their first FA Youth Cup since 2011.
But they're still academy signings. Not all of them are going to pan out and even the ones that do won’t be ready for several years. The fact that four years after the renewed investment only one player is breaking in to the first team is completely normal. It just goes to show you how long these things take.
What does this have to do with Garnacho?
This is the Manchester United Erik Ten Hag inherited. Ten Hag is trying to build United into title contenders once again and given the age of the current squad, the window for that skews much closer to sooner rather than later.
There’s just one problem. Here are the ages of the (outfield) academy players to appear in a matchday squad for United this season:
17, 18, 19, 19, 19, 20, 22, 25, 26.
Now let’s do some housekeeping. The 26 year old is Scott McTominay and the 25 year old is Rashford. The 22 year old is Brandon Williams who has played just five minutes this season and has no future at the club. The 20 year old is Anthony Elanga who has hardly sniffed the pitch this season and doesn’t seem to have a future here.
If you haven’t noticed yet, there is a massive gap between the ages of 20 and 26. An entire generation from the academy - from LVG era players like Cameron Borthwick Jackson, Tyler Blackett, Paddy McNair, Timothy Fosu-Mensah to more recent hopefuls like Josh Harrop, Axel Tuanzebe, Tahith Chong, or Dylan Levitt - just doesn’t exist at the club anymore because it was such crap. You can further argue that in terms of overall ability, McTominay and Elanga are among the bottom of the squad.
Obviously Marcus Rashford emerged from this generation but we’re not talking about Rashford. Rashford is a superstar. He’s far from the expectation. You’re lucky if you get one player of his caliber every decade. We’re talking about the players who rise from the academy and become hard working and contributing squad players. Players who can do a job and offer you some versatility. Players like Darren Fletcher, Tom Cleverley, Phil Neville, Wes Brown, Danny Welbeck, and John O’Shea.
Those players give you something really valuable, cheap squad depth. United currently don't have squad depth. If they're going to compete for a title it's something that needs to be improved upon. Yes there is that nice generations of players seemingly coming through the ranks is good, but who knows when they're actually going to be ready? Zidane Iqbal was great during the preseason and has been on the bench several times this year but hasn't played a minute of senior football. Kobbie Mainoo has been great in low stakes situations, but Ten Hag limiting him makes it clear he doesn't deem him fully ready. You can't expect him to suddenly be a rotational player next year.
The fact that United are missing that entire generation of players who could have provided some squad depth means that any squad depth Erik Ten Hag needs, he’s going to have to buy.
That takes us to where the sport seems to be going.
To put it simply, United’s financial situation is bleak.
This isn’t about the Glazers or the new owners. This is about their compliance with UEFA Financial Fair Play laws - which doesn’t change even with new owners.
Even if United are bought by Qatar they won’t be able to financially dope up the club the way Manchester City did. There’s much more scrutiny now regarding sponsorships and their validity. That scrutiny came because of clubs - like Manchester United - pushing UEFA to be stricter. Even new-money Newcastle have been cognizant and compliant with FFP laws.
United have never run afoul of UEFA’s FFP laws and aren’t on any of UEFA’s watch lists for the simple reason that they’ve always been compliant spending right up to but not over the limit. It’s fair to expect that it’s going to stay that way.
I don’t want to get too into the nitty gritty on United’s finances because that deserves it’s own post. The most important thing we need to know about is UEFA’s new “squad cost rule.”
The UEFA squad cost rule will limit clubs to spending 70 percent of their revenues on the wages of their players and coaches, but not the non-playing staff, as well as the cost of transfers and agents’ fees. Any profits made from selling players will be added on to the revenue side of the equation and, on the other side, the club’s annual amortisation bill will be used to assess the cost of transfers.
The rule will be phased in over time. Clubs can spend up to 100 percent of their revenues this season. Next season it drops to 90 percent, 80 percent the following season, until it finally reaches the 70 percent cap for the 2025-26 season.
Football finance expert Kieran Maguire believes we can make a decent guess at what United’s squad cost ratio currently is by looking at previous years. United’s squad cost ratio has steadily increased over the past decade to it’s high point of 88 percent in 2020-21 and 2021-22. If we look at the Swiss Ramble’s breakdown of United’s Q1 finances, the ratio looks to be about the same.
The thing about revenue is, it’s pretty finite. United’s commercial revenue has remained pretty stagnant over the last five years.
They’ve signed some new commercial deals this season but those are long term deals, the money coming in from them this year will be the same next year, limiting the opportunity for growth. That growth looks like it will just get the club back to the level they were at before the pandemic. It should also be noted that the club no longer has Ed Woodward, who was terrible at running a football club but very good at generating commercial revenue.
There will be increased revenue from qualifying for the Champions League but that comes with caveats too. We know how much the difference between the Champions League and Europa League. When United failed to qualify for the Champions League, the wages of the playing squad were reduced proportionally. Should the reds qualify for the Champions League their wages will go right back up, keeping the proportion the same.
In short, there’s only so much room for revenues to grow. If United are going to remain compliant with UEFA, squad cost needs to go down.
If you’re going to succeed in an FFP world, you’re not only going to need cheap squad depth, you’re going to need cheap(er) high end players. That’s where Garnacho comes in.
Garnacho currently plays a premium position - one where you expect goal contributions to come from. As we all know, injuries and just general fixture congestion mean clubs need at least seven players - but more likely nine- who can reliably contribute in those front four positions. Buying goal contributions is incredibly expensive.
Last season Antony scored eight goals and added four assists in the Eridivsie. That output earned him a move to United where he will cost the club roughly £26.4 million a year in wages and amortized transfer fees.
If Garnacho can become someone who can give you 10-12 league goals in a season, that’s a tremendous contribution that’ll cost the team nothing in transfer fees and a fraction of the wages. Considering that this season Rashford is producing at roughly the same rate as a striker as he is on the left wing, Garnacho emerging as a viable left wing option would allow United to continue to utilize Rashford as a backup striker. That would allow the club to conserve significant resources up top and be able to use them elsewhere in the squad.
The UEFA cost control rule will likely have the same effect that most salary caps do, the elimination of the middle class. Stars and top end players will still get their money, but that’s going to take up a significant percentage of the budget. To round out the rest of the squad you’ll have to rely on cheaper options. It’s like Real Madrid’s “Zidanes y Pavones” strategy on a larger scale.
There is one other way to boost your revenue. Player sales!
Whereas transfer fees are amortized over the length of the contract, profits collected from sales count entirely towards this years revenue. But be careful here. Bringing £40 million in may give you the revenue boost you need to sign a few more players, but the amortization of those contracts will still be on the books next year and the year after. If you’re going to want to sign new players the following year - and let’s be honest, you’re going to - you’re probably going to need to sell another player for £40 million. If you keep opening that line of credit, you need a constant supply of players to sell to boost those revenues.
That’s where the academy comes back in. Over the last 10 years, Manchester City and Chelsea have spent far more money than Manchester United. But United’s net spend is far higher than both those clubs as both those clubs make a ton of money from selling players out of their academy. Those sales boost up their revenues on a yearly basis allowing them to spend big on transfer fees and player wages.
United don’t make any money on sales from the academy. That’s mostly due to the quality of players there, but this latest generation now means decisions have to be made. How many of these players are you going to try and keep to develop into first team players or how many will you sell to fund the title window of the current team?
It’s not as easy a question as you’d think. Academy players move for big money when they’re potential is high. The buying team wants someone who maybe will become a start. That question is only around when the player is unproven. Once the player has been around long enough for the club to determine he’s surplus to requirements, the secret is out to the rest of the world that he’s also not the transformative player we all hoped he would be.
United’s summer transfer window is going to be heavily dictated by how many sales they can make this summer. The problem is, they don’t have many players of value.
No one is offering the £35 million United once paid for Donny van de Beek. Dean Henderson’s value may have taken a big hit when he’s not even holding down the number 1 job at Nottingham Forest. He’s a Premier League goalkeeper, but an average one. Anthony Martial is extremely injury prone and has one year left on his contract. He was available a year ago and no one wanted him, hard to see how that changed. You can’t spend two years screaming that Harry Maguire is terrible and possibly the worst defender ever and then suddenly expect a team to offer big money for him. If you want Scott McTominay to leave, you better hope West Ham’s rumored interest is true!
Moving these players on for low fees would give United wage relief, but for several of them are in positions where United lack depth. Before they can address other areas they’d need to replace the players they lost, without getting a big fee. We should also remember, if clubs aren’t able to match the wages players are currently on, most times they choose not to leave.
The truth is most of United’s players won’t have anywhere to go. Clubs outside of England don’t have the money to sign them. Meanwhile the strategy of Premier League clubs has shifted. They’re no longer interested in taking the castaways from the big boys. Rather than spend their money on players in their primes who are known commodities, clubs like Brighton, Brentford, or Crystal Palace instead spend their resources on signing young players from outside England. Those players come cheaper and have the potential to then be sold for much larger sums when the big come calling.
If United are going to generate big money from selling a player, it’s going to come from a player you probably don’t want sold.Someone like Hannibal Mejbri or Alvaro Fernandez.
That makes continued investment in the academy even more important. Considering you have Bruno Fernandes, selling Mejbri is fine - so long as you have another one coming through the ranks in a few years. That means continuing to make sure you’re getting the best U16, U14, U12 players around.
The academy is going to have an important job in the coming years, providing squad depth, providing funding through sales, and (hopefully) providing a top end player every once in a while.
The core of United’s current team skews older. There are some gems in the academy right now but they won’t be ready for a few years. They’ll be a part of the next team. The current team’s window window is really the next two years, and that illustrates how important Garnacho is.
Garnacho is cheap. If he can step up and play a bigger role next season, United’s limited resources can be spent elsewhere, and that could be the difference between building a title contender or not.
four goals and five assists in all competitions
As someone who hates everything about Jose Mourinho you cannot blame him one iota for not developing youngsters. He can only work with the academy players he inherits and if any of them were good, I think it’s safe to say he would have used them.
When I wondered if the hype around Chong, Gomes, and Greenwood was because they were actually that good or just the best United had produced in a while. It didn’t take long for that to be answered
McNeil is perhaps the perfect example of the lack of investment in the academy. He was a boyhood United fan who joined the academy but left to join City’s academy in 2014. In 2020 he was signed back by United.
Jesse Lingard should have been mentioned in the list above. The reason he wasn’t was because very quickly he was given a new contract that made him anything but cheap.
The Premier League’s FFP laws are more lenient than UEFA’s which Newcastle hasn’t had to worry about yet
Casemiro is reportedly in line for a “significant increase” should United reach the Champions League but it’s a pretty safe bet that the increase would be right in line with the rest of his teammates
Matchday income is a bit higher this season and will be boosted by the club getting a gazillion home cup draws, which can’t be relied upon in the future. Raising ticket prices next season will generate some more income but again, they know exactly how much more it will raise
You’re not going to be able to rely on Bruno Fernandes playing every single match forever
The last club to have some version of this strategy was Everton and look at where that’s gotten them.
And you don’t want him sold because he still has potential