Manchester United are in the process of rebuilding a team after years of accumulating deadwood at Old Trafford.
But it has not always been the case of the Red Devils being too slow to move players on who were not up to scratch. Some of the worst transfer mistakes in recent years are the ones that got away – players who United should perhaps have kept, that they let go.
Over the past five years, four names in particular stand out as ones who ‘shoulda, woulda, coulda’ stayed at Old Trafford.
1. Wilfried Zaha
Zaha was Sir Alex Ferguson’s last signing for the Red Devils, joining in the summer of 2013 as David Moyes took over. The Ivorian was sensational on United’s pre-season tour and started for United in the FA Community Shield, but was hauled off after an hour and then curiously dropped by Moyes, even leading to speculation that the player had done something personal to upset the manager.
He only ever started one more game for the Red Devils – a 4th round League Cup clash against Norwich City – and sat on the bench or in the reserves for all but two Premier League games – 22 minutes against Newcastle and 6 minutes against Aston Villa – both on his unfamiliar left wing – before being shipped out to Cardiff on loan halfway through the season.
‘I went through so much with United, with England. There were rumours that the reason I wasn’t playing for United was because I slept with David Moyes’s daughter, and no one attempted to clear that up’ Zaha told The Guardian in 2018.
‘So I was fighting my demons by myself, these rumours that I knew weren’t true.’
‘I was dealing with this at 19; living in Manchester by myself, nowhere near anyone else, because the club had a hold over where I lived. They hadn’t given me a car, like every other player. Nothing.’
Perhaps no-one will ever know why Moyes gave up on Zaha so quickly but it proved to be a massive mistake. The 27-year-old has been one of the Premier League’s best right wingers for the last five years – a position which United has never successfully filled over that same period.
2. Jonny Evans
Unlike Zaha, Evans was given plenty of chances to prove himself at Old Trafford, managing just shy of 200 appearances for the club under Sir Alex Ferguson, David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal, the man who eventually sold him. Not many fans shed tears when the centre back left but it proved to be a mistake as Evans excelled at West Brom before joining Leicester City, where he has become the stalwart of the league’s third most effective defence after Liverpool and Sheffield United.
According to Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill, Sir Alex Ferguson was stunned by Van Gaal’s decision to move Evans on. ‘[Sir Alex] openly said to me that he could not believe Van Gaal had sold Jonny from United’ O’Neill said.
‘Because having seen him come through, he felt Jonny would spend his whole career at United or certainly to the latter stages of his career.’
A player that Van Gaal brought in but who was subsequently sold by José Mourinho was his fellow Dutchman Memphis Depay.
Memphis started really brightly at Old Trafford and seemed to strike up an instant friendship and connection with Luke Shaw on the left wing. But after Shaw suffered his horrific broken leg against Depay’s old club PSV Eindhoven in September 2015, things started to go wrong. His adventurous playing style did not suit Van Gaal’s ball-retaining obsession and the media started to turn the fans against Depay by highlighting his brash fashionista lifestyle.
‘Young players shouldn’t think, if they give the ball away, “next ball I have to play safe”’ Depay told The Times in 2018.
‘One time I wanted to work on my left foot and crosses, so I was doing extra training with Giggsy. (Van Gaal) called me in his office and said “why are you training?”’
‘He wasn’t happy I was training extra and things like that make you think as a young guy. At the time I wasn’t playing and had wanted to show how much I want this, that I’d do more than normal to get my chance again.’
The player got even fewer chances with José Mourinho, being given just 20 minutes of Premier League football across four cameo substitute appearances before being shipped out to Lyon for just €25 million (£23 million) in the Portuguese manager’s first winter window.
The 26-year-old quickly became one of Ligue 1’s top performers, scoring 53 goals and registering 43 assists in 134 games since his transfer. He has also scored 13 goals in 51 appearances for Holland.
Lyon’s sporting director Juninho has admitted that the Red Devils did insert a clause in Depay’s sale contract which allows them to buy the player back at a set fee should Lyon ever decide to sell.
4. Daley Blind
Blind played 141 times for United – 72 at centre back, 39 at left back, 22 as a holding midfielder and the rest in other positions. He was seen by most fans as a dependable, professional and skilful player and played regularly under Mourinho in the Portuguese manager’s first season at Old Trafford.
However, in the summer of 2017 Mourinho made his second centre back purchase – adding Victor Lindelof to the squad – and brought in a holding midfielder in Nemanja Matic, making Blind surplus to requirements. He played just 17 times for the Red Devils that season before being transferred back to Ajax in summer 2018.
Blind quickly became captain of Ajax and proved Mourinho spectacularly wrong by leading the Amsterdam side to a Champions League final and a domestic league and cup double in Holland.
There are other names that could be added to the list, for example, Ander Herrera, who was allowed to leave for nothing, Romelu Lukaku, who has been prolific at Inter Milan and Matteo Darmian, who has excelled at Parma. But these four stand out for having consistently proven United wrong for having dismissed them as deadwood, when they are, in fact, very much alive and kicking.
United are hoping to make Jadon Sancho the next player to wear the famous number 7 shirt. But how much do you know about the players who have worn it before? Take our quiz below to find out.