Man United's transfer window travails
Very early in the summer, even before Thomas Vermaelen knew how far Belgium would get in the World Cup, he had a fair idea where he would be playing this season. It wasn't Camp Nou.
The centre-half had provisionally agreed to a deal with Manchester United, so the club then only had to negotiate a fee with Arsenal. It was acknowledged at Old Trafford that this would be difficult, and that the London side were not exactly joyous about the transfer, but the belief was that it could be forced through.
Incoming manager Louis van Gaal was certainly under the impression it would be. Vermaelen anticipated it. The United officials just had to do their part, the main part: seal the deal.
So Vermaelen waited. And waited ... and waited. And waited. There was a puzzling lack of movement.
Then, Barcelona came in, and Vermaelen informed United he couldn't wait anymore. Although he had been genuinely weighing up the decision, and the prospect of playing for the Catalan club didn't automatically blow United out of the equation, it came down to a rather simple piece of logic:
Vermaelen couldn't gamble on waiting for United. Arsenal may not have wanted to sell to them at all, as a rival, and now a foreign club was interested. If he did wait for an offer from Old Trafford, there was the risk Barca could look elsewhere. So Vermaelen moved to Catalonia.
United lost out.
The bottom line from those close to the Belgian's camp is that, with a bit a more urgency, a bit more proactivity and a bit more nous, the player could have been at Old Trafford a while ago. That message has become something of a refrain.
Van Gaal was said to be livid.
The current situation regarding transfers at United is, according to an insider, "tense and edgy." That was also the case before Saturday's home defeat to Swansea City.
It is now United who cannot afford to wait. They basically have two weeks to try and complete the entirety of their summer transfer plans.
Although this window is still not expected to be as bad as last year -- and there is a possibility United will pull off the purchase of one major name, most likely Real Madrid's Angel Di Maria -- it simply remains remarkable that a badly needed overhaul that had been planned since January comes down to the frantic final fortnight.
United may have signed Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera, but both of those deals were effectively finalised last season following months of negotiation and only needed to be signed off on once the market opened. As such, the club have not made any tangible progress on a deal in this window.
Now they must cram it all into two weeks and we have this striking situation: the Premier League club that needed to do the most business to reach an acceptable level have so far done the least.
Although Van Gaal has publicly given his officials some breathing space with comments about "assessing the team," club sources state the manager knew exactly who he wanted to target weeks ago and that calls only really needed to be made on who would be sold. Van Gaal is said to be getting increasingly impatient about the lack of activity and, occasionally, has been fuming.
The short time left also poses another key question. Given the complete lethargy with which United have moved in the three windows since Ed Woodward succeeded David Gill as executive vice-chairman, is it actually realistic to expect them to now do so much in such a short space of time? It certainly doesn't make for the strongest bargaining position.
The club still want two defenders, a wide player and a midfielder. If they were to successfully get all of their top targets -- Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo, Angel Di Maria and, despite some debate, Arturo Vidal -- that could be an outlay of more than 130 million pounds. It's the kind of expenditure virtually unprecedented in one window -- let alone two weeks -- even for the biggest spenders.
It's hard not to think United will come up short of what is so urgently required, even if another two or three signings are made. That would be lamentable and could well be a wasted opportunity, particularly with all the momentum a genuine innovator like Van Gaal has generated.
Either way, it is simply stunning that one of the biggest and wealthiest clubs in the world has endured such a confusing difficulty in actually signing players. The starkest sign of that is that a midfield problem area has now also become a defensive problem area, purely because of an inability to go out and buy who they need.
As regards the reasons, there are understood to be a few, but the most pressing -- from a variety of sources -- is a current lack of "canniness." One official from another major club confided that he was surprised at the "naivety" of "a club like United" in recent windows. Then there are the Glazer family owners, who are seeing the rise of some dissent again.
Although it is understood there is genuinely a lot of money to spend and Woodward has somewhat self-damagingly bragged about this, constraints remain. It is as if the club are conditioned by the recent history of their ownership.
United are not yet willing to do what Bayern, Chelsea or the Spanish duo do and simply pay the premium if it means getting crucial business done. There is also a slickness to the way those rivals go about business, with the abilities of their personnel enhancing the effect of the money. With United, one player deal that was at a tentative stage this summer is said to have never got off the ground because of a difference of about 2 million pounds.
So, a certain trepidation in negotiation is matched by a conservatism in spending. That combination is not exactly conducive to getting the best deals done in the top end of the modern transfer market.
For his part, Woodward is said to be "very conscious" of the public image, and determined to land deals.
There has been some puzzling posturing, however, as regards that image.
For example, the consistent line from United about Vidal is that there has never been significant interest and much of the speculation comes from the player's camp.
Yet, when you speak to those deeper into the club's structure, there is absolute insistence that there has been extensive interest, with Van Gaal also deeply discussing the midfielder -- as well as the authentic concerns about his knee. Two weeks ago, there was even a sudden flurry of activity as it seemed something might be moving with Vidal.
It was, typically, a false alarm. Now, Juventus are not quite on the same level of high alert. Italian sources state that the club set an internal deadline for last Friday, after which time Vidal would not be allowed to be moved.
The big push never came. That is another common refrain.
There is finally likely to be a big push for Di Maria, and the club are aided by the fact Real Madrid president Florentino Perez is almost as eager to sell as the Old Trafford side are to buy. That could create some leeway with the price -- United are said to be ready to initially offer 50 million pounds but Real want around 60 million. Monaco are also hovering.
The signing could add a crucial gloss to this summer, in the same way Mesut Ozil did for Arsenal last year and Juan Mata did for David Moyes back in January.
Neither solved deeper team issues and it is true that, while United of course need Di Maria, they also need more than gloss. They need to improve the team as a whole. They need to end the problems of the past two windows, and quick.
There's no time to wait.
Miguel Delaney is London correspondent for ESPN and also writes for the Irish Examiner, the Independent, Blizzard and assorted others. He is the author of an award-nominated book on the Irish national team called 'Stuttgart to Saipan' (Mentor) and was nominated for Irish sports journalist of the year in 2011.