United faces pressure to buy ‘world class’ stars

Manchester United chief executive Ed Woodward, centre. (Jon Super/AP)

LONDON — Manchester United will stick with its policy of spending heavily on world-class talent rather than trying to emulate Leicester, which has surged to the top of the Premier League with unproven players signed on the cheap.

With a squad that’s cost about $75 million to assemble, Leicester is on target to win its first-ever English title, leading United by 12 points.

The record 20-time English champions United have spent at least $360 million on players since Louis van Gaal took charge in 2014. United, which has not won a trophy since van Gaal’s appointment, is currently fifth in the league and crashed out of the Champions League in the group phase.

Despite frugal Leicester’s rise, United vice chairman Ed Woodward said Thursday that the club will continue to chase players in a "slightly different market."

United would never have recruited Jamie Vardy or Riyad Mahrez, who have 32 goals between them in 25 league games for Leicester this season. Top-scorer Vardy was signed from the non-league for 1 million pounds ($1.4 million) and Mahrez was relatively unknown when he joined from French second-tier club Le Havre for 400,000 pounds. By contrast United’s top scorer Wayne Rooney, who earns as much as 300,000 pounds a week, has seven league goals.

"Leicester is a fantastic reference point for everybody this year," Woodward said on a conference call with financial analysts Thursday. "I think the philosophy that we have is to target quality of players based on a huge amount of scouting that we do and analysis within the training ground. Then we do our best to do the best deal we can."

"Some players are bought by other clubs with an eye to them developing into something special in a few years’ time," Woodward said. "There’s a bit more pressure perhaps on some of the bigger clubs to bring in players that are going to be hitting the ground running and top players, verging on world class, almost immediately."

United’s latest figures show that the club has cash reserves of 121.6 million pounds, highlighting the club’s financial firepower for the summer transfer window. United is set to generate at least 500 million pounds in the current financial year — a first for an English club.

Revenue will be hit next season, however, if United fails to qualify for the Champions League. The team is six points behind fourth-place neighbour Manchester City.

Woodward meanwhile faced no questions during the 20-minute call about the future of manager van Gaal.

United, owned by the family of the late Malcolm Glazer, is listed on the New York Stock Exchange.