Confirmed: United pull plug on Ljajić deal
Posted by nickogs20 on December 3, 2009
I reported last night that several English media sources were reporting that United had backed out of a deal to bring Partizan teenager Adem Ljajić to Old Trafford in January, and in a statement on the official website this morning, the club have confirmed that the deal is indeed off.
Responding the media speculation overnight, the club released the following statement just before 10am:
It has been confirmed that United have decided not to take up the option to sign Partizan youngster Adem Ljajic.
The 18-year-old Serbian attacking midfielder had been lined up for a potential move to Old Trafford next year.
However, with a wealth of top young talent in that position already at the club, United have announced that the initial interest in Ljajic will not be followed up.
A club spokesman told ManUtd.com: “We had an option to buy the player but, having closely monitored his development over past 12 months, and taken into the consideration the young players emerging through the ranks, we have chosen not to pursue the transfer.”
Now at first glance, the explanation given seems fair enough. The likes of Gabriel Obertan, Nani and Antonio Valencia already occupy the same sort of role as Ljajić in the first-team squad, and then you have Magnus Eikrem, Davide Petrucci, Ravel Morrison and others potentially waiting in the wings ready to make a breakthrough. Tom Cleverley has also excelled out on loan for Watford this season, and he is another similar type of player. The sheer weight of numbers there may well have just led Sir Alex to believe spending an eight-figure sum on another player of that kind was unnecessary.
That said, Ljajić is by all accounts a special talent – it’s hard to see United agreeing to pay the reported £10m fee for a 17 year-old in the first place if he wasn’t an outstanding prospect. A first-team regular for the Serbian champions and a regular Under-21 international at the age of 17, Ljajić was attracting interest from several top clubs before United ‘swooped’ back in January, including Real Madrid. In comparison, those already listed at the club are comparitively unproven and a few have major question marks hanging over them (Nani’s future is a constant source of speculation for example).
In addition, a number of other things about the way this has panned out really don’t add up. Only now has it emerged that the club only had ‘an option’ on the player – as far as anyone was aware until yesterday, Ljajić was a United player. The young Serb was said to have signed a four-and-a-half year deal back in January, and Serbian press reports have stated that the Reds have been paying the youngster’s salary since the ‘signing’ was announced. While these reports were unconfirmed, it seems strange that everything over the past year has pointed to the signing being a done deal… until today.
Furthermore, the notion that the decision to call off the deal has come after closely monitoring the player’s progress over the past 12 months – thus implying that he’s not developed as expected or hoped – is a hard one to swallow given the club applied for a work permit for Ljajić at the end of October. Why do that, barely more than a month ago, if you were going off the idea of completing the signing? In the same vein, why did Sir Alex Ferguson say the following just last month if there was a doubt about the move going through?:
“Given all the talk about him and the fact he plays for Serbia’s Under 21s even though he’s only 18, we hope we will be granted the permit. I am looking forward to seeing him in January.”
And another comment from SAF, this time from September:
“Adem Ljajic is another player who we have on loan, at Partizan Belgrade, and he’ll join us in January. He’s doing very well. He was the star for Serbia at the UEFA Under-19 Championships over the summer.”
Do those sounds like the comments of a man unconvinced by Ljajić’s progress? If there was any doubt at all, surely the manager would have chosen to keep silent on the matter, rather than continuing to hype the player’s ability? Some would say the manager doesn’t always tell the media the whole truth, but I personally choose to believe Sir Alex wouldn’t have said these things about Ljajić if he was really thinking quite the opposite. Whatever the critics may say about him, Sir Alex’s reputation for dealing with young players is outstanding.
Also – the last time United’s coaching staff will have really seen Ljajić at close quarters was in September, prior to that second quote from the manager. Since then he was been in consistently good form for Partizan in both the Serbian league and the Europa League, as well as for the Serbian Under-21 side, becoming an undoubted star of both sides at just 18 years of age. Looking at all the evidence – and acknowledging that the coaches seem things that we don’t see, in training and so on – the idea that the player hasn’t developed and United have suddenly gone off him is a really tough sell.
If, like me, you don’t buy the reasons given in the official club statement, what are the alternatives? Some have queried whether there have been issues with the youngster’s work permit, but firstly it seems unlikely the club would have a problem securing one for Ljajić via the exceptional talent route, and secondly there would surely be no reason to outright cancel the deal upon failing to secure a permit – Ljajić could have spent the rest of the season with Partizan, maybe making a push towards a full Serbia cap in that time, and the club could have applied again in the summer.
Another suggestion is that maybe the club had concerns about the player’s personality – perhaps there were disciplinary issues or worries about the Ljajić’s dedication or professionalism, or with rumours of Zoran Tošić struggling to settle in Manchester, maybe the club feared a repeat. These possibilities can’t be ruled out, but there’s no real evidence to support them, particularly not with any concerns over the player’s mentality.
All of which ultimately leads me towards the conclusion I find hard to avoid – that the plug has been pulled on this transfer for financial reasons. While not wanting to go into great detail on this (this blog isn’t really the right place), United’s debts are steadily growing, many are wondering where exactly the £80m pocketed from the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo in the summer has gone and Sir Alex has recently talked of his reluctance to dip into the transfer market due to the inflated prices involved. This is again a bit of a tough sell given the club’s willingness in the past to pay above market rate for players, and personally leads me to wonder whether certain financial constraints have been imposed upon the manager. In that context, this deal being cancelled to maybe free up funds for other purchases, or even just because the club’s board don’t like the thought of ‘gambling’ £10m on an unproven 18 year-old, becomes a real possibility, albeit not one we’re ever likely to receive confirmation of.
One other thing to note – tomorrow’s regular Friday press conference is to be taken by Mike Phelan rather than Sir Alex as usual. Quite likely coincidental, but it does make you wonder if perhaps the boss wants to avoid any questions on this, or even if he’s perhaps unhappy at how it has played out…
Whether you believe the club’s explanation for cancelling the deal or think there’s something more sinister afoot, one thing I think everyone can surely agree on is that this whole affair has been handled abysmally by the club. As far as I’m concerned, unless you’re certain you’re going to be signing a player (and a 17 year-old one at that), you do not wheel him out in front of the cameras at Old Trafford to pose alongside Sir Alex Ferguson holding a United shirt, you do not interview him on the official site, asking questions along the lines of ‘how does it feel to be a United player?’, and you do not hype him up, praise him to the hilt and tell everyone he’s joining in January when speaking to the media.
If there were any doubts, a simple ‘the club has secured first option on the services of Adem Ljajić and will monitor his progress before deciding whether to bring him to Old Trafford’ would have sufficed. As it is, the club essentially seem to have led the 18 year-old on for a whole year. What’s more, they don’t even seem to have had the grace to inform Adem, or Partizan, of their decision before informing the press. In an update to his facebook page hours after the club statement this morning, the youngster was still reassuring people his dream move was still on.
Without wanting to be melodramatic, you can only imagine how devastated the lad must be after presumably finding out, out of the blue, that his dream move is off via a third party, after a year of looking forward to it and seemingly having no reason to think it wouldn’t happen. United come out of this looking very poor indeed, presumably seriously damage relations with Partizan Belgrade and may well give other young players pause for thought when considering agreeing to sign for us in the future. I’d go as far as to say the club should feel pretty ashamed at the way they’ve conducted themselves in this matter, and you wonder whether Fergie’s no-show at tomorrow’s presser is an indication that he concurs with that train of thought.
Hopefully Ljajić can overcome this setback and go on to have a great career in the game, although at the same time we should probably be concerned about him coming back to haunt us at some point in the future. Whether the club made the right decision or not will take a while to become clear, but in the short-term this leaves a sour taste in the mouth, for a number of reasons.