When David Moyes pulled back the curtain at Carrington the wizard was no longer there at the controls. Sir Alex Ferguson did not require a private hub with hi-definition screens tracking talent and instead relied on his teeming contacts book.
That was anathema to the meticulous Moyes and his six-step transfer policy familiar to Evertonian sceptics: Track. Mull. Ponder. Consider. Plot. Dither. Moyes, astonished there was no hub dedicated to recruitment, insisted on his own ‘bunker’ of computers, iPads and whiteboards after a heated meeting with the dormant Manchester United scouting department.
Moyes rounded on the Spanish scout in the meeting and bluntly demanded a recommendation. The scout suggested Saul Niguez and soon Phil Neville was conspicuously sat next to an English journalist at Getafe’s stadium to watch the on-loan Niguez start for Rayo Vallecano.
Niguez has long been established as one of the most vibrant creative midfielders in Europe’s top five leagues and, despite switching to the Stellar Group agency that represents Gareth Bale, Jack Grealish, and Mason Mount, is still at Atletico Madrid. Niguez’s former representatives described Atletico as a ‘selling club’ and they still are.
As Billy Beane puts it in Moneyball, Atletico are ‘organ objects for the rich’ . Chelsea pillaged two of their players in 2014 and last year Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Manchester City acquired Antoine Griezmann, Lucas Hernandez, and Rodri.
Peculiarly, United have not raided Atletico since David de Gea replaced Edwin van der Sar in the summer of 2014; the advent of Diego Simeone as coach. The Atleti museum has made room for two Uefa Cups, the Copa del Rey and the Primera Liga trophy in the last nine years and they were a Sergio Ramos header away from a maiden European Cup.
Atletico have maintained a remarkable succession plan through their sales; Sergio Aguero replaced Diego Forlan, Radamel Falcao replaced Aguero, Diego Costa replaced Falcao, Griezmann replaced Costa, and Alvaro Morata has replaced Griezmann. Thibaut Courtois took over from De Gea and after his three-year loan expired Jan Oblak came in and is now the best goalkeeper on the planet.
United have considered a myriad of Atletico- based players since they were alerted to Niguez. Moyes traveled to watch Koke, Jose Mourinho preferred Jose Gimenez over Victor Lindelof in 2017 but his release clause was deemed too steep, and Griezmann declined the chance to join United in the same year.
Ed Woodward met Diego Godin’s sister as deadline day loomed in 2023 and United triggered his knockdown release clause, but the Uruguayan had no intention of moving to England. Oblak’s camp made a beeline for United amid uncertainty over De Gea’s future and the club shortlisted Marcos Llorente as a potential loan option in the New Year. United finally secured a permanent deal for Bruno Fernandes and Llorente ensured the Anfield trophy cabinet would have to be unlocked before the lockdown.
The exposure of a comeback against Liverpool has introduced Thomas Partey to the wider English football audience. This correspondent traveled to watch Atletico host Athletic Bilbao in early 2020 and on the walk to the ground the buzz was dominated by the prospect of watching griezmann in the flesh. Walking down the Wanda Metropolitano’s steep steps, the revelation was Partey.