Date: 24th November 2010 at 12:30pm
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Missing out on players is nothing new, even for the biggest and best of clubs, and United have had plenty get away for one reason or another. Whether it be an inability to compete financially (Arjen Robben), incompetent negotiation (Ronaldinho), or a certain callowness when dealing with local agents (Marcelo Salas), no team gets all the players they want. But to sign then effectively un-sign a player is rare, and the noises coming out of Fiorentina suggest that refusing to follow through on a deal for Adem Ljajic may well have been as costly as it was curious.

When United announced the signing, on 2 January 2009, of Partizan Belgrade’s “little Kaká” and his counterpart Zoran Tošic, the club were quick to announce that in Ljajic they had captured “Serbia’s brightest young talent”. The deal saw Tošic move immediately while Ljajic, then aged 17, would remain at Partizan for the rest of 2009, and head to Old Trafford in January 2010.

Except, of course, he never did. The deal became an option, and the option wasn’t taken. According to United, given the “wealth of talent” in central midfield, and having “closely monitored his development”, they had elected not to complete the deal. Which might have been the end of the matter; clubs choose not to sign players all the time, and sometimes that’s a mistake. (After all, if you believe the stories, Fergie turned down Zidane.)

However, at a press conference a few days later, Mike Phelan told the press that “We” — that’s the club — “looked at Adem and he has the potential”. Phelan went on to explain that United had opted out of the transfer on the basis that it would prove impossible to get a work permit. But faced with contradictory stories from the club, many observers, along with the officials at Partizan, concluded that the spectre of Glazernomics had nixed the deal.

As for Ljajic, he was, reportedly and understandably, devastated. Signing instead for Fiorentina, he made a low-key start, managing nine appearances in the second half of the 2009/10 season. Upon taking the Fiorentina job in the summer, Sinisa Mihajlovic criticised his young compatriot’s haircut, his predilection for his Playstation, and his affection for chocolate. Yet Mihajlovic was also happy to throw him into the first team following an injury to playmaker Stefan Jovetic, and Ljajic has blossomed, catching the eye of Inter’s scouts with displays of maturity and invention. Displays that throw the creative poverty of this United midfield into sharp and depressing relief.

Quite why United refused to seal the deal is mysterious and, given the silence that hangs around the club in these debt-drowned days, a full explanation may not be forthcoming for some time. None of the three accounts ring entirely true: the player’s clearly a talent, could have been signed then loaned back, and the deal was relatively small in financial terms. Though it is perhaps significant that the Glazers hadn’t yet issued the £500m bond.

Whatever the cause, at the Partizan’s director of football said “I think that they will regret this decision in future”. It’s early days, but Ljajic is beginning to prove him right.

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6 responses to “Je ne regrette rien … except not signing him”

  1. RFR says:

    Shouldn’t the title be Je ne regrette rien…except NOT signing him?

    In any case, I thought the club handled the whole Tosic and Ljajic saga poorly. Fergie had presented Ljajic to the press and the lad must have been devastated when we didn’t sign him.

    Having said that, it’s difficult to see how he would fit in a team managed by fergie. Ljajic likes to play on the right or behind the striker and we have better players in those positions.

    More importantly, he’s more of a trequarista that a second striker and Fergie doesn’t really like to play trequaristas. When Rooney plays as a lone striker, Fergie plays a 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 with 4 central midfielders and Ljajic isn’t suited to plays as a CM. And when Fergie plays with two strikers up-front it’s usually Rooney+ another striker and Ljajic isn’t a striker.

    • Chudi Onwuazor says:

      thanks for pointing that out haha

      In response to the rest, He could be employed as the most advanced of a midfield 3? He has shone playing off Gilardino this term but that is the role he was employed due to Jovetic’s injury. He has shown he can dictate play on field and for a player as talented as him, it would definitely be worth trying him out even in that role rather than not having him at all?

      I don’t think the position he plays was a massive issue.

  2. fakrul says:

    i Think fergie wanted to sign smalling and the glazers said that he only had 10 million to spend at that time.. so he went for smalling , sacrificing “little kaka”…. if smalling makes the grade… we will be able to contain the little kaka i guess when we play against him eventually…

  3. MArvIN says:

    Considering the crisis we seem to be having in midfield, letting this guy go because of the ‘wealth of talent’ we have is just laughable and sad.

  4. jonathan says:

    Every time I hear Ljajic mentioned I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach. And for him to be producing so soon after the collapsed deal at such a young age makes this even worse. He may very well turn out to be a global star and possibly make this the worst (non) transfer in our history.

  5. On the Ljajic-as-trequartista thing, it’s certainly true that Ferguson has generally preferred his creativity on the wings rather than centrally. However, the key with Ljajic is his youth: placed into a system at a young age, he could have become almost any kind of attacking midfielder you like.

    For instance, he spent a fair chunk of his time in Partizan playing on the right wing, which would have been an option. Alternatively he could have been a Scholes-circa-2002/03 second striker, or the most advanced point of three.

    18-year-old midfielders are very rarely the finished article, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him end up in a kind of tucked-in Nedved style wide-role if he stays in Italy. Mind you, there’s a grand tradition of Balkan #10s, so that might be his international future.

    “Every time I hear Ljajic mentioned I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach”

    Quite. It seemed like such a good idea.