Manchester United have been a dominant force in the world of football for a very long time and are one of the biggest sports teams on the planet. They are certainly the biggest in England, having won the most league titles there.
To be at the top this long, they would have had to have the best players around and that they did. But they certainly aren’t perfect and their talent scouting has come under scrutiny over the years.
The Red Devils have both signed and produced some of the game’s top talent, yet they have done the opposite as well, getting some pretty useless names on their books over the years. Some of those players did go on to find good form after leaving old Trafford, while others just withered away, but all in all, you’d say that the organization has been very shrewd in their transfer business, as their successes more than outweigh their failings.
The club have been struggling ever since the great Sir Alex Ferguson departed in 2013 and this season doesn’t seem to be headed in the right direction, even with Jose Mourinho holding the reins. They have made some grand signings this year as well, and as such, we take a look at 10 of their best and 10 of their worst.
20 Best - Wayne Rooney
The United captain has been in decline these last few seasons, but it would be hard to find someone who didn’t agree with the notion that he’s one of the club’s best signings ever. Rooney is the Red Devils’ second highest scorer of all time, just one goal from breaking Sir Bobby Charlton’s record, but he’s also England’s top scorer, having passed Charlton’s 49 to score 53.
The England international joined the Old Trafford side as a teenager back in 2004 and became one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s key pieces in the side's push for dominance over the Premier League.
Rooney helped the club win five Premier League trophies, as well as the Champions League, and is very likely to become United’s highest ever scorer before he calls time at Old Trafford.
19 Worst - Bebe
The Portuguese winger cost the club £7.48 million when they desperately signed him from Vitoria de Guimaraes just five weeks after he joined the Portuguese outfit in August of 2010.
Bebe had a very impressive pre-season in with Vitoria, scoring four goals in six appearances. That must have been the selling point for Sir Alex, who didn’t even let the player remain with Vitoria one season.
The Scot had already reaped the benefits of bringing Cristiano Ronaldo in from Portugal and must have thought that he could do it with this player, whom he actually only met the day before the transfer was struck. But it was not to be and the ex-manager realized his mistake quite early.
Bebe would make a few loan moves before leaving permanently for Benfica. He’s now plying his trade in La Liga with Eibar.
18 Best - Robin van Persie
Arsenal fans will never forgive his treachery, well at least that’s what they like to call it, but the Dutchman probably won’t care about that at all.
Often injured during his Gunners career, van Persie left the Emirates just when he looked like he was finally ready to steer clear of the team's medical staff for good. His signing in 2012 proved a real masterstroke by Sir Alex, as he singlehandedly won United the Premier League title in his first season, a season the Red Devils had no business dominating.
Having won the Golden Boot award the previous campaign, van Persie took the accolade home again at the end of his title-winning season. But things would take an awful turn, as Sir Alex would retire, leaving the striker to flounder under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal before leaving for Fenerbahce.
17 Worst - Anderson
One of those players whom you wouldn’t believe boasts a Premier League winner’s medal, let alone four, Anderson also won the Champions League with United, even scoring a penalty in the final against Chelsea that night in Moscow.
He cost the club quite a hefty sum, with a price tag of £26.78 million to his name when he signed from Porto back in 2007 and it’s quite safe to say that he never lived up to the billing, although a few may argue that he paid them back with his successful penalty, especially considering the fact that Cristiano Ronaldo had his saved.
Anderson also won two League Cups during his time at United, which leaves him quite decorated, but the general feeling is that his rewards significantly outweighed his contributions.
16 Best - Cristiano Ronaldo
Well this one certainly goes without saying, yet it’s gonna be said anyway. The Real Madrid star was one of the best signings in the history of football, signings and Manchester United.
Snatched up from Sporting CP by Sir Alex in 2003, Ronaldo went on to become the best player in the world. Well it depends on who you speak to, but he’s either the best or second best - we’ll leave that up to you and who you speak to.
The Portuguese was signed after a wonderful performance against United. And to this day, Fernando Santos, who was Sporting’s coach at the time, says he regrets playing Ronaldo in that match that day.
Ronaldo left for Madrid in 2009, but not before winning three Premier League titles and the Champions League with the club.
15 Worst - Radamel Falcao
Easily the biggest flop United ever signed, Radamel Falcao’s time in England is something he’ll want to forget. The Colombian, regarded as the best striker on the planet during his time at Porto and Atletico Madrid, was quite unfortunate to suffer a terrible knee injury, having left La Liga for Monaco in 2013.
Falcao was loaned to United a year later, coming in with huge expectations, but he struggled to regain form and could only register four goals the entire campaign. Unwilling to give up on the Premier League just yet, the striker took a huge pay cut to sign for Chelsea, who had won the title the season before, but that did nothing to resurrect his career.
Now back at Monaco, things have picked back up for Falcao. At the time of writing, he had ten goals and two assists from 11 appearances for the French side.
14 Best - Eric Cantona
King Eric, as he was known around Old Trafford, was certainly a huge hit at United. The Frenchman, signed in 1992 from Leeds, was one of the player’s credited with the club’s resurgence and helped lead them to four Premier League titles and two FA Cups.
Cantona was his own man, sort of an enigma, possessing both charisma and arrogance, but he also let his game do the talking. He did have a very poor disciplinary record and was once charged for assaulting a fan, ultimately serving an eight-month suspension. But he will be remembered for his contribution on the pitch, prolific form in front of goal, and the prestige he brought to the club.
After leaving United in 1997, he explored beach soccer with the France national beach soccer team, eventually taking up a career in acting.
13 Worst - Diego Forlan
One of the best players to ever hail from Uruguay, Diego Forlan wasn’t much of a success at Old Trafford. The striker now plays in the Indian Super League with Mumbai City and has won the prestigious European Golden Shoe on two occasions – after leaving United, of course.
Forlan signed with the club in 2002 and spent two seasons there. He only managed 17 goals in 98 appearances, however, but still won the Premier League title, as well as the FA Cup. He found better form upon leaving the Red Devils, although success in terms of silverware proved harder to come by.
The 37-year-old scored 59 times in 129 outings for Villarreal, and 96 goals in 196 appearances for Atletico. He did win the Europa League and UEFA Super Cup during his time with the Rojiblancos, but that’s not as good as a league title now is it?
12 Best - Ruud van Nistelrooy
Former Dutch star Ruud van Nistelrooy signed for United for a fee of £24.23 million in 2001 and spent five years at the club before departing for Real Madrid.
He held the record for United’s highest scorer in Europe until it was broken by Wayne Rooney in a UEFA Europa League group stage match against Feyenoord in November of 2016, during which the Englishman scored his 39th.
Van Nistelrooy is the fourth highest scorer in the Champions League, with 56 goals to his name in the tournament and scored 150 goals in just 219 appearances for the Red Devils. He also won the Premier League title, FA Cup and League Cup with the Old Trafford side.
His form did take a dip before he left in 2006, but he is still one of the best players to have ever graced the Theatre of Dreams.
11 Worst - Marouane Fellaini
This player is still at the club, but people are realizing day by day how much of a mistake United made when they signed him. The Belgian followed David Moyes to Old Trafford in 2013 for £27.54 million, having been a key player for Everton.
So far, he has contributed nothing to the cause and serves as a constant reminder of the club’s status without Sir Alex at the helm. A towering midfielder who has the ability to contribute on both ends, as he so often showed at Goodison Park, Fellaini has been more of a liability in United’s midfield than anything else.
Many supporters have had it with him and things were made worse after he gifted his old club a last gasp penalty early in December, coming on as a late substitute to concede a silly foul in the box to condemn his side to a 1-1 draw.
10 Best - Peter Schmeichel
Father of Leicester City goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, the former stopper paved the way for his son by carving out a remarkable career at Manchester United.
The Dane signed for the side in 1991 from Brondby and spent the next eight years there, winning five Premier League titles, three FA Cups and the Champions League. He also won the 1992 European Championships with Denmark.
Winning the Champions League in 1999 capped off an unprecedented treble and an amazing year for United, but he helped bring the glory back by keeping 22 clean sheets in the 1992/93 season to win the club their first league title in 26 years.
Schmeichel will forever be regarded as one of the best keepers to ever stand between the sticks and must be one proud daddy, having watched his son help Leicester win the title last season.
9 Worst - Kleberson
Kleberson was part of the Brazil squad that won the 2002 FIFA World Cup, and was talked up by Luiz Felipe Scolari as one of the key players in his side's success. He became a chief target for several clubs around Europe, including Barcelona, Celtic, Leeds and Newcastle.
Leeds came quite close to the signing, but the player was hesitant to leave Brazil as he didn’t want to leave his girlfriend behind. United, however, were able to make the capture in 2003, signing him from Atletico Paranaense for £7.31 million.
Unfortunately, Kleberson couldn’t do for United what he had done for Brazil, and only made 30 appearances in two years. He was later sold to Turkish side Besiktas for £2.21 million. He would return to Brazil in 2007 to sign for Flamengo, but now plays for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in the US.
8 Best - Roy Keane
Roy Keane was another United bad boy and is still a bit of a rough character now. The former midfielder was a tough tackler who made life a living hell for opposing players back in his day. If you had the ball and you saw Roy coming, leaving it for him would have been your best option.
The Irishman signed for the club from Nottingham Forest in 1993 and held the captaincy from 1997 until he departed in 2005.
Keane’s United career coincided with a very dominant era at the club and he helped the club snag 17 major trophies, including seven Premier League titles, four FA Cups, four League Cups and the Champions League.
The circumstances surrounding his departure were quite acrimonious, but Keane will forever be remembered as a United legend.
7 Worst - Eric Djemba-Djemba
The Cameroonian was dubbed ‘the new Roy Keane’ before signing for United in 2003, but he was everything but – everything bad, that is. Despite gaining a reputation as a solid defensive midfielder and a tough tackler in France, he could not replicate his form in the Premier League.
The club paid £3.83 million to bring him in from Nantes, despite him being unheard of by most fans and journalists. After realizing how incompetent this player was, supporters joked that he was so bad, they named him twice.
Djemba Djemba left United for Aston Villa in 2005, after just a smattering of appearances. He could not even hold down a spot at the Birmingham club and was subsequently loaned to Burnley.
6 Best - Patrice Evra
At 35 years, it’s still hard to come up with a better left back than Juventus and France defender Patrice Evra. This player is a serial winner and is one of the most successful players in the game today.
Joining United from Monaco in 2006, the Frenchman spent the next eight years helping the Red Devils win silverware and his move to Juventus came as a real shocker. Just how did United let a player of such quality escape?
Evra was part of a United team that won five Premier League titles, three League Cups, and of course the Champions League. Since moving to the Serie A side, he has won the Scudetto twice in as many years and is on course to win a third.
5 Worst - Massimo Taibi
The Italian joined United in 1999, coming in due to the club’s need of someone to fill in for their goalkeepers Mark Bosnich and Raimond van der Gouw, with Peter Schmeichel having retired. Bosnich, by the way, could have also had a place on this list as a worst signing.
Taibi made only four appearances his entire United career, but still managed to concede 11 goals, with five alone coming in a 5-0 loss against Chelsea. He did put in a Man of the Match performance in a 3-2 win against Liverpool, but it was all downhill from there and he would later come to be known as ‘The Blind Venetian’.
He was sold to Reggina the following season, and then later to Atalanta, where he made well over 100 appearances in goal.
4 Best - Nemanja Vidic
Like Patrice Evra, the former Serbia international signed in 2006 and left in 2014. And United certainly got way more than their money’s worth out of him, having paid just £8.93 million to get him from Spartak Moscow.
Nemanja Vidic, now retired, is undoubtedly one of the finest centre-backs the Premier League has ever seen and many an attacker will tell you that they simply hated going up against him (although Fernando Torres always seemed to have him all figured out).
Vidic was as tough as nails and, forming a menacing partnership with Rio Ferdinand, he made United’s defence very difficult to break down.
He would leave for Inter Milan at the end of his contract in 2014, before retiring from the game in January of 2015.
3 Worst - Juan Sebastian Veron
A real star in Argentina and Italy, Juan Sebastian Veron joined The Red Devils with all the grandeur a price tag of £36.21 million got you in 2001, but after two seasons at Old Trafford, it became clear that the Argentine was not suited to the Premier League.
Like Falcao, though, he was keen on proving himself in England and Chelsea paid £18.28 million to take him to Stamford Bridge after 77 appearances, 11 goals and 10 assists for United. And also like Falcao, he failed to regain his form in London, despite making a great start. Injury problems cut things short and Veron managed just 14 appearances for the Blues before leaving for Inter Milan on loan.
His time at Old Trafford saw him crowned Premier League champion in 2003, however.
2 Best - Rio Ferdinand
Rio Ferdinand will go down as one of England’s best-ever centre-backs, which means he will go down as one of United’s as well. Now a pundit, the former Three Lions international made his name at West Ham United, later moving to Leeds United.
He signed for the Red Devils in 2002 and remained there for a glittering 12 years before leaving for Queens Park Rangers. As mentioned before, the Englishman’s partnership at the back with Nemanja Vidic made the Red Devils’ defence quite formidable.
Ferdinand helped the club secure six Premier League titles. He also won the Champions League in 2008 as part of the team that beat Chelsea in the final through a penalty shootout in Moscow.
Ferdinand is definitely one of United’s best ever signings and they may never sign a defender as good as he was again.
1 Worst - Garry Birtles
The Englishman joined United in 1980 with a glowing reputation, coming in as a budding top striker, having made a name for himself at Nottingham Forest. Birtles had also won the European Cup at Forest two consecutive years before the Red Devils paid £1.28 million to secure his signature.
It took him a whopping 10 months to score his first league goal for the club and his only goal in his first year at Old Trafford came in a 2-0 win over Brighton & Hove Albion in the FA Cup.
Before joining United, Birtles had made it into the England squad and made three appearances for his country, but that would be all on that front due to his loss of form. After two years, 64 appearances and 12 goals, he was sold back to Forest where he would go on to make 125 appearances, scoring 39 times.