Manchester United have not always splashed the cash on big-money signings – they have made their fair share of free transfers over the years, including some huge successes
Manchester United may be best known for splashing their cash on the transfer market, but that has not always been the case.
The summer transfer window saw United go shopping in the high-end supermarket, with Cristiano Ronaldo, Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane undoubtedly among the most eye-catching deals in Europe.
Yet despite their standing in the game, United have always got their eyes peeled for a bargain as well.
And like any savvy shopper, when the opportunity arises to get something you want for free, it simply has to be taken.
So with that in mind, here are the club’s best ever free transfers…
This one always looked like it would be a success. Cavani needed a home after running down his contract with Paris Saint-Germain and United needed a reliable goalscorer.
While he proved handy right from the start, Cavani’s value became clearer the longer the 2020/21 season went on.
By the time United reached crunch time, it was invariably their experienced Uruguayan striker who came up with the goods.
Cavani scored six goals in just five Europa League matches for the club, including four in the semi-final against Roma and one in the final against Villarreal.
He ended the season with 17 goals in 39 appearances across all competitions and was quickly signed onto another one-year deal.
Things may have been complicated by Ronaldo’s arrival from Juventus this summer, but United still know that, given the chance, Cavani is likely to score some important goals this season.
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United’s confidence in 33-year-old Cavani back in October 2020 likely stemmed from their previous experience of an ageing but world-class striker.
The club signed 34-year-old Ibrahimovic in July 2016 on a one-year deal knowing that, if he was fit, goals – and likely trophies – would follow, given he had netted 392 times in 677 games and won a trophy every season of his career since 2001.
That is exactly what transpired. The brash Swedish striker proceeded to bang in 28 goals in all competitions, helping United to win the EFL Cup and the Europa League in 2016/17.
It should be noted that United were a fairly dysfunctional side at this stage under Jose Mourinho and could only finish sixth in the Premier League. Without Ibrahimovic they could have been a lot worse off.
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While technically a free transfer, Scholes’ return to the pitch with United in 2012 was not your typical bargain signing.
Then 37, the midfielder had been coaching at his boyhood club when Sir Alex Ferguson convinced him to come out of retirement for the second half of the 2011/12 season following an injury crisis.
“He has kept himself in great shape and I always felt that he had another season in him,” Ferguson said – and, as was invariably the case, he was right.
Scholes actually ended up playing on for 18 months and, having won his 11th Premier League title in 2012/13, he retired after his 499th professional league appearance in May 2013.
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And, as Owen explained last year, he was not expecting it at all.
“I couldn’t believe my luck when Manchester United came in for me,” Owen told BBC Radio Five Live. “Here’s me, regressing as a player in my own mind and still the champions of England wanted to sign me.”
It wasn’t an entirely happy spell for the diminutive England striker, whose injury troubles continued.
However a record of 17 goals in 52 appearances, including a 96th-minute winner in a 4-3 epic against Manchester City in September 2009, shows he was of some use to United, who extended his initial two-year deal by another season.
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Blanc had a hard act to follow at United, with the Frenchman given the task of replacing Jaap Stam in 2001.
By then he was 35 and it showed in the early stages of his United career. However, his performances picked up and he did enough to earn a one-year contract extension.
That decision by Ferguson proved worthwhile as the World Cup winner helped United win the Premier League title in 2002/03 before retiring.
Rio Ferdinand, Wes Brown and John O’Shea played the majority of the Premier League matches that season, but Blanc’s influence was certainly helpful to the team.
Now this one comes with a few caveats, including the rather large one that Ferguson himself called Bosnich “a terrible professional” in his book, My Autobiography.
Bosnich was signed for a second spell at United after he left Aston Villa in 1999, but Ferguson was not impressed with his professionalism.
“We played down at Wimbledon and Bosnich was tucking into everything: sandwiches, soups, steaks. He was going through the menu,” he wrote.
“I told him, ‘For Christ’s sake, Mark, we’ve got the weight off you. Why are you tucking into all that stuff?’
“We arrived back in Manchester, and Mark was on mobile phone to a Chinese restaurant to order a takeaway. Is there no end to you? I just couldn’t make an impact on him.”
Overweight or not, Bosnich made 23 league appearances as United won the title in 1999/2000, having replaced Peter Schmeichel in goal.
He was pushed down the pecking order when Fabien Barthez arrived and joined Chelsea on a free transfer in January 2001.
But no matter what Ferguson said later, Bosnich earned a Premier League winners medal and an unlikely accolade.
“The fact remains that I was the only player he signed twice at Manchester United,” he said.