Man Utd’s 10 best transfers of all time

FT Desk
FT Desk

  • Updated: 1 Mar 2024 16:34 GMT
  • 8 min read
Alejandro Garnacho, Cristiano Ronaldo, Man Utd, 2022/23

Manchester United have been the most dominant force in English football since the establishment of the Premier League, winning 13 titles – a tally nobody can match.

Under Sir Alex Ferguson, the Red Devils gobbled up many of the rising stars from England and beyond, and with some excellent coaching they managed to remain at the top of the division for two decades.

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This success in the transfer market coincided with seven Premier Leagues and a Champions League title in the 13 seasons that followed the turn of the century.


Ferguson retired in 2013 and United’s transfer strategy hasn’t been nearly as smooth since. It is no coincidence that they haven’t won a Premier League or Champions League since he called it a day.

For that reason, not a single transfer post-2013 makes this list, even if Lisandro Martinez, Casemiro and others made promising starts to their Old Trafford careers in recent times.

Captain Bruno Fernandes may feel the most aggrieved to miss out…

10) Michael Carrick – £24.5m from Tottenham, 2006

A truly underrated player, Michael Carrick was crucial to Manchester United‘s success in the late 2000’s. Indeed, in his first season at Old Trafford, the Englishman helped the club to their first Premier League title in four years.

The former Tottenham Hotspur man conducted the midfield with his exceptional vision and passing, and was the definition of a player you appreciated more when they were absent from the team. Dictating play in an elite level football match is a skill that few possess, but Carrick was certainly one of them.

9) Patrice Evra – £7m from Monaco, 2006

It can often go unnoticed that Ferguson was able to pick up a France international who had already played in a Champions League final for just £7m, and retain him for eight years of hugely consistent performances in a fantastic defence which included Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Edwin van der Sar.

Patrice Evra’s longevity at the top of the game is a testament to his professionalism, fitness, and ability both defensively and offensively, a pre-cursor for the modern full-back.

8) Robin van Persie – £27.5m from Arsenal, 2012

After losing the Premier League title on the last day of the season to their ‘noisy neighbours’ Manchester City in 2011, Ferguson needed to respond.

And what better way to do that than to sign the league’s top scorer for £27m? Arsenal’s Robin van Persie was that man, and his controversial move across the country was undoubtedly a successful one.

The Dutch talisman secured just one major trophy during his nine year stint with the Gunners; one year at Old Trafford and he’d already equalled that. United were the 2012/13 Premier League champions, and Van Persie powered them to that title with 26 league goals that season.

7) Nemanja Vidic – £9.5m from Spartak Moscow, 2006

Plucked from relative obscurity in 2005, Nemanja Vidic quickly proved his worth as one of the very best no-nonsense central defenders in the European game.

His direct, physical approach complemented the more technically gifted Ferdinand perfectly and the pair built a defensive partnership that was rarely rivalled across the continent, as shown by his five Premier League titles and the 2008 Champions League triumph.

6) Edwin van der Sar – £3.5m from Fulham, 2005

As the long-term replacement for United legend Peter Schmeichel, the pressure on Van der Sar to succeed at Old Trafford couldn’t have been much higher.

Yet, the Dutchman bettered expectations and in his best Premier League season remarkably conceded just 22 goals. But even then, Van der Sar’s highlight in a Man Utd shirt came in the 2008 Champions League final, when he saved the final penalty of the shoot-out, from Chelsea’s Nicolas Anelka, to win the greatest club honour in Europe.

In six seasons with the Red Devils, Van der Sar made the Premier League Team of the Year on three occasions.

5) Ruud van Nistelrooy – £25.5m from PSV Eindhoven, 2001

Despite concerns over his fitness when he moved to England, Dutch striker Ruud van Nistelrooy proved to be an exceptional forward for Ferguson’s United side.

Over the course of five years at the club, Van Nistelrooy scored 95 goals in 150 games and won a Premier League title, an FA Cup and an English League Cup.

He is also fourth on the list of Premier League goals-to-game ratio, with a strike every 125 minutes in the competition.

4) David de Gea – £22.5m from Atletico Madrid, 2011

With Van der Sar retiring at the end of the 2010-11 season, United boss Ferguson knew he needed a long-term goalkeeper. He scouted David de Gea, and signed the player following Gary Neville’s testimonial in May 2011.

The Spaniard has been viewed as one of the best goalkeepers in the league for much of his time at Old Trafford, even if his confidence and form have fallen in the last couple of seasons.

De Gea has now spent more than a decade in Manchester, but has gone without the scale of trophies his famous predecessors, Van der Sar and Schmeichel, achieved. He has still been voted into the PFA Team of the Year five times.

3) Rio Ferdinand – £41.5m from Leeds, 2002

Ferdinand was the kind of signing Ferguson made a habit of; identifying the best young English talent available and snapping them up. Carrick was another example but Ferdinand was perhaps his best.

The ex-West Ham and Leeds defender was exceptional on the ball but was also a leader and together with Vidic created one of the best central defensive pairings in Premier League history.

He may have cost upwards of £40m, but over a decade of successful service made the fee more than worth it.

2) Cristiano Ronaldo – £17m from Sporting CP, 2003

Man Utd were opening Sporting Lisbon’s new stadium in a pre-season friendly when a supposedly jet-lagged John O’Shea was given the run-around by a pacy and tricky teenager.

Ferguson was suitably impressed and sealed the signature of an unknown talent called Cristiano Ronaldo that same summer, despite the youngster only having 31 first-team appearances to his name.

In Ronaldo’s first season on English shores, Arsenal went the entire league campaign unbeaten to achieve their ‘Invincibles’ crown, but two years later United were once again back to the top of the domestic scene thanks, in large part, to the legend’s nascent talent.

His pace, power, skill and eye for goal made Ronaldo a nightmare for defenders and an impossible force to stop when in full flow. The Portuguese superstar scored 31 league goals during his penultimate season at the club, and won the Ballon d’Or in 2008 before leaving to join Real Madrid for a world record fee the following year.

He made his return to Old Trafford in 2021 and finished as United’s top scorer in his first season back, however his second campaign proved disastrous as he fell out of favour with new boss Erik ten Hag before having his contract terminated after an explosive interview criticising the club.

Ronaldo went on to join Saudi Arabian side Al-Nassr.

1) Wayne Rooney – £33.5m from Everton, 2004

Wayne Rooney had already announced himself as the hottest property in English football by the time he made the move to United in 2004, and although his transfer fee raised eyebrows at the time, the Merseyside-born forward never looking in danger of failing to live up to the hype that came with being the most expensive teenager in the history of the game.

In 13 seasons at Old Trafford, Rooney won every honour available, including five Premier League titles and the Champions League, and carved out a key role for himself in one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s greatest ever sides.

He returned to Everton in 2017 having surpassed Sir Bobby Charlton as both United’s and England’s record goalscorer – a measure of his longevity and success in Manchester.

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