Ultimate United Articles
Gabriel Batistuta Imagine if United had signed............
A lookback at how the Manchester United side of the 1990’s would have looked if their move for one of the world’s best strikers had materialised.
By Philip Meese, Chief Editor
In 1998, Manchester United signed a player who would become one of the most recognisable faces of their Treble winning side. Dwight Yorke, who alongside Andy Cole formed one of the deadliest strike forces in the club’s history, went on to become one of the most popular players of his generation with fans and players alike.
Having lost the Premier League title to Arsenal the previous season, Alex Ferguson made signing a top striker his main priority. Patrick Kluivert was one of the names mentioned, but there was also an attempt to buy possibly the most explosive striker in Italian football at that time.
Argentine international Gabriel Batistuta never ended up wearing the famous red shirt of United. This article looks at how it might have worked out if he had.
Beginning his career with Newell’s Old Boys in his native Argentina, he soon attracted the attention of the country’s two biggest clubs, River Plate and Boca Juniors. He ended up playing one season for both eventually as, despite an impressive scoring record, River inexplicably let him join their biggest rivals.
He was soon selected for his country and was called up for the 1991 Copa America in Chile. Batistuta finished as the tournaments’ top scorer, hitting six goals as Argentina won the trophy. Naturally, it didn’t take long for European interest to accumulate, and Italian side Fiorentina acted quickest, rapidly tying up a deal to take him to Florence.
In his debut season, he hit 13 Serie A goals which was no mean feat for any striker back then. It would have been an impressive goal haul in Italy in a successful side, but Fiorentina finished 12th in a league comprising of 18 teams. One can only imagine how many he would have scored had he been playing for AC Milan or Juventus.
From a personal perspective, his second season in Italy was even more of a success as he hit 19 goals, 16 of them in Serie A. This was more than Marco van Basten, Jean-Pierre Papin and Roberto Manicini, however, despite having players of the calibre of German midfielder Stefan Effenberg and Danish forward Brian Laudrup, Fiorentina were relegated to Serie B.
A Different World
What happened next shows just how different football was little more than twenty years ago. Even though Fiorentina spent the 1993-94 season in the second tier of Italian football, both Effenberg and Batistuta remained in Florence (Laudrup went on a season long loan to AC Milan) and immediately blasted the club back into the top flight at the first time of asking. Imagine something like that happening now, especially in a World Cup year. These days, top players want a transfer if the club they play for doesn’t qualify for the Champions League.
Despite not playing top level football, Effenberg and Batistuta were both selected by their respective countries for USA 94. Again, can you imagine two players, both playing second-tier football, playing for two of the biggest footballing nations in the world, regardless of how good they are?
The two players’ fortunes were contrasted at the World Cup. Batistuta scored four goals in an otherwise poor Argentina side, while Effenberg was sent home by his manager Berti Vogts for making an obscene gesture to his country’s own fans.
Return to Serie A
With Fiorentina back in the top flight, Batistuta quickly established himself as the best striker in Italian football, hitting 28 goals in the 1994-95 season, and all but two of them were in Serie A. He continued in a similar vein over the following five seasons, with his lowest tally in a single season being 19.
Fiorentina are a big club in their own right, passionately supported by their loyal fans in the way that a one-club city tends to be, however, they pale in comparison with the kind of clubs that Batistuta was continually linked with during his time in Florence. One of these clubs was Manchester United.
ALMOST A RED
Around the end of the 1997-98 season, with Batistuta undoubtedly one of the hottest strikers in world football, Alex Ferguson was reportedly interested in securing his services. He tried to persuade the Manchester United board to part with the kind of money no Premier League club had ever paid at that time to bring him to Old Trafford. At this time, United were still a PLC and were known for having a set wage structure. Martin Edwards, at that time the club chairman, later said in an interview that it would have “destroyed” that structure.
You could say that they should have stumped up the cash and signed him anyway. The merchandising a club like United would have made from one of the biggest names and best players in world football would have probably paid for most of it. Things were a lot different then, however, as shown in 1996 when Middlesbrough made Juventus striker Fabrizio Ravanelli the highest paid player in the Premier League. The £42,000 per week wages he took home after tax seems like peanuts when you consider that a lot of very average players earn far more than that nowadays.
Another example of how much football has changed is shown in Ravanelli’s transfer. He left the Champions League winners to join a club that ended the season relegated from the Premier League. Imagine how much Manchester United would have had to pay for one of the best players in the world? You have to imagine a world record fee, probably beating the £19.5 million Inter Milan had recently paid Barcelona for Ronaldo, with wages of somewhere around £70,000 per week. What Eric Cantona was earning by the time he left Old Trafford, was reportedly around a third of that.
How would Batistuta have worked out at United?
If Ferguson had signed him, it’s hard to imagine a player that good not being a success, but that is not to say that United would have been. The Treble may not have happened if the board had loosened the purse strings
Think about it, one of the main ingredients of that particular success was United’s strength in depth. Batistuta was undoubtedly a better individual striker than Cole, Yorke, Sheringham or Solskjær, but had they signed him then there would have been no place in the squad for at least one of those players. You would have to suspect that player would have been Yorke, because he was the last of that quartet to arrive. Had Batistuta moved to Old Trafford, it would have most likely been in place of Yorke, rather than alongside him.
The great thing about having those particular four strikers was that Ferguson could play any combination of them, and they all knew how to play together. Even Cole and Sheringham, who famously dislike each other, made a great on-field partnership. There is no guarantee that Batistuta would have linked up with any of them with the same level of success. In fact, it might have gone a similar way to when United signed Ruud van Nistelrooy a few years later – one striker up front, who was so good he didn’t particularly need a regular partner.
On the Plus Side
That’s all the negative possibilities out of the way, and that’s exactly what they are; possibilities. He might have linked up with Cole just as well as, or even better than, Yorke did. It’s hard to imagine it, given that those two had an almost telepathic understanding, but when you have someone of the quality of Batistuta up front, it’s a very real possibility that he will make the players around him better as well. Paul Scholes would probably have found him a dream to play in the same side as. The thought of what Batistuta would have produced with Scholes supplying the ammunition is a scary prospect. United may have won more than just one Champions League in the 1990’s.
It’s unlikely that he would have had any trouble adapting to the Premier League. He was a big, strong lad with explosive pace, and it’s hard to imagine the physical side of English football bothering him. Batistuta regularly took on the hard men of Italian football, such as Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini and Ciro Ferrara. Despite this, he still outscored the best strikers that Serie A, the top league in the world at that time, had to offer.
In many ways he was the complete striker, he didn’t seem to have any weaknesses. A quick turn of pace, strong as an ox, great in the air and with an incredible range of finishing from overhead kicks to thirty yard screamers. He never even had a serious injury; for eleven straight seasons in Italian football, he played more than thirty games.
Gabriel Batistuta was one of the best strikers the game has ever seen, and it is a shame that the Premier League never got to enjoy his talents on a weekly basis. In the 1999-2000 season, both Manchester United and Arsenal found out first-hand how devastating he could be. The Premier League would have held no fears for Batistuta.
HOW DID HIS CAREER PAN OUT?
“Batigol” as he was affectionately known by the Fiorentina fans, continued to score goals in Serie A and although they always looked like a side that might challenge for the title, it never quite happened. Fiorentina qualified for the 1999-2000 Champions League, and in the first Group Stage found themselves paired with Arsenal. Batistuta’s fantastic goal at Wembley (where Arsène Wenger’s played their European home games at that time) eliminated the Gunners.
In the second Group Stage, Fiorentina were in United’s group and Batistuta showed the Red Devils what they had missed out on. In the first game of the group, in Florence’s Artemio Franchi stadium, United actually passed Batistuta the ball, and were naturally punished for it and “La Viola” ran out 2-0 winners.
In the return fixture, United won 3-1 but were given a first-hand display of just how good he was, when he scored what must rank as one of the best goals ever scored by an opposing player at Old Trafford. Peter Schmeichel had departed Manchester United the previous season, but even if he had been in goal it’s doubtful there is anything he could have done. When Batistuta received the ball thirty yards from goal, turned Jaap Stam and hit a rocket of a shot into the back of the Stretford End net, he struck it right down the middle of the goal. The pace and swerve on the ball completely wrong footed Mark Bosnich, and probably would have done the same to any other keeper.
Batistuta stayed at Fiorentina until 2000, having only won the Coppa Italia and the Supercoppa Italia to show for his nine years in Florence. After several broken promises that Fiorentina would provide a challenge for the Scudetto, he requested a transfer, realising that, at the age of 30, his chances of winning the title were running out.
He was transferred to Roma for 70 Billion Italian Lira (approximately £32 million in today’s money), and scored 21 goals as the club won its first Scudetto since 1983. Over the following two seasons, injuries and loss of form saw him dropped from the team, and eventually loaned out to Inter Milan for the second half of the 2002-03 season.
He finished his career in Qatar with Al-Arabi before retiring in 2005, with a total of 297 goals from 476 appearances in all competitions at club level. This is no mean feat when you consider that Italian football was the hardest league to score goals in during Batistuta’s time there. Up until 2016, he was also Argentina’s all-time leading goalscorer with 56 goals from 78 appearances, eventually being overtaken by Lionel Messi.
Despite asking for a transfer from Fiorentina in 2000, he is still remembered with much affection by the fans, and is still their all-time top goalscorer. He remains, their Angel Gabriel.
There are no right or wrong answers to how Gabriel Batistuta would have fared at the Theatre Of Dreams. There can’t have been too many United fans who weren’t excited at the prospect of seeing him in the famous red shirt. Football purists would probably say that under Alex Ferguson, who famously loved buying strikers most of all, he would have flourished. A world class player going into a world class team should be a match made in heaven – but as Juan Sebastián Verón later proved, it doesn’t always work.
Too many class players in the same environment can upset the balance of the team – especially if, as was the case with Verón, you don’t need them in the first place. Over the coming seasons, Manchester United proved that, world class though Batistuta was, they really didn’t need him.
Added by Philip Meese on 06/08/2018 21:52:50