Arsenal, who have only signed young French prospect Yaya Sanogo from Auxerre, suffered a humiliating 3-1 home defeat to Aston Villa after being reportedly outbid for players by the likes of Napoli, Wolfsburg and Shakhtar Donetsk.
With most of their backline now suspended or injured, Arsene Wenger is again likely to be forced into panic-buying at the end of the window, having frustrated Gunners fans by refusing to splash the cash earlier.
Their failure in the market is even more embarrassing given the boasts of a £70-100 million transfer kitty, with Ivan Gazidis bragging they would compete with Europe’s biggest clubs for the world’s biggest stars.
The situation is less urgent for United, whose fans have been spoiled by sustained success.
The team that won the Premier League last season does not have many weak spots, but with the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea breathing down their necks some big-name creative players were expected by the club’s highly-demanding fans.
That drawn-out saga saw Marouane Fellaini’s £23.5m release clause expire, while United confounded us further by offering £28m for both the Belgian and England left-back Leighton Baines. ‘Derisory’ may be a touch hyperbolic, but the numbers don’t add up.
Both clubs have a concept of value that does not match the reality of modern football’s marketplace. Wenger, in particular, has a concept of value rooted in the late 1990s. One of Arsenal’s record signings remains Sylvain Wiltord, who joined from Bordeaux for £13m. In 2000. That is 13 years ago. (There are conflicting reports on how much was paid for Jose Antonio Reyes, Santi Cazorla and Andrei Arshavin but they are all in the same ball park).
Wenger is an economist but it appears his philosophy is more suited to a Thatcherite slash-and-burn policy than the more Keynesian approach needed. This is not a throwaway comment – profitability, and reducing costs, seem to be his priority. Spend when you have it, save when you don't should be his mantra. The stadium has been built, the money is there, so top players must be bought.
Wenger should be more than aware of how the modern market operates – his top five sales range between £20-30m but his biggest signings are far below that. He is the equivalent of a property developer seeking untapped opportunities before selling on at a profit. But football’s main business is not the buying and selling of players, certainly not at the top end of the sport – it is generating revenue from TV and commercial rights, merchandising sales and sponsorship, across the goal. And that kind of revenue is only maximised by success on the pitch.
Moyes, meanwhile, can be forgiven some teething troubles, having never operated at this level before. United’s board, with Ed Woodward the chief negotiator, are dealing with the fine details of their transfer dealings. Moyes identifies the targets, and the suits manage the detail.
Neither of these tactics are ideal in the current market, where oligarch-owned clubs around Europe and even beyond are big players in a global superstore where cash is king. Monaco have joined Paris Saint-Germain as France’s flirtatious billionaires, inviting all and sundry to their yacht parties, with money no object and lifestyle options unparalleled. Real Madrid and Barcelona are still the biggest draws in world football, while Juventus and Napoli are very much back in business. Meanwhile the oil of Eastern Europe and shrewd business acumen of Germany both rival the Premier League in terms of depth of riches among clubs.
It is incredible to think that Norwich, led by the unassuming Chris Hughton, have bought Dutch internationals Ricky van Wolfswinkel and Leroy Fer, two fine players who could surely grace the squads of Champions League sides. Gary Hooper and Martin Olsson should prove solid signings too.
Last season Southampton completed a stunning coup by acquiring Gaston Ramirez, the Uruguay winger who had been expected to join Liverpool, Juventus or one of the Milan clubs. Just over 12 months previously, they were in the process of winning promotion from League One.
And this summer, with Mauricio Pochettino in the dugout, they have raised the bar even higher, bringing in Italy forward Pablo Osvaldo from Roma, and swooping for Celtic’s dominant midfielder Victor Wanyama, a player who bossed Barcelona in last season’s Champions League and surely has the talent and physique to play for one of Europe’s top clubs.
How are little, provincial Southampton and Norwich able to flex such impressive muscle in the transfer market?
Firstly, they – like all Premier League clubs – have the cash to do it. A new TV deal estimated at £60m per club, plus the placing and guaranteed parachute payments means simply appearing in this season’s top flight is worth £100m-plus.
While the likes of Arsenal and United can clearly boast even wider coffers, they are usually asked to pay premium prices. And if they don’t act decisively in the market, those prices increase as other clubs circle their cast-offs.
And decisiveness is key for the likes of Norwich and Southampton.
Did you hear endless rumours surrounding the signings of Van Wolfswinkel, Osvaldo and Ramirez? No. They just happened. Everyone in the industry was shocked, from journalists and pundits to some of their team-mates. The opportunity arose, and it was taken.
You want £15m for your combustible Latin forward with a fine goalscoring record in Italy? Fine, take it. You need £12.5m for a muscle-bound African midfielder who has mixed it with Europe’s very best in the Champions League? Cheque’s in the post.
That is how you do it. But somewhere along the lines both clubs have lost their way, due to stubbornness in Arsenal’s case and inexperience in United’s new regime. They think they can get 2013 players at 2003 prices, having raised the bar on quality but lowered it economically.
Arsenal need to get real about the level of player you can buy for £15m - a level that is more than adequate if you look at what Saints and Norwich have brought in.
United, on the other hand, need to be less clumsy and more forthright in their dealings. Find out if the player is keen before you bid, and what he is likely to cost - that's what agents are for.
With the season already started and the futures of most top players settled, it may well be too late. No big deal for United, but possibly terminal for Arsenal.
Reda Maher / On Twitter @Reda_Eurosport