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There have been times in the last three years when it seemed that Manchester United ’s transfer policy relied entirely on imitating Manchester City .

The Reds, who have no football director, seemingly no long-term strategy and no real clue when it comes to the market, have gazumped the Blues so many times that it cannot be coincidence.

There is even a wild theory that City’s efficient team of football diretor Txiki Begiristain , chief executive Ferran Soriano and manager Pep Guardiola , have been mischievously leading United up the garden path.

The story goes that they have feigned interest in certain players, like pranksters at an auction, and then sat back, sniggering up their sleeves, as Ed Woodward suddenly appeared, red-faced and waving a cheque book.

The theory does not stand much scrutiny – the Blues were definitely chasing Alexis Sanchez , and the same goes for Harry Maguire this summer.

Fred is a stranger one. City had the chance to sign him, turned away from it - and then, when they showed interest again in the summer, quickly backed off when Woodward rolled up.

Of course, there is bound to be a cross-over in terms of transfer targets – both clubs are targeting players at the top of the range.

But while City’s signings have, by and large, turned out to be good ones in the last three years, United have floundered.

Is that simply because City have done their homework better, and landed better players? Or would those United signings have done much better under Guardiola?

Imagining an alternative universe in which Sanchez, Fred and Maguire signed for City means straying into the realms of fantasy, of course.

But in two of the three cases, certainly, there is good reason to believe they would have been better players if they had chosen Blue glory over Red money.

City were sure they had him in the bag, but in the end he dashed off to Old Trafford when – in what can only have been blind panic at the thought the Blues were widening the class gap – they offered him a wage deal worth £505,000 a year, and served up a tasty wedge for his agent, too.

It was blindingly obvious at the time that City were a much better fit for the Arsenal star.

The Chile international’s discomfort at the Gunners was there for all to see when they played at the Etihad Stadium that season.

He was dashing around like a maniac, trying to close down City’s slick passing, and frantically waving his arms to urge his teammates to do the same, while Mesut Ozil contemplated his navel and Francis Coquelin stood picking his nose.

He needed a team that shared his work ethic, but into which his own impressive set of skills would fit.

Bold, creative, hard-working City were clearly a good fit, while pragmatic, cautious, conservative United under Jose Mourinho, clearly were not.

The result is that a player who averaged almost a goal every two games for the Gunners became a listless, isolated, confused figure at Old Trafford, who netted five in 45 and then departed, in the bin marked “flop”.

There are already signs of the old Sanchez returning, in his loan at Inter Milan.

Fred is more impenetrable, but the fact that City quickly dropped him when they got a sniff of Jorginho’s availability, perhaps tells its own tale.

He was Fernandinho’s natural successor at Shakhtar Donetsk, and had done so well that he was called up for Brazil’s World Cup squad.

United and City scouts were impressed, too.

But his move to Old Trafford has not gone well, as he has tried to fit into a fractious, ordinary midfield, and into a system which is, to give it the benefit of the doubt, still evolving.

Fernandinho slotted in alongside Yaya Toure perfectly, and was smart enough to adapt his game to reflect his status as second fiddle. He only truly blossomed when the Ivorian behemoth began to wind down his career, and Fernandinho took control of the midfield.

It is easy to imagine that Fred, given the anchor role at City, would have been far more comfortable surrounded by the flitting movement of Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva.

It is always easier to shine when you play with better players.

Maguire is too early to judge, but you have to wonder if he is already regretting not holding tight for a move to City.

He repeatedly said when he was at Leicester that he wants Champions League football. Good luck with that, Harry.

And while he has settled in well at United, and has been one of their better players, he would have been more at home shoring up City’s currently depleted defence.

The upshot is simple – players go to City to improve and win things. They seem to go to United and head in the opposite direction.