It was meant to be a summer of possibilities for Manchester United, but as they prepare for their first game since transfer deadline day, there are again more questions than answers. Top targets missed, holes in the squad not filled, forgotten players still in the squad and growing fan frustration has become a familiar storyline at Old Trafford.
Saturday’s trip to Newcastle was supposed to be the next step of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s new dawn after a largely successful first full season in charge, but instead the future looks more stormy than it should.
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It was after Louis van Gaal’s reign as manager ended in 2016, that Ed Woodward realised the way United recruited players was not good enough. Daley Blind and Morgan Schneiderlin are still held up by Woodward, executive vice-chairman, as examples of the type of deal to be avoided — two players signed for a combined £40 million at the specific request of the manager, but, in hindsight, not “United” players.
It prompted a review and revamp of the recruitment department, and last summer, when Solskjaer got his top three targets — midfielder Daniel James, centre-back Harry Maguire and right-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka — signed before the first game of the season, it was celebrated as evidence that the changes were paying off. How, then, did they end up scrambling around on Oct. 5 — the revised transfer deadline day deadline day in 2020 — to sign four players, one of whom was Edinson Cavani, a 33-year-old free agent who had been available since January?
“What the transfer deadline gives you is a clear indication of which are the badly-run football clubs,” Gary Neville tweeted on the last day of the summer window in 2012. It’s a position Man United have found themselves in repeatedly since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013.
The club maintain that this summer’s business (Cavani, Donny van de Beek, Alex Telles, Facundo Pellestri and Amad Traore, the latter of whom will arrive in January) does not represent a step backward, but rather a bump in the road caused by the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic. The club agreed upon their transfer targets in January, whittled it down to a shortlist of three for each position, and detailed meetings were held every four weeks, with input with head of global scouting Marcel Bout and technical chief scout Mick Court. But before serious negotiations could start, COVID-19 hit the UK, and Premier League games were suspended.
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United estimate that each home game played behind closed doors costs between £4m and £5m in lost revenue, while they have also paid a £20m rebate to broadcasters. (Their overall losses were reportedly in the range of 75-100m according to their upcoming financial reports.) More worrying still, there is no end in sight, and that uncertainty had a direct impact on the money available for new players, particularly primary target Jadon Sancho.
United held what have been described as “lengthy discussions” with Marco Lichtsteiner — the third-party agent Borussia Dortmund asked to handle negotiations — but a compromise over a fee was never close. Dortmund were firm in their stance that the 20-year-old was worth €120m; United, meanwhile, insisted that valuation was “unrealistic” in early March when the Premier League was suspended. There was renewed hope of pushing the boat out a little more in late July, when UK prime minister Boris Johnson suggested supporters could be allowed back into stadiums in October, but once the plan was scrapped, Woodward realised he was fighting a losing battle.
Ousmane Dembele, Kingsley Coman, Ismaila Sarr, Lucas Ocampos, Douglas Costa and Wilfried Zaha were considered as alternatives to Sancho, but United prioritised loan deals, which made negotiations difficult. Elsewhere, a personal plea from Solskjaer to test the waters with Aston Villa for Jack Grealish was ignored, and there was added frustration among the staff that Manchester City were allowed a free run at Bournemouth defender Nathan Ake.
It didn’t help that squad members considered surplus to requirements were not offloaded to raise additional funds. United tend to find it difficult to get rid of fringe players because of the high wages they enjoy at Old Trafford — interested clubs usually struggle to match their pay packets — while the Glazers nearly always demand a significant fee for any player under contract, regardless of whether they are in the manager’s plans or not.
There was interest in goalkeeper Sergio Romero, now third-choice after the return of Dean Henderson from a successful loan at Sheffield United, but both Aston Villa and Everton were put off by the £10m asking price. It left Romero — who was not informed Henderson would be returning before seeing the news for himself in the media — baffled and frustrated. He will continue to pick up wages of around £100k per week for at least another year despite having almost no prospect of playing, particularly after being left out of the Champions League squad.
Jesse Lingard was keen to explore options that would have allowed him to play more regularly, but despite having just one year guaranteed on his contract, he was told his price tag would be inflated because United tend to put a premium on their homegrown players in the transfer market.
Phil Jones signed a new contract in 2019 that could keep him at the club until at least 2023, but like Romero, he hasn’t been registered to play in this season’s Champions League. Victor Lindelof was handed a new long-term contract last year, a little over two years after joining and largely in response to speculation surrounding a move to Barcelona — a link that was laughed off by the Spanish giants. United would also have been stuck with Chris Smalling — himself a recipient of a new and improved contract in 2018 — had Roma not become desperate after missing out on Chelsea defender Antonio Rudiger, returning to United with a fresh offer for the 30-year-old defender an hour before the Serie A deadline.
At that point on deadline day, the club were still locked in talks with Cavani’s representatives about image rights. Confirmation of an agreement with the Uruguay international did not come until 5:06 pm ET (10:06 p.m. UK time), 54 minutes before the deadline, despite him being a free agent since leaving Paris Saint-Germain in June. (The club could have begun negotiations for a pre-contract agreement as early as January: players over 23 are able to talk to new teams within the final six months of their existing deals. Yet Cavani didn’t need to be signed before the window closed, though it needed to happen with the deadline for Champions League registration.)
Cavani’s late arrival, and subsequent quarantine because of COVID-19 restrictions, means he is unable to make his debut at St James’ Park on Saturday.
The arrival of a forward once considered one of the best in the world is intriguing for many supporters, even if he is well into his 30s and without a competitive game since March, but it does come with the feeling of bewilderment that the deal was only done on the last day of the window.
Signing Cavani, plus midfielder Van de Beek, left-back Telles and 18-year-old wingers Pellistri and Traore, has left the majority of fans feeling underwhelmed at the end of a summer they thought would bring another step forward after finishing third last season. United argue that the €300m invested in the squad over the past three windows proves their commitment to backing the Norwegian, catching rivals Manchester City and Liverpool and competing for the biggest trophies, but plenty of supporters are not convinced.
Steve Nicol doesn’t question Anthony Martial’s ability, but is quite critical of his lack of consistency.
The theory remains that the Glazers are more motivated to invest significant funds when they’re trying to get back into the Champions League than when they’re preparing for a season in it. It’s a suggestion dismissed by those at the top of the club, but the numbers give it weight.
Since 2013, United have spent on average nearly double on transfers in summer windows after missing out on a place in the lucrative Champions League compared to summers following qualification. Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal all spent more this summer, while champions Liverpool were able to buy one of the world’s best midfielders in Thiago Alcantara.
All in all, just weeks into the new season, United supporters are left battling a familiar feeling of dread. The anticipated step forward hasn’t happened and Solskjaer’s team has started with two defeats from their first three league games — including a humiliating 6-1 home defeat to Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham, leaving them 16th in the table over the international break.
Off the pitch, Paul Pogba has again used the international break to flirt with Real Madrid, there are more questions about Solskjaer’s position, and five of the next seven games are against PSG, Chelsea, RB Leipzig, Arsenal and early Premier League leaders Everton.
The clouds are gathering over Old Trafford again.