Manchester United closed out the final months of their miserable 2021/22 season by circling the crucial need for an elite defensive midfielder and striker as the team’s most pressing priorities.
They are, with three weeks left in the transfer window, still without both. While neighbors Manchester City have long snapped up Kalvin Phillips and Erling Haaland for those positions – two names deeply coveted by United – the Old Trafford side are escaping down the cheap, easy-to-make, short-term corridor.
They are trying to finalize a deal for Adrien Rabiot, a man Juventus can’t wait to get rid of, to play in the center of the park.
To cure their problems of having a missing, aging striker and an injured one they would have sold, they turned to 33-year-old Marko Arnautovic.
That miscalculation has only been pulled off by Bologna, who have priced United out of a deal and an understandable backlash from the fan base.
If just scratching the surface above doesn’t already mean the absence of a recruiting strategy, there’s more.
With these two activities, United, who have preached a new era under the leadership of Erik ten Hag, outlined by the discipline and harmony of the team, went with their eyes wide open to the contrary.
Rabiot and his mother, Veronique, who acts as his agent, are one of the most disruptive combinations in European football. She’s turned down a World Cup call-up, she’s clashed with Paris Saint-Germain, the families of Kylian Mbappe and Paul Pogba, Laurent Blanc, Walter Sabatini…so the list goes on.
How did they land Arnautovic, who has clashed with managers and captains and has “the attitude of a boy” according to Jose Mourinho?
How are United, with a new manager and extensive restructuring behind the scenes, playing themselves?
The entirety of the window has been spent pining for Frenkie de Jong, whose preference is to remain at Barcelona, a club that is forcing him out as part of their penchant for creative accounting. A basic agreement was reached with the Catalans to sign the progressive midfielder on July 14 and since then United have been watching a very public contract dispute between De Jong and Barca unfold.
Chelsea have also been watching, waiting and anticipating their chance for another hijack.
At a recent off-the-record lunch, a sporting director at a Premier League side was surprised United had not tried talent of a similar stylistic profile like Ibrahim Sangare or filled a need with the bailout of Ruben Neves. He also noted that even with De Jong, they lack a destroyer to complement their ball progression.
United missed a chance with Vitinha, Ryan Gravenberch, Fabian Ruiz and, in a different role, Renato Sanches.
To solve their attacking dilemma, the club said they did not want to enter a bidding war for Darwin Núñez, when in reality they were not a consideration for him and there was “no market” for Benfica.
The club left it late to pursue Benjamin Sesko, who will join Leipzig from Red Bull Salzburg in July 2023.
Even the live interest in Cody Gakpo smacks of neglect as he could have been shut down early in the window given PSV’s position that if a club with strong financial resources comes in, they know they can’t keep star players . The presence of former United striker Ruud van Nistelrooy in their dugout also allows for smoother trading.
Gakpo would follow the general roster of recruits this summer – someone Ten Hag knows from the Eredivisie.
This opens up another range of fundamental questions: Why does the manager lead the transfer approach? No faith in the hiring structure? Is the scouting team too afraid to suggest alternatives or have their options been ruled out? Do this summer’s scenes in business relationships reflect the “best in class” approach at all?
United have been clear that they are backing Ten Hag fully. He’s a supreme coach, but he’s no athletic director or scout. Supporting a manager doesn’t mean giving him everything he wants, but making sure he has the right tools for what the club and team needs.
When Jurgen Klopp was intent on signing Julian Brandt, Liverpool’s recruitment team steered him towards Mohamed Salah. No Mario Gotze drove Sadio Mane. Pep Guardiola has highlighted the work of Txiki Begiristain as central to his success.
In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports News in April, Ralf Rangnick warned: “I know that for the future, and I think even more so for a big club like Manchester United, you can’t put all these jobs and tasks and all the responsibility on the shoulders of ‘one person. – about the manager. I’m not sure if this can be handled by one person, no matter how good.
“I know Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea also have smart people who deal with recruitment, scouting, the medical department… I think it’s also a problem for our club, where they have to pay attention”.
Considering their effort in the market despite knowing that an overhaul was necessary and being aware of Ten Hag’s tactical profile, Rangnick’s comment that the club needs “open heart surgery” is up in the air.
Pogba, Edinson Cavani, Juan Mata, Nemanja Matic and Jesse Lingard left for free. Dean Henderson and Alex Telles could only be loaned out. There are no concrete offers for Aaron Wan-Bissaka or Eric Bailly.
United have made all of their £8.5m in sales courtesy of Andreas Pereira joining Fulham. They are notoriously poor sellers, in contrast to Chelsea (pre-Boehly), Liverpool and City.
The signings remain Christian Eriksen (free), Lisandro Martinez (initially £48m) and Tyrell Malacia (£13m), the two former filler areas that were not deemed critical.
Right back remains a concern along with adding midfield steel and attacking depth.
On the latter, should United have been surprised that a figure obsessed with his own records and legacy, particularly in the Champions League, would move an exit to stay in Europe’s top table?
The long-term planning of the forward line should have happened regardless of the Cristiano Ronaldo situation, which would have avoided a scenario where Arnautovic becomes the answer the fans reject.
“You don’t need any player, you need the right player,” said Ten Hag on the eve of the new Premier League campaign. If Marko is right, the scale of what has gone wrong should shake United to their core.
Rabiot at least offers attributes that the club does not currently have in midfield: strong rhythm of confrontations and duels, security in transition, aggression and intensity.
But the series of dramas around him and the feeling that this is more United taking what they can easily get rather than holistically addressing what they need, screams mismanagement.
Rabiot’s turnaround is perhaps a perfect snapshot of the club under the parasite Glazer’s ownership. United gave Juventus £89m for Pogba, have brought him back on a free and are now helping the Italians cure a headache by taking the Frenchman off their hands, while fueling their push for top Leandro Paredes .
Last week, United were bewildered by comments that also painted them as a dysfunctional party in their pursuit of De Jong.
Have you been paying attention to your window? Or, as that sports director joked: ‘Leave the analytics alone, do they even use Google?’
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