So far in the summer transfer window, Manchester United have had credible links to the following players. Jurrien Timber, Christian Eriksen, Antony, Darwin Nunez, Frenkie de Jong and Lisandro Martinez. As of now, they have not even come close to signing a single one of this disparate group. What’s more, the varied nature of these targets speaks to a lack of real planning taking place at Old Trafford.
Disregarding less credible links, such as spurious tales of supposed interest in English click-grabbers like Mason Mount, Declan Rice and Tammy Abraham, United’s proposed transfer business lacks vision. Of the six most concrete targets listed, what common thread do they share? All but Nunez have played for new manager Erik ten Hag’s former club Ajax, while Eriksen left the Dutch giants before the coach joined.
United’s approach feels scattershot. Monday saw reports emerge that the Timber deal was as good as dead in the water. On Tuesday morning, United fans awoke to news that United were sending a delegation to Amsterdam to seal a deal for Antony. From a defender to a winger, with the only link being shared experience of the current Red Devils boss. The Manchester club are lurching from one target to another, desperate to get someone, anyone, to sign on the dotted line and quell the unrest amongst supporters.
The Frenkie de Jong deal represents United’s issues in microcosm. The player is undeniably talented, prodigiously so. Barcelona manager Xavi wants to keep him, and if anyone can judge midfield talent it is the World Cup-winning maestro. But the problem is the player himself wants to remain at Camp Nou. Conflicting reports suggest he may or may not need to be sold so Barca can balance books that are more uneven than the latter half of Robert De Niro’s career. But the whole affair has the feel of a fool’s errand.
United have run afoul of signing players who do not want to join the club before. Much of their post-Ferguson malaise has been characterised by mercenary players who played like they were at Old Trafford under duress. There is also the matter of whether De Jong actually addresses any of United’s most pressing problems.
A superb central midfielder, on the surface his signing makes perfect sense. United have seen Juan Mata, Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic and Jesse Lingard leave the club. Ten Hag is undoubtedly short-handed in midfield as it stands. But Mata and Lingard barely featured, Pogba’s problem was the fact there was not a place for a player of his skillset in the side and Lingard was a vagrant, never finding a true home in the centre or out wide. Matic is the only player from that bunch who cries out for a replacement, considering United’s long-standing lack of a top defensive midfielder. De Jong, talented though he is, will not fill that role in the traditional sense.
Neither will Christian Eriksen, though his signing is perhaps the most sensible of all the deals football director John Murtough and his team are working on. The 30-year-old was a revelation at Brentford during the second half of last season, just a few months removed from suffering a cardiac arrest during Euro 2020. Available on a free transfer this summer, the ex-Tottenham Hotspur star is a low-risk, high-reward capture to bolster Ten Hag’s ranks.
Aside from the dizzying array of positions, profiles and proclivities of the targeted players, the fact none of them have actually been signed yet is also a cause for concern. Football transfers are a complicated business, with many subtle, fragile mechanisms involved to get the deal from back page whisper to “Here we go”. But at the same time, they are far from rocket science. Or if they are, then Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur are decisively winning this Space Race.
United were linked with Benfica striker Darwin Nunez from almost minute-one of this transfer window. But while Red Devils fans were being fed breadcrumbs by aggregator accounts and transfer-harvesters, Liverpool simply got the deal done and swiped the 22-year-old away to Anfield.
This hesitancy to act is nothing new at Old Trafford. The club spent most of the 2020 summer transfer window fluttering their eyelashes in the direction of Jadon Sancho, only to see him spend another year at Borussia Dortmund. But fans were assured things would not be this way now. The controversial Ed Woodward is gone, replaced as CEO by Richard Arnold. Murtough and technical director Darren Fletcher are in situ, finally giving United something akin to a modern football structure. But while Liverpool are signing Nunez, Spurs are tying down Yves Bissmouma and rivals Manchester City are doing mega-deals for Erling Haaland, United are once again doing very little.
The United hierarchy will argue it is still early days, and that they are taking the time to plot the best course forward. A noble claim, but when their rivals on that course are planning more decisively than them, it is a worrying sign. The Red Devils have just endured their worst season of the Premier League era. One transfer window will not solve all of the problems with a team that slumped to sixth with 58 points last season. But a mishandled one will speed up the descent of a club in free-fall.
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