Manchester United wrapped up the closing months of their miserable 2021/22 season by circling the crucial need for a defensive midfielder and an elite forward as the most pressing squad priorities.
They are, with three weeks left of the transfer window to run, still without both. While neighbours Manchester City long snapped up Kalvin Phillips and Erling Haaland for those positions – two names deeply coveted by United – the Old Trafford side are scrambling around the cheap, easy to do, short-term aisle.
They are trying to finalise a deal for Adrien Rabiot – a man Juventus can’t wait to be rid of – to play in the centre of the park.
To cure their issues of having a wantaway, ageing attacker and an injured one they would have sold, they turned to 33-year-old Marko Arnautovic.
That miscalculation has only been wafted away by Bologna pricing United out of a deal and an understandable backlash from the fanbase.
If just scratching the surface above doesn’t already spell absence of recruitment strategy, there’s more.
With these two pursuits, United who have preached a new era under Erik ten Hag contoured by discipline and squad harmony, walked eyes wide open towards the opposite.
Rabiot and his mum, Veronique, who doubles up as his agent, are one of the most disruptive combos in European football. He has rejected a World Cup call-up, she has 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 on Arnautovic, who has clashed with coaches and captains, and possesses “the attitude of a kid” according to Jose Mourinho?
How are United, with a new manager and an extensive restructure behind the scenes, playing the same old tricks on themselves?
The entirety of the window has been spent pining after Frenkie de Jong, whose preference is to remain at Barcelona – a club forcing him out as part of their slant on creative accounting. A basic agreement was clinched with the Catalans to sign the progressive midfielder on July 14 and United have since stood by watching as a very public contractual dispute plays out between De Jong and Barca.
Chelsea have also been watching, waiting and anticipating their opportunity for another hijacking.
In a recent off-record lunch, a sporting director of a Premier League side was astounded that United hadn’t tried for talent of a similar stylistic profile like Ibrahim Sangare or fixed a need with the surety of Ruben Neves. He pointed out too that even with De Jong, they lack a destroyer to complement his ball progression.
United missed a chance with Vitinha, Ryan Gravenberch, Fabian Ruiz, and, in a different function, Renato Sanches.
In solving their offensive dilemma, the club said they didn’t want to enter a bidding war for Darwin Nunez, when in reality they were not a consideration for him and there was “no market” per 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 negligence as it could have been boxed off early in the window given PSV’s stance that if a club with strong financial resources come in, they know they cannot retain star players. The presence of former United striker Ruud van Nistelrooy in their dugout also allows a smoother negotiation.
Gakpo would follow the overarching template of recruits this summer: someone Ten Hag knows from the Eredivisie.
This opens up another range of fundamental questions: why is the manager leading the transfer approach? Is there no faith in the recruitment structure? Are the scouting team too scared to suggest alternatives or have their options been dismissed? Are the scenes this summer in business dealings at all reflective of the “best-in-class” approach?
United have been crystal clear that they are backing Ten Hag completely. He is a supreme coach, but he is not a sporting director or chief scout. Supporting a manager doesn’t mean giving him everything he wants, but ensuring the right tools are in place for what the club and team needs.
When Jurgen Klopp was intent on signing Julian Brandt, Liverpool’s recruitment team directed him to Mohamed Salah. No Mario Gotze led to Sadio Mane. Pep Guardiola has extolled 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 those jobs and tasks and the whole responsibility only on the shoulder of one person – on the manager. I’m not sure if this can be dealt with by one person, no matter how good he is.
“I know Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea also have smart people who take care of recruitment, scouting, the medical department… I think this is also an issue for our club, where they have to pay attention to.”
Given their fumbling in the market despite knowing an overhaul was necessary and being aware of the tactical profile of Ten Hag, Rangnick’s comment that the club needs “open-heart surgery” hangs in the air.
Pogba, Edinson Cavani, Juan Mata, Nemanja Matic and Jesse Lingard all left on a free. Dean Henderson and Alex Telles could only be shifted on loan. There are no concrete bids for Aaron Wan-Bissaka or Eric Bailly.
United have made all of £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 incomings remain Christian Eriksen (free), Lisandro Martinez (initial £48m) and Tyrell Malacia (£13m) – the former two filling areas that weren’t deemed critical.
Right-back remains a concern along with adding midfield steel and attacking depth.
On the latter, should United really have been stunned that a figure obsessed with his own records and legacy – especially in the Champions League – would motion for an exit to remain at Europe’s top table?
Long-term planning for the forward line should have occurred regardless of the Cristiano Ronaldo situation, which would have avoided a scenario where Arnautovic becomes the answer that the fans reject.
“You don’t need any player, you need the right player,” Ten Hag said on the eve of the new Premier League campaign. If Marko is the correct one, the scale of what has gone wrong should shake United to the core.
Rabiot at least offers attributes that the club don’t currently count on in midfield: strong tackling and duel rate, safety in transition, aggression and intensity.
But the drama series 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.
The Rabiot turn is perhaps a perfect snapshot of the club under the parasitic Glazer ownership. United gave Juventus £89m for Pogba, have returned him back for free and are now helping the Italians cure a headache by taking the Frenchman off their hands, while greasing their push for the superior Leandro Paredes.
Last week, United were ruffled by commentary that also painted them as a dysfunctional party in the De Jong pursuit.
Have they been paying attention to their window? Or, as that sporting director cuttingly joked: ‘Leave alone analytics, do they even use have Google?’.
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