Manchester United have concluded the final months of their miserable 2021/22 season by naming the urgent need for a defensive midfielder and an elite striker as their top squad priorities.
They are still without both three weeks before the transfer window closes. While neighbors Manchester City have long snapped up Kalvin Phillips and Erling Haaland for those positions – two names much sought after by United – the Old Trafford side are scrambling for the cheap, easy-to-do, short-term aisle.
They are trying to strike a deal for Adrien Rabiot – a man Juventus can get rid of – to play in the middle of the park.
To solve their problems of having a wanton, aging attacker and an injured one they would have sold, they turned to 33-year-old Marko Arnautovic.
That misperception was only blown away by Bologna’s pricing of United out of a deal and an understandable backlash from the fanbase.
Just scratching the surface above doesn’t already mean that there is no recruiting strategy in place, but there is more.
With those two efforts, United, who under Erik ten Hag have been preaching a new era of discipline and team harmony, went with open eyes towards the opposite.
Rabiot and his mother Veronique, who is also his agent, are one of the most eye-catching combinations in European football. He’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 on Arnautovic, who has clashed with coaches and captains and has ‘a child’s attitude’ according to Jose Mourinho?
With a new manager and a major behind-the-scenes reshuffle, how are United playing the same old tricks against themselves?
The entire window has been spent pining for Frenkie de Jong, who prefers to remain at Barcelona – a club who sideline him as part of his penchant for creative accounting. A basic agreement was reached with the Catalans to sign the progressive midfielder on July 14 and United have since watched a very public contract dispute between De Jong and Barca play out.
Chelsea, too, watched, waiting and awaiting their opportunity for another kidnapping.
At a recent unofficial lunch, a Premier League side’s sporting director was amazed United had not sought talent with a similar stylistic profile to Ibrahim Sangare’s or filled a need with Ruben Neves’ safety. He also pointed out that even with De Jong, they lack a destroyer to complement his ball development.
United missed opportunities with Vitinha, Ryan Gravenberch, Fabian Ruiz and in another capacity Renato Sanches.
In resolving their offensive dilemma, the club said they did not want to enter a bidding war for Darwin Nunez when in reality they were nothing in return for him and there was “no market” for Benfica.
The club left 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 repelled early in the window given PSV’s stance that they cannot retain star players when a club with strong financial resources step in. The presence of former United striker Ruud van Nistelrooy in the dugout also allows for smoother negotiations.
Gakpo would follow the overarching pattern of recruits this summer: someone Ten Hag knows from the Eredivisie.
This opens up a number of other fundamental questions: Why is the leader leading the transfer approach? Is there no confidence in the recruitment structure? Is the scouting team too afraid to propose alternatives, or have their options been discarded? Does the course of business this summer even correspond to the “best-in-class” approach?
United have made it clear that they fully support Ten Hag. He’s the head coach, but he’s not a sporting director or chief scout. Supporting a manager isn’t about giving them everything they want, it’s about making sure the right tools are in place for the needs of the club and team.
When Jurgen Klopp intended to sign Julian Brandt, Liverpool’s recruiting team referred him to Mohamed Salah. No Mario Götze led to Sadio Mane. Pep Guardiola has hailed Txiki Begiristain’s work as central to his success.
In an exclusive interview with Sky sports news Ralf Rangnick warned in April: “I know that for the future, and I think even more so that at a big club like Manchester United you can’t just put all these jobs and tasks and all the responsibility on one person’s shoulders – to the manager I’m not sure if that can be done by one person no matter how good he is.
“I know Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea also have smart people looking after recruitment, scouting, the medical department… I think that’s also an issue for our club that they need to look out for.”
Given their fumbling in the market, despite knowing an overhaul was needed and aware of Ten Hag’s tactical profile, Rangnick’s comment that the club need “open-heart surgery” hangs in the air.
Pogba, Edinson Cavani, Juan Mata, Nemanja Matic and Jesse Lingard all remained free. Dean Henderson and Alex Telles could only be transferred on loan. There are no concrete offers for Aaron Wan-Bissaka or Eric Bailly.
United have made a total of £8.5million in sales courtesy of Andreas Pereira, who is moving to Fulham. They’re notoriously bad sellers – unlike Chelsea (before Boehly), Liverpool and City.
The additions remain Christian Eriksen (vacant), Lisandro Martinez (originally £48m) and Tyrell Malacia (£13m) – the two former infill areas who were not deemed critical.
The right-back remains an issue along with the addition of midfield steel and depth of attack.
Should United really have been stunned that a figure obsessed with their own records and legacy – particularly in the Champions League – would request an exit to remain at the top of Europe?
Regardless of Cristiano Ronaldo’s situation, long-term planning should have been done for the attacking line, avoiding a scenario where Arnautovic becomes the answer fans reject.
“You don’t need a player, you need the right player,” said Ten Hag on the eve of the new Premier League season. If Marko is the man, the magnitude of what went wrong should shake United to the core.
After all, Rabiot offers attributes that the club is currently not relying on in midfield: duel and duel strength, switching security, aggressiveness and intensity.
But the drama series around him and the feeling that this is more United taking what they can get easily rather than tackling what they need holistically calls for mismanagement.
The Rabiot round is perhaps a perfect snapshot of the club under Glazer’s parasitic possession. United gave Juventus £89m for Pogba, returned him for free and are now helping the Italians cure a headache by taking the French off their hands while lubricating their push for the superior Leandro Paredes.
Last week United were rocked by comments which also portrayed them as a dysfunctional party in the De Jong pursuit.
Did you check your window? Or, as this sporting director snidely joked, “Leave the analytics alone, are they even using Google?”.