Manchester United concluded the final months of their miserable 2021/22 season by circling the crucial need for a defensive midfielder and an elite striker as the team’s most pressing priorities.
They are, three weeks from the transfer window to run, still without the two. While neighbors Manchester City have long signed Kalvin Phillips and Erling Haaland for these positions – two names deeply coveted by United – the Old Trafford side are jostling down the cheap, easy-to-do and short-term aisle.
They are trying to finalize a deal for Adrien Rabiot – a man Juventus are eager to get rid of – to play in the center of the park.
To remedy their problems of having an aging striker and an injured one they allegedly sold, they turned to 33-year-old Marko Arnautovic.
This miscalculation was only cleared up by Bologna excluding United from a deal and an understandable reaction from the fan base.
If just scratching the surface above doesn’t already mean no recruiting strategy, there is more.
With those two goals, United, who heralded a new era under Erik ten Hag characterized by team discipline and harmony, marched with their eyes wide open in the opposite direction.
Rabiot and his mother, Véronique, who is also his agent, are one of the most disruptive combos in European football. He refused a World Cup call-up, it faced 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 clashed with coaches and captains, and has “the attitude of a kid” according to José Mourinho?
How are United, with a new manager and extensive behind-the-scenes restructuring, playing the same old tricks?
The entire window was dedicated to nostalgia for Frenkie de Jong, whose preference is to stay at Barcelona – with a club forcing him out as part of their creative accounting orientation. A basic deal was agreed with the Catalans to sign the progressive midfielder on July 14 and United have since observed a very public contract dispute between De Jong and Barca.
Chelsea also watched, waited and anticipated their opportunity for another diversion.
At a recent unofficial lunch, a Premier League sporting director was stunned that United had not tried a talent of a similar stylistic profile to Ibrahim Sangare or secured a need with Ruben Neves’ surety. He also pointed out that even with De Jong, they lacked a Destroyer to complete his ball progression.
United missed a chance with Vitinha, Ryan Gravenberch, Fabian Ruiz and, in a different feature, Renato Sanches.
In resolving their attacking dilemma, the club said they did not want to get into a bidding war for Darwin Nunez, when in reality they were not a consideration for him and there was ” no market” according to Benfica.
The club left him 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 he could have been blocked early in the window given PSV’s stance that if a club with strong financial resources comes along they know they can’t hold off the players. star players. The presence of former United striker Ruud van Nistelrooy in their dugout also allows for smoother negotiation.
Gakpo would follow the overall rookie model this summer: someone Ten Hag knows from the Eredivisie.
This opens up another range of fundamental questions: why does the manager lead the transfer process? Is there no trust in the recruiting structure? Is the scouting team too afraid to suggest alternatives or have their options been rejected? Do this summer’s scenes in business relationships reflect the “best-in-class” approach?
United have made it clear that they fully support Ten Hag. He’s a supreme coach, but he’s not a sports director or head scout. Supporting a manager doesn’t mean giving him everything he wants, but making sure the right tools are in place for what the club and the team need.
When Jurgen Klopp was planning to sign Julian Brandt, Liverpool’s recruitment team referred him to Mohamed Salah. No, Mario Gotze drove Sadio Mane. Pep Guardiola has touted 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 cannot put all these jobs and tasks and all the responsibility on the shoulder of one person – on the manager I don’t know if this can be handled by one person, no matter how good.
“I know that Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea also have smart people who deal with recruitment, scouting, the medical service… I think that’s also an issue for our club, which they have to be careful of.”
Given their trial and error in the market as they knew an overhaul was needed and aware of Ten Hag’s tactical profile, Rangnick’s comment that the club needs ‘open-heart surgery ” hangs in the air.
Pogba, Edinson Cavani, Juan Mata, Nemanja Matic and Jesse Lingard have all gone 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 made the full sale of £8.5million thanks to Andreas Pereira joining Fulham. They are notoriously poor sellers – unlike Chelsea (before Boehly), Liverpool and City.
The entrants remain Christian Eriksen (free), Lisandro Martinez (initial £48m) and Tyrell Malacia (£13m) – the two former filler areas which were not deemed critical.
The right-back remains a concern while adding steel in midfield and attacking depth.
On that last point, should United really have been stunned that a figure obsessed with his own records and legacy – particularly in the Champions League – was offering an exit to remain at the top of Europe?
Long-term forward line planning should have taken place regardless of Cristiano Ronaldo’s situation, which would have avoided a scenario where Arnautovic becomes the answer 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 one, the scale of what went wrong should shake United.
Rabiot offers at least attributes the club currently doesn’t rely on in midfield: solid tackling and duel rate, security in transitions, aggression and intensity.
But the drama around him and the feeling that it’s more United taking what they can easily get rather than responding holistically to what they need screams mismanagement.
The Rabiot turn is perhaps a perfect snapshot of the club under parasitic Glazer ownership. United gave Juventus £89million for Pogba, gave him back for free and are now helping the Italians nurse a headache by getting the Frenchman off their hands, while bolstering their push for superior Leandro Paredes.
Last week, United were rocked by comments that also portrayed them as a dysfunctional party in the pursuit of De Jong.
Did they pay attention to their window? Or, as this sporting director joked, “Leave the analytics aside, do they even use Google?”.