It might all change in the last few hours of the window, but right now, this Manchester United team feels short and whatever late signings materialize — if they do materialize — will likely serve as little more than a Band-Aid.
You also wonder why it had to be this way.
Going into the summer, ESPN and others had budgeted for a net spend of £120 million this summer. It seemed like a reasonable amount, somewhere between the £185m they shelled out in 2022 — Erik ten Hag’s first season — and the £95m in 2021. On the one hand, times were relatively tough for what was once the ultimate cash cow in the English game, after two seasons of successive losses. Some of it was influenced by the pandemic; some of it was influenced by the Glazers. (Lest we forget, football finance blogger Swiss Ramble estimates that the club has paid more than £770m since the owners’ leveraged buyout in 2005 and more than £150m in dividends, mostly to the Glazers.) A lot of it was influenced by poor decision-making and poor performance.
On the other hand, even with the club (or parts of it) up for sale, this was no time to pull back on investment. Not when you had a coach folks seemed to like — a guy who was guiding the team in the right direction, taking them back into the Champions League and reaching two domestic finals, even winning the league cup.
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Less than a hundred hours from the end of the transfer window, they’re right around their target. According to Transfermarkt data, their net spend is in the £130m range. If they can shift a couple more players — goalkeeper Dean Henderson (likely), veteran defender Harry Maguire (less likely, but you never know) — and find cheaper replacements, they should be fine, with maybe even a little to spare for one more signing. (Turkish goalkeeper Altay Bayindir appears close to a move, while United have also been linked with a number of defenders.)
That’s not an insignificant amount. As I write this, according to Transfermarkt, only Arsenal have spent significantly more (and their total doesn’t reflect the fee they’ll get for forward Folarin Balogun, who is expected to sign with AS Monaco). Those figures will probably change — Manchester City should surpass them when they land Wolves midfielder Matheus Nunes, which is reportedly close — but it’s very likely that United will, again, be among the three biggest spenders in the Premier League. Yet, at least to me, this still feels like an incomplete squad, far removed not just from a side capable of competing with Manchester City (big ask, I know) but from the sort of side that Ten Hag wants.
I wrote about this before the FA Cup final last year, but one whole window later, it feels like they’ve only taken baby steps. And if they’re going to continue the forward momentum, they look short of a player in every department.
At the back, Maguire is still the second option off the bench at center-back (and the first option, Victor Lindelöf, is nothing to write home about). I don’t think Maguire is the walking disaster/Phil Jones-in-training some make him out to be, but it appears, for now, that Ten Hag can’t make it any clearer that he’s done with him.
How important is having a serviceable, fourth-choice central defender? If you’re fortunate, he may hardly ever play, so not very. But if you hit even a slight road bump, you will need something more than an extra body at the heart of your defence, because players get injured and suspended over an eight-month season. Think of it as an insurance policy against catastrophic loss, and an alternative to keep the starters on their toes.
Midfield? With Fred gone, Scott McTominay and Kobbie Mainoo are the only viable alternatives to Casemiro, who is 31 and will be flying back and forth to Brazil regularly for international breaks. McTominay doesn’t have a great injury record and, critics will say, not a great performance record either; at 26, he’s also unlikely to get much better quickly. Mainoo is a very promising talent, but he’s 18, suffered an injury in preseason and has all of 11 minutes of Premier League football under his belt.
Up front there are two options, unless you want to play Marcus Rashford there, which, presumably you don’t, since he’s been far more effective cutting in from the left.
One is Rasmus Hojlund, a hugely rated young striker, who also happens to be currently injured. Yes, his name sounds a little bit like Haaland, he’s also a Scandinavian guy who played in Austria and he is a year older than the Norwegian was when he moved to Borussia Dortmund … but it’s silly to expect his career to follow an identical trajectory simply based on that.
The best thing you can do is let Hojlund grow at his pace. The problem is, if that pace is a slow burn, then you need somebody else to fill the minutes. If it’s not going to be Rashford — and really, he should only be an emergency solution up front — you’re left with Anthony Martial. Yeah, the guy who’s scored 11 top-flight goals in the past three seasons, seems injured every other week and is on an expiring contract (suggesting it’s not just me who doesn’t want to put his eggs in the Martial basket, but Ten Hag too).
They may try to address this by doing what they did last season: taking players on loan, as they did with Marcel Sabitzer and Wout Weghorst. There’s no shame in it: Better to get competent bodies in without making a long-term commitment than blow huge amounts of money on guys who become millstones because you can never shift them. (And before you laugh at Sabitzer and Weghorst: They made 49 appearances between them in half a season and playing their part in the cup runs and third-place finish.)
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The United of old wouldn’t even have contemplated this, but United fans don’t need to be reminded that this is a different club. And you can imagine someone upstairs thinking: “We’re set. Onana is better than De Gea, Mount better than Fred and Sabitzer combined, Hojlund has got to be better than Weghorst … we finished third last year, there’s no way we can be worse.
“Chelsea and Liverpool underwent massive upheavals over the summer; that’s bound to have an impact. Tottenham lost the guy who carried them the past decade or so. Newcastle still have unfashionable players like Dan Burn and Joelinton. Mikel Arteta is doing a lot of tinkering with Arsenal, maybe too much. United may not be a match for City, but do we really believe three of these other clubs are going to be better than us?”
If that’s the thinking there’s some logic to it. Some logic. And if they round out the squad with the right depth moves before the window closes, it may come to fruition.
It’s just a bit depressing that things are moving as slowly as they are. And it’s all coming down to the last few hours.