For a transfer window that Ed Woodward said would not be “business as usual” due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there is a sense of deja vu about where Manchester United find themselves as they prepare to begin their new Premier League campaign at home to Crystal Palace.
On the eve of the season back in 2018, United failed to sign targets that Jose Mourinho deemed essential. Whether or not a commanding centre-half would have inspired a title challenge that year is highly debatable. What’s certain is that, after managing only seven wins in 17 league games, Mourinho was gone.
Last year, United were pilloried by some supporters for a perceived lack of progress in the market, but the window ended with £140million spent on three new signings, including future club captain Harry Maguire just before the deadline. Even so, they started slowly again, winning just four of their first 14 games in their worst start to a Premier League season ever.
This time around, only Donny van de Beek has come through the door in a £35m deal from Ajax. Jadon Sancho, United’s priority target, will still be a Borussia Dortmund player when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side step out at Old Trafford today. The hope must be that the usual fury and frenzy around United’s transfer dealings does not translate into another poor start.
At least this year, there is still time to do business, and in Solskjaer, United have a manager unlikely to publicly rock the boat. Still, there were hints of disappointment in his first press conference of the season on Friday morning.
“When we sit down and we discuss and we have plans, sometimes it doesn’t happen as planned. Life isn’t a straight line here,” he admitted. “Sometimes things happen.”
United are prepared to move to other targets if there is no hope of Dortmund lowering their €120m asking price for Sancho. That they have not done so already speaks to a belief that a deal can be done, but – despite personal terms and agents fees no longer being a significant obstacle – an agreement currently looks some way off.
Sancho is also yet to publicly push for a move or force Dortmund to climb down. Though United face no challenges for him this summer due to the financial landscape, he has the option of staying another year and waiting for clubs who are closer to challenging for domestic and European honours to enter the race next year. In that context, some of Solskjaer’s answers about United’s transfer business felt telling.
“Of course I want players in the building that we want to work with and who want to be a part of it, and who want to be here,” he said. “One, you need the quality on the pitch. You also need the personal qualities and to really want to be here, and you need to show that you want to be here. That’s really important for us as a group, that we move forward.”
Van de Beek certainly fits that bill and became convinced of a move upon speaking to Solskjaer. The 23-year-old is a talented player acquired at a discount price who has every chance of becoming a success. The questions about whether he is really needed feel churlish when the main criticism after last month’s Europa League semi-final exit was that Solskjaer’s squad lacked depth.
At the same time, unless he, Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes are to somehow all play together in the same midfield, Van de Beek will not immediately improve Solskjaer’s first-choice starting line-up. And even before the 23-year-old’s arrival, if there was one area of the squad that was considered generally well-stocked with quality options, it was the centre of midfield.
Three competent ball-winners – Nemanja Matic, Fred and Scott McTominay – look set to fight for one place alongside Pogba and Fernandes. Jesse Lingard, Andreas Pereira and Juan Mata may not have strong cases to start but are all still at the club, with only a few exit routes open. It would be no surprise if all three stayed beyond the 5 October deadline in order to provide cover.
They are not the only fringe players stuck in limbo, in that respect. Talks over Chris Smalling’s potential return to Roma on a permanent basis have stalled. Marcos Rojo is on the market but also on a significant salary. Phil Jones signed a new four-year contract not long into Solskjaer’s caretaker spell but has made just 16 appearances in the time since.
Meanwhile, genuine gaps remain elsewhere. Interest in Tottenham-bound Sergio Reguilon revealed that a naturally left-footed left-back to complement Luke Shaw would not go amiss, despite the progress of right-footed Brandon Williams. Odion Ighalo was only ever considered as a stop-gap as cover for Anthony Martial and his loan spell will end in January.
And though Solskjaer insisted on Friday that he is very happy to work with the squad of players at his disposal, he was also on the record talking of the “need to strengthen the squad depth” just last month. Champions League commitments this season mean that he will need to play something approaching his first-choice line-up every three days to fulfil the most challenging fixture schedule yet.
As ever, even if the signings come, success is not guaranteed. United ultimately closed on all their main targets last summer yet struggled until the arrival of Fernandes in January. Solskjaer’s time in charge has until now been a story of wild fluctuations in form – a mixture of long unbeaten runs and worst-ever starts. United have never looked truly ready to contend for major honours.
Yet after last season’s distant third-place finish and return to the Champions League, contending for major honours is the next step. In order to close the 33-point gap to Liverpool and 15-point gap to Manchester City sooner rather than later, a talent of Sancho’s calibre may be required.
“You always want to have as long as possible with players,” Solskjaer admitted on Friday. But once again, as a new campaign begins, there is work left to do.