Back in March, Manchester United appeared to be preparing for a busy summer. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s promotion from caretaker to permanent manager had been confirmed. The Norwegian was being consulted on summer transfer plans, first drawn up in February. The usual three-in, three-out policy at Old Trafford – less a rule, more a guideline – was to be ignored in order to reshape the club’s future.
Expectations of a radical clear-out grew a few weeks later at Goodison Park, after the dismal 4-0 defeat at Everton on Easter Sunday, when Solskjaer declared: “I’m going to be successful here and there are players there who won’t be part of that successful team.” It appeared that he and the club’s decision-makers were about to call time on the bulk of an underachieving squad.
But four months later, on the eve of United’s opening game of the new Premier League season, only one member of that match-day squad at Everton has left. Romelu Lukaku was not replaced, either. There would be three major summer signings – Daniel James, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire – but no more. If this is a rebuild, then it remains under construction.
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United would acknowledge that much. The club always believed that reshaping the squad would take more than one window. The focus – quite correctly – is on signing the right players rather than just any players. James, Wan-Bissaka and Maguire all fit a particular profile which chimes with the manager’s preferred style of play. But the gaps this summer have left in Solskjaer’s squad are no less concerning.
On Friday morning, Solskjaer himself was optimistic about United’s attacking potential post-Lukaku, despite the lack of a replacement for the club’s most prolific player over the last two years. Last month, it was a different story. When asked specifically about the Belgian’s expected departure during the pre-season tour, he answered unequivocally: “If we sell players we will have to replace them.”
There is not only a Lukaku-shaped hole to fill, either. Solskjaer desired at least one central midfielder in order to make up for the loss of Marouane Fellaini, who left for Shandong Luneng in January, and Ander Herrera, a free transfer to Paris Saint-Germain this summer. Neither were replaced. Scott McTominay has made just 22 starts during his Old Trafford career to date. He is now Solskjaer’s second-most important central midfielder.
The ability of the club to attract has come into question this summer, too. When talks between United and Paulo Dybala’s representatives ended last Sunday night, the word was that the club were walking away from the deal because they were only interested in signing players who would join for the right reasons. Our headline was ‘United pull out of Dybala talks’. A few Twitter wags generously translated that as ‘Dybala not interested in United’.
Of course, both those things can be true. One of the reasons for the talks breaking down, for example, was that Dybala wanted a salary which rivalled that of Alexis Sanchez. But Sanchez’s contract is a mistake United are determined not to repeat, to the point where a player as important to the club as David de Gea must spend months at the negotiating table in order to secure a deal that is in any way comparable.
United were always unlikely to meet Dybala’s basic salary demands of approximately £350,000-a-week, not to mention the considerable fees insisted upon by his entourage, and they were therefore right to walk away. In that sense, they are learning from past mistakes. But why was Dybala demanding so much from United when, days later, he was willing to accept far less at Tottenham Hotspur?
Why, too, was Christian Eriksen happy to stay in north London rather than move north? Ultimately, Dybala and Eriksen did not join United because they did not believe that one of the wealthiest and most successful clubs of European football’s modern era was the best place for their elite talents. Instead, United bought three players who do not have a Champions League appearance between them.
It is easy to be overly critical and therefore inconsistent when assessing United’s transfer policy under executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward. United cannot be criticised for targeting established, expensive superstars like Sanchez and Angel di Maria, or fading forces like Bastian Schweinsteiger and Nemanja Matic, then given another shoeing for signing players who are untested at the highest level with one eye on the future.
The James and Wan-Bissaka deals, in particular, are ones which United cannot really lose from. If they work, they work. If they do not, both players are young enough to be sold on for fees comparable to what United paid. They are the type of deals which Woodward has seldom done over the last few years and the type that the club needs to do more often. This change of direction is welcome.
But the level of the three signings – and the decisions of Dybala and Eriksen – serve as reminders of where the club stands at the start of its seventh post-Sir Alex Ferguson season, and how expectations have had to be adjusted in the time since. This is a team in transition. It will be until January at the very earliest, and almost certainly beyond that too. The rebuild is only half-finished. Between now and May, its foundations will be severely tested.