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In the end, it was a busy transfer deadline day for Manchester United. In the final few hours before the window closed last Monday, the Red Devils announced deals for Edinson Cavani, Alex Telles, Facundo Pellistri, and Amad Diallo, the latter of whom will arrive at Old Trafford in January. The made it five signings for the summer, following on from Donny van de Beek’s move from Ajax in September.
United fans were happy to see the club get some deals over the line. Cavani may be past his best at 33, but he arrives with an excellent pedigree for scoring goals for big European clubs after spending the last nine years at Napoli and Paris Saint-Germain. Telles is a fine attacking left-back who adds depth in a problem area, while Pellistri and Diallo are highly-rated prospects despite their lack of experience at the highest level.
Yet the fact that United was so active in the market on deadline day is more of a negative than a positive. The best-run clubs have their business all sewn up long before the last day of business. Chelsea spent upwards of £200 million on new recruits this summer, with all but one of the new boys – goalkeeper Edouard Mendy – through the door before their first Premier League fixture. Arsenal may have left it until late to acquire Thomas Partey, but they had already wrapped up five other deals – as well as signing star man Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to a new contact – before the Ghanaian’s last-minute arrival from Atletico Madrid.
Moreover, United missed out on their leading transfer target, Jadon Sancho. The club spent all summer tailing the Borussia Dortmund winger, even after the German side declared they would not be selling their prized asset if he remained at Signal Iduna Park after Dortmund’s pre-season had got underway. According to reports, United drastically misread the situation and believed BVB would cave in as the deadline approached. Unsurprisingly they did not, meaning United were unable to source an alternative before the window closed.
United went into the summer with optimism slowly beginning to build again. They may have lost to Sevilla in the Europa League semi-finals in August, but the previous month saw them secure a third-place finish in the Premier League after a terrific end to the season. The January addition of Bruno Fernandes had proved transformative, and United ended the campaign on a 14-game unbeaten run that lifted them above Chelsea, Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur in the standings. Mason Greenwood’s emergence as a first-team starter was another source of positivity, and the fact that the team kept nine clean sheets from their last 14 Premier League matches suggested that concerns over the defense were misplaced.
The coronavirus pandemic has impacted clubs of all sizes, but that is no excuse for United’s lack of planning and foresight. Even when last season was ongoing they should have been lining up transfer targets for the summer. Champions League soccer, coupled with the club’s size and history, made United an attractive proposition for players across the world, and there were plenty of opportunities for United to bring in new recruits before the 2020/21 campaign began.
Instead, the vast majority of their acquisitions came on deadline day, by which time United had already contested three Premier League matches (and lost two of them). The window is now closed barring additions from the Football League, yet United’s squad remains patchy. The Red Devils failed to bring in a new center-back, and the way in which they have defended so far this season suggests that could be costly. Telles does solve the need for a left-back to compete with Luke Shaw, and Cavani is an upgrade on Odion Ighalo upfront, but it is baffling that United are without a new right-winger despite having made a player in that position their primary target this summer.
Ed Woodward, the executive vice-chairman at Old Trafford, has proved himself to be a shrewd operator when it comes to overseeing the club’s commercial interests. But for several years now, he has been shown to be out of his depth in the field of player recruitment, a task which surely should have been handed to a sporting director long ago. Remarkably, United does not currently employ anyone in that position.
On the pitch, it has been an equally poor few weeks for United. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side was beaten 3-1 by Crystal Palace in their opening encounter, before a fortuitous 3-2 victory over Brighton and Hove Albion in which they were second best for most of the game. Then, prior to the international break, United was thrashed 6-1 at home by Tottenham Hotspur, leaving them 16th in the table and already nine points off the top.
It was always going to be difficult for United to win the title this term, but it is still worrying that they have already fallen to +4000 in the Premier League title winners’ market with DraftKings Sportsbook. That does not just put them behind the obvious candidates of Liverpool (+130) and Manchester City (+150), but also Chelsea (+1400), Everton (+1600), Tottenham (+1600), and Arsenal (+2200).
If United do not win the championship this year, it will be eight seasons without a title for English soccer’s most successful domestic club. That is concerning enough given United’s size, but the biggest worry is that they have not even challenged for the prize since Alex Ferguson’s departure in 2013, and at present, they look as far away as ever from getting their hands on the trophy once again.
To put it bluntly, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would not be appointed as the manager of any other club in the Premier League were he to become available tomorrow. The Norwegian will always be a legend at Old Trafford due to his exploits as a player, but he is not the man to get them back to the top. Unfortunately for United, he is far from their only problem.
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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