’Tis that part of the season again. Not post season or pre season, or the festive slog through Boxing Day and beyond. Neither, too, the cool days of spring when the title race hots up. No, it is the season of Manchester United in the summer transfer market when domestic football’s favourite soap opera headlines the silly season and copious players are linked, targeted, lost, found, sold, signed and er … not signed.
The last is already forming the narrative for some of Richard Arnold’s great 2022 Who Will United Land? show. This is the 52-year-old’s first window as the club’s chief executive and to listen and read the hysteria from pundits and supporters, he has to acquire Kylian Mbappé, Lionel Messi and the next Diego Maradona or his tenure will crash and burn before takeoff.
There is, though, real pressure to have a successful window. Starting with Barcelona’s Frenkie de Jong, then a forward – Ajax’s Antony, possibly – and, maybe, a defender after Jurrien Timber turned down the chance to join Erik ten Hag in moving from Amsterdam to Manchester, the 21-year-old’s decision based on his desire to ensure he keeps his place in the Netherlands’ squad with a World Cup looming.
Across town, Manchester City have secured Erling Haaland from Borussia Dortmund and, slightly further afield, Liverpool have recruited Darwin Núñez from Benfica (not to mention Fabio Carvalho from Fulham and Calvin Ramsay from Aberdeen). Ten Hag wanted Núñez too and as Haaland is world football’s emerging superstar centre-forward, United fans see the Premier League’s pre-eminent forces and their two fiercest rivals already strengthening while their club is drawing a blank.
Further rejection came from another Ten Hag target in Christian Eriksen, with the Dane favouring either remaining at Brentford or returning to Tottenham. The only transfer action that has taken place United so far this summer has been a slew of exits: Paul Pogba, Juan Mata, Nemanja Matic, Jesse Lingard and Edinson Cavani have all departed for no fee.
It is still early in a transfer window that does not officially open until 1 July, with the squad assembling for the first time next month, when Ten Hag will speak to his players as a group for the first time. So, understandably, Arnold and his football director, John Murtough, remain calm.
Their stance is that though De Jong is Ten Hag’s prime target there is no need to panic, because Barcelona are in a precarious financial position and so need to sell, and there appear to be zero competitors for the Netherlands midfielder, and certainly not from clubs with the financial resources to gazump United. So Arnold and Murtough will not be rushed in their pursuit of the player and are readying a second bid of around €70m plus add-ons for him, having seen an offer of €60m plus bonuses turned down by Barcelona.
The ideal outcome is that De Jong’s signing will be sealed before United fly to Thailand for their pre-season tour on 8 July. Ten Hag wants the 25-year-old in place for the what would be his first match in charge, against Liverpool in Bangkok four days after United arrive in the far east. If that cannot be achieved the plan is to ensure De Jong is a United player before the opening game of the new Premier League season, against Brighton at Old Trafford on 7 August, something Arnold and Murtough believe is achievable.
The mood emanating from United is bullish in regards De Jong’s arrival, the belief firmly being that it is a case of when not if. But should De Jong not be on the plane to Bangkok the spectre of the farcical summer of 2013 will inevitably be raised. This featured Ed Woodward, Arnold’s predecessor, leaving United’s tour in Australia to “attend to urgent transfer business”.
When Woodward flew back to Europe on that Wednesday in July nine years ago he and the club’s recently recruited manager David Moyes had pinpointed Cesc Fàbregas, then of Barcelona, as the signing to kickstart the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era, but the Spaniard never arrived. Indeed the only player United did sign that summer was Marouane Fellaini from Everton, and even that was completed post-deadline and came close to being botched.
This is the sort of doomsday scenario Arnold, Murtough and Ten Hag are desperate to avoid. It remains highly unlikely that it will be repeated in this case, given United’s strong hand in negotiations with a club who not only desperately need the funds from the player’s sale but also need his £290,000-a-week salary off their books.
But that does not mean it’s a done deal and Arnold and Murtough must ensure they do not make the same mistake Woodward made in 2013. Back then United ended up paying £4m more than they should have for Fellaini, who had a £23.5m buyout clause that United could have activated if they had acted sooner. Moyes was well aware of clause, given that he was the Everton manager who had inserted it into the Belgian midfielder’s contract.
Arnold’s clandestinely filmed meeting with disgruntled supporters in a hostelry near his Cheshire home at the weekend featured a frank admission of the farrago that has been United’s recent history. In fronting up with a pithy assessment – “We fucking burned through cash” – United’s most powerful executive indicated he is attuned to what is needed to revive a club that is more fallen than sleeping giant at this point. But, as ever, actions will tell. Over to you, Mr Arnold.