Manchester United’s failure to land Erling Braut Haaland ahead of Borussia Dortmund this winter has brought renewed scrutiny of the club’s transfer policy.
United had engaged with Mino Raiola – Haaland’s advisor – and the 19-year-old striker himself over a plan to move to Old Trafford in the January transfer window. But the Norwegian instead elected to move to Germany, with United subsequently making known their concern about the level of control demanded by Raiola.
However, negotiating with Raiola has never previously been a deal breaker for executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward. Throughout Woodward’s time at the helm, United have had plenty of experience with the Italian agent. Deals have been done for players like Sergio Romero, Henrikh Mhkitaryan, Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
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Woodward and United’s transfer team had spent much of the first half of the season working towards the assumption that Mario Mandzukic would be arriving from Juventus. They understandably elected to move for long-term target Haaland of Red Bull Salzburg when it became clear he was available in the winter transfer window. It might look dispiriting for fans to have lost both Mandzukic and Haaland in a matter of days, especially as manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer flew out to meet his compatriot Haaland, but it should not mean a total disaster.
United’s wider transfer policy, which has seen young players like Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James arrive while older players with big contracts move on, is part of a new strategy. The plan is to back Solskjaer come what may in order to stop the disruption of the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era.
There could well be a shortlist of striking options that the club can begin to work through now that Haaland and Mandzukic are off limits and the groundwork should already have been laid.
On Wednesday, the transfer window officially opens, and Woodward is back in the spotlight. Only in Louis van Gaal’s first summer did Woodward get close to hitting his targets.
While most of the moves did not work out, bringing in Angel Di Maria, Ander Herrera, Luke Shaw, Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo and Radamel Falcao looked at the time as a full-blooded attempt to overhaul an ageing squad with promising youngsters and players who had experience at the highest level. Ever since, United’s transfer campaigns have overpromised and under-delivered.
The club find themselves with a manager in possession of positive momentum and decent backing from the fans, a rare quality under the Glazers.There are clearly fundamental problems with the squad, but Solskjaer at least appears to be aware of the shortcomings and working to improve them.
If Woodward wants to capitalise, it is obvious to everyone that the club cannot come out of the window empty-handed. A top-four finish come the end of the season is not quite essential, but it would make life much easier for everyone involved.
Equally, United’s transfer committee may decide that Mason Greenwood’s promise means a transfer up front is now less urgent. He can provide back-up to, or even displace, Anthony Martial if he continues to improve at his current rate.
The focus could shift to midfield. As the news of United’s concerns over Raiola grew, yet another name was mentioned as a target. Gedson Fernandes of Benfica is currently out of the first team and is available for a fee well under his release clause.
The Portuguese side might even let the 20-year-old midfielder go out on loan in order to facilitate a permanent move in the summer.
Assuming they move for Fernandes, it means they are not capable of securing any of Christian Eriksen, James Maddison or Jadon Sancho. Players at the club expected two signings as little as one week ago, and some behind the scenes even anticipate that Pogba will be leaving.
For Woodward and Solskjaer, that means that they could start February chasing a reinforced Chelsea side – freshly boosted with Sancho – with nothing to show for their own efforts.
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