Manchester United have ended the 2019 summer transfer window selling their most expensive striker of all time and allowing their most in-form midfielder of the previous season to leave for free, while signing Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka for the first team and Swansea rookie Dan James to bolster the attacking options.
Late moves for Paulo Dybala, Mario Mandzukic and Christian Eriksen have come to nought. Their unplanned nature seemed indicative of a lack of proper strategy.
By any measure, United have underwhelmed for the second successive summer with their transfer activity. Supporters have genuine cause for concern about the team’s capability to get back into the Champions League spots. It’s difficult to believe that this time last year, they were hopeful of building on a second place finish and wondering how they might bridge the gap to Manchester City.
This summer, at least two critical components of the team have been addressed, and yet it still feels as if the squad is weaker than it was at this time last year.
If it feels like history has repeated itself, then buckle up and familiarise with the not-too-distant past in this excerpt from my book “Redprint” (available to order here) which studies the last week of last year’s transfer window.
Excerpt from the chapter “Third Season Syndrome”
As it transpired, the manager might have been better off with a middle man. The theory of the benefit of hiring one would be someone to find a reasonable conclusion to the impasse United found themselves in in the transfer market. Despite the pragmatic revision of his own expectations, Mourinho did not welcome a further signing to the club before the transfer deadline. Back in Manchester, it seemed the politicking at the club went into overdrive in a hugely controversial week. Manchester United, notorious under the Ferguson era for being difficult with such information, were now an open book.
‘The other clubs that compete with us are really strong or they have already fantastic squads like Chelsea, Spurs, City, or they are investing massively like for example Liverpool buying everything and everybody,’ Mourinho told MUTV after the final pre-season friendly, a 1-0 defeat to Bayern Munich. ‘If we don’t make our team better it will be a difficult season for us. My CEO knows what I want for quite a long time, I know he tries to do the best for me and I still have a few days to wait to see what happens.’
And so started a week of intense speculation. Despite Toby Alderweireld and Harry Maguire being the prominent names mentioned, others inevitably followed. Barcelona were hoping to cash in on Yerry Mina’s decent World Cup showing, while a deadline- day rumour linked Atletico’s veteran star Diego Godin with a loan or a permanent move to Old Trafford. Even Jerome Boateng, the former City defender and current Bayern defender, was mentioned. None came in. The acquisitions of Dalot and Fred did not seem as if they would help facilitate the necessary improvement to match Manchester City, or even Liverpool, whose 2018 improvement had been helped by large investments in Virgil van Dijk, Fabinho and Naby Keita. Tottenham Hotspur, who hadn’t made a single signing, had a potential and a togetherness that suggested there was much more to come from them, while management changes at Chelsea and Arsenal made them relatively unknown quantities but very real threats.
When Mourinho faced the press on the Thursday before Friday, 10 August’s season opener against Leicester City, he was already feeling the need to be protective of his work at the club: ‘My view is that first of all is difficult for me to believe we finished second when I listen, when I read, not much but sometimes I do, it is difficult to believe that we finished second because you are capable of making people that finish second look like they were relegated, and people who win nothing, finish below us, and you make them look like serial winners,’ he told reporters at Carrington. ‘It is difficult for me to understand, we finish second which I keep saying, that I won eight championships and three Premier Leagues but I keep feeling the second last season was one of my biggest achievements in the game.’
When asked what his target for the forthcoming season was, then, Mourinho insisted the World Cup had caused him to concentrate on the short term. ‘The target is the Leicester match,’ he said. ‘In football you need time to work and players on the pitch to work and we didn’t have until now. I said that during pre-season, and it looked like I was saying something absolutely out of order, something crazy; I repeat — pre-season is difficult when you don’t have your players to work, that’s as simple as that … I have my players and I like my players. I like to work with my players, one lie repeated 1,000 times is still a lie, but the perception of people is that it’s true. When you repeat 1,000 times that my relationship with my players is not good, a lie repeated 1,000 times is still a lie. I like my players and my group. I enjoyed last season, the fight to finish where we finished and to manage the best position this club has had in five years. I’m going to enjoy this season. I know the words you want me to say or not to say. It depends on the music, but words don’t come easy. By the end of November or December you don’t need words, you’ll see by then which teams are candidates to win the Premier League.’
If those words were a facade, then they were at least diplomatic, which is more than could be said for the reports on the morning of the game. It was reported by The Guardian that Ed Woodward had specifically vetoed numerous transfer suggestions, among them the signings of Alderweireld and Willian. Two key lines stood out from the report. The first, the decision from the ‘top of the club’ that Mourinho ‘should not be allowed to get his way if it meant potentially wasting tens of millions of pounds on a short-term fix’, and the second, ‘To Mourinho’s intense irritation, United’s conclusion was that in most cases he had targeted defenders who were no better than those they already had and who, in today’s inflated market, could conceivably have cost upwards of £70m without vastly improving the team.’
The report cited the disagreement between Woodward and Mourinho over Martial’s future and also said that Woodward had enjoyed breakfast with Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez over the summer with a view to discussing a £100m-plus transfer for Raphaël Varane. The conversation went nowhere, but the briefing to the newspaper made a significant statement.
Again, the fallout was divisive. Supporters who were not in favour of Mourinho’s perceived the second half of the 2017/18 campaign as regression, were beginning to feel that Mourinho’s comments over the course of the summer were not only counter-productive, but symptomatic of the kind of statements he would make in the build-up to him leaving other high-profile jobs. There were those who felt it was obvious that the squad needed further investment if it was to challenge, with the defence in particular being a key area. Mourinho, who had initially wanted five players, and had reluctantly accepted he might get just one, found his judgement on that ‘one’ called into particular scrutiny considering he had spent £60m on two defenders and neither of them had started the FA Cup Final.
Regardless of where your opinion lay on the above, one thing could be universally agreed — it was abysmal preparation for the opening day of the season.