There is still more than a fortnight to go until the start of the Premier League season but Manchester United’s priority transfer target is already through the door and the next name on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s wish list has been booked in for a medical. Both Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane are high-calibre signings secured at low prices relative to their talent, with the deals secured at a time when much of the market is standing still.
On the other side of Manchester, last season’s title winners are still waiting to add to their senior ranks. In west London, the Champions League winners are yet to make any sort of move. Liverpool are not expected to spend heavily, either. Across the top flight, Premier League clubs have shelled out approximately £235m net so far this summer, add-ons included. United’s outlay on Sancho and Varane accounts for nearly half of that figure. This is how to steal a march on their rivals.
Senior Old Trafford sources have put the impressive speed of this summer’s execution down to the newly integrated recruitment process, bolstered by the promotion of John Murtough to football director earlier this year. Murtough’s role in conjunction with Solskjaer and the outgoing executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward has been described as key for the Sancho and Varane signings, with support provided by the scouting, analysis and negotiation departments.
And despite losses of approximately £150m at Old Trafford over the course of the pandemic, Varane’s imminent arrival will raise United’s net investment in the playing squad to £293m over the last three years – more than any other major European club. It does not necessarily represent the close of United’s trading, either. Kieran Trippier remains under consideration as an alternative to Aaron Wan-Bissaka at right-back and the need for another midfielder has not been lost on senior decision-makers.
Yet having moved relatively freely so far this summer, United’s window now enters a very different and potentially more difficult phase. Both the Sancho and Varane deals were completed according to strict budgets. Financial sustainability is of paramount importance to a club that has gone 16 months with barely any matchday revenue. In short, this all means that any further incomings will almost certainly depend on outgoings.
United are not short on players who could leave, at least. Paul Pogba is the most valuable of those but has entered the last year of his contract and there has been a lack of progress in negotiations over a new deal. Paris Saint-Germain are expected to act on their longstanding interest and make an approach in coming weeks. Any offer is unlikely to top €50m (£42.5m) and certain to be substantially less than the then world-record fee United paid for Pogba five years ago.
Jesse Lingard is another who could leave. His stock has risen since impressing on loan at West Ham, though he too has entered the final year of his contract, and it is unclear whether or not he is part of Solskjaer’s long-term thinking. David de Gea’s position is uncertain too, though his wages may prohibit any permanent move. Daniel James has top-flight admirers. The departures of Diogo Dalot, Andreas Pereira and other fringe members of Solskjaer’s squad could potentially raise funds.
Yet even if buyers can be found for those players, United need to negotiate acceptable fees and the market is slow. The predicament that selling clubs face this summer was laid out neatly by Ralph Hasenhuttl earlier this month. “At the moment, in the transfer market, it’s always the same,” the Southampton manager said. “Everybody wants players; nobody has money. Everybody wants to have the most money for his players when he wants to sell it and that keeps everything on hold.”
Stuart Webber, Norwich’s sporting director and one of the most well-respected in the role across English football, believes the defining characteristic of the present market is “paranoia”. The pandemic has affected clubs in different ways and valuations fluctuate as a result. “People are concerned about selling at the wrong price and that player being worth a lot more in six weeks’ time,” he said. “You can feel that paranoia from clubs, which I really understand.”
And going by recent history, United could improve at maximising revenue from player sales. Many of those to leave Old Trafford during Solskjaer’s time have departed for nominal fees due to high salaries and dwindling contracts. Together, the departures of Marouane Fellaini, Matteo Darmian, Ashley Young, Alexis Sanchez, Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Marcos Rojo brought in around £15m – less than Liverpool received for Rhian Brewster from Sheffield United last summer, with another £8m in change.
Even the largest fee received during Solskjaer’s time in charge – the £74m paid by Internazionale for Romelu Lukaku – represented a small loss on his move from Everton and, in retrospect, looks a little on the cheap side. Lukaku is now considered one of European football’s leading strikers, after all, with an asking price stretching into nine figures. As one source close to the United squad puts it: “You don’t just judge a club on how they buy, you judge them on how they sell.”
Whatever happens between now and 31 August’s deadline, United’s window will rightly be deemed a success and a vindication of the new internal structure in place. Those other signings are still necessary, though, and will rely upon the Old Trafford hierarchy navigating a challenging marketplace. United have done brilliantly to make a difficult transfer window look easy up to this point, securing two potentially transformational signings, but they may find the next month is the hardest part.
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