Sir Alex Ferguson once said the best run clubs are those that sit back and watch the ‘chaos’ unfold in the dying hours of a transfer window, for it is traditionally during the final stages of panic that the most desperate decisions are made.
No prizes then for guessing what the Scot may have made of his former club’s antics on deadline day in October, when no less than four players were signed in a frantic late push by the board to bolster Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s squad.
The new recruits comprised of second choice target Alex Telles, the talented but inexperienced Amad Diallo, the untested Facundo Pellestri and 33-year-old Edinson Cavani.
The suspension of the Premier League season last term gave United ample opportunity to identify targets and though there was a lingering uncertainly over the course of Project Restart given United only secured a top four finish on the final day, Solskjaer spoke about using the club’s wealth to ‘exploit’ the market.
The Norwegian had identified three priority positions for investment: left-back, centre forward and right midfield. Of the three areas, Solskjaer was denied his first choice in each.
It felt like United’s sole aim for much of the summer was to sign Jadon Sancho from Dortmund but even taking into account the financial climate, Solskjaer is entitled to feel he wasn’t backed by his board in a move for the England international.
As exclusively revealed by Metro.co.uk, Solskjaer had identified Sancho as a priority target just a month into his stint in charge at Old Trafford, meaning the club had 18 months between identifying the winger and attempting to sign him last summer.
United were fully aware of Dortmund’s £108m asking price before the end of the Premier League season but they entered into a game of bluff with the Bundesliga club over the asking price, believing that they could talk the Germans down as the clock ticked closer to the transfer deadline. Dortmund stood firm.
The club left it until the final 72 hours of the window before conceding defeat on Sancho and moving onto the likes of Diallo and Pellestri, who cost a combined £47m.
It was not the first time the club had failed to sign Solskjaer’s first choice: it wasn’t even the first time that week. After a month of drawn out negotiations with Porto, United finally agreed to meet the Portuguese club halfway by settling on a £13.6m fee for Telles. The full-back had already missed four matches of the season by the time of his arrival but it was Spanish left-back Sergio Reguilon that had been Solskjaer’s preferred choice.
Real Madrid made it clear that they were willing to sell the 23-year-old in August but United refused to agree to inserting a buy-back clause in the defender’s deal. United’s loss was Spurs’ gain, with the defender already proving a fans’ favourite in north London.
If Telles’ arrival went somewhat under the radar, it was only because it was overshadowed by the signing of Cavani. The 33-year-old signed a two-year deal on deadline day and was handed the coveted no.7 shirt – which had been lined up for Sancho.
While the Uruguayan provides good competition for the likes of Anthony Martial and is an upgrade on Odion Ighalo, sources have told Metro.co.uk that United declined the opportunity to sign Cavani in the January transfer window.
The striker was offered to United by Paris Saint-Germain when Solskjaer was desperately searching for a back-up centre forward but United refused to pay a fee for the former Napoli striker given he was soon to be out of contract and baulked at his £280,000-a-week wage demands.
Though Cavani is on significantly less than that now at the Theatre of Dreams, the nature of his arrival raises serious question marks over the club’s lack of preparation and ability to negotiate deals. The striker was signed so late into the window that he was unable to feature against Newcastle because he had to self-isolate for two weeks to follow Covid-19 protocols but most alarming is the fact that as a free agent, he could have been signed far sooner had he been a genuine target.
Solskjaer made it clear to his board towards the end of last season that Ighalo was not seen as a long-term option to provide back-up to Martial but ironically it was another failure in the market that saw the Nigerian arrive in the first place.
Solskjaer believed a deal for RB Salzburg striker Erling Haaland was ‘boxed off’ in December 2019 after the pair met to discuss a move to Old Trafford. The 20-year-old was given his Molde debut by Solskjaer and Haaland was keen to move to the Premier League after a sensational start to the season in Austria.
Flash forward less than a month and Haaland was a Dortmund player. As was the case with Reguilon, United refused to include a release clause in Haaland’s contract and they missed out on Solskjaer’s first choice as a result.
United’s track record in the market since Ferguson’s retirement has been abysmal and even when the club have got it right, their failures have cast a cloud over promising acquisitions.
Donny van de Beek’s arrival was widely lauded last summer but Solskjaer has faced relentless questioning over his handling of the Dutchman, who is yet to start a Premier League match for the club. In years gone by the 23-year-old would have been afforded a settling in period at Old Trafford but there is no room for slow starts at a club that’s spent close to £1billion in the last seven years.
That such an encouraging signing is already being spoken about in negative terms is a legacy of the club’s failures in the transfer market, showing how easily optimism can dissipate when the foundations are not in place for players to thrive.
United entered the season under a cloud of negativity and Solskjaer must take responsibility for the club’s dismal start to the campaign but like his predecessors Jose Mourinho and David Moyes, the Norwegian has been a victim of the club’s lack of expertise in navigating the transfer market.
Unlike Mourinho, Solskjaer has kept his anger in private but he shares many of the same reservations that the Portuguese had about United’s board. Solskjaer was the only United player to speak out against the Glazers’ ownership while he was a player at Old Trafford but he knows doing so now would cost him his job, even if his grievances are valid.
Though the club denied they were ready to sack Solskjaer if United had lost to Everton last Saturday, there’s no denying the Norwegian is running out of chances at Old Trafford, particularly with Mauricio Pochettino waiting in the wings.
But it’s no coincidence that managers with far greater experience and expertise have experienced the same struggles as Solskjaer has in the last 18 months.
Perhaps it’s time that there was change at board level, rather than in the dugout.
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