Manchester United’s Ole Gunnar Solskjaer-led overhaul continued this January with the signing of highly-praised attacking midfielder Bruno Fernandes. The new no. 18 at Old Trafford addresses arguably the biggest weakness in a full-strength United starting lineup: the no. 10 role. However, United’s overhaul is still far from completion, with midfield depth and right wing still big issues for the Reds on a regular basis.
There are several reasons to doubt United’s ability to keep the marquee signings coming when the next transfer window opens in the summer, but if they truly hope to make up ground on their rivals they cannot have another summer window of lengthy negotiations or they will once again face a long season of inconsistency with a shallow depth chart.
Fernandes is the latest big money addition to United’s squad, and the pressure is on to succeed after several big misses. Alexis Sánchez and Ángel Dí Maria headline the list of failures, particularly because of the financial hit caused by each. Alexis’ wages were especially hefty for his nearly nonexistent output, and proved costly in what would be José Mourinho’s last summer window in 2018. Mourinho made no effort to hide his displeasure with the lack of key signings, creating a toxic atmosphere and a massive drop off in form from the year before, resulting in his sacking.
Solskjaer began his overhaul by trying to ship out some costly dead weight. Romelu Lukaku didn’t turn a profit, but brought a decent return fee from Inter Milan; money which the club was able to put toward the signing of Harry Maguire. Ashley Young followed Lukaku to Inter this January, freeing up some more wage space, and Chris Smalling and Alexis were both loaned to Italy as well, though both are likely at least partially still on the wage bill.
Unfortunately, even as the wages shrink and players are moved out, United’s budget could be more limited than it was before. The club is taking a hit financially each season that it misses out on the Champions League, something that could very well happen again next season. The owners and investors are reportedly unwilling to spend more at the moment, citing that City and Liverpool are too far ahead of them anyway. United have only just recently added an analytics team to their scouting division, which is a positive change, but far behind the times.
Jadon Sancho is reportedly a target again, but would certainly cost a fortune just from the fee alone. Champions League football is also likely needed to convince him to leave the comfort of Borussia Dortmund, who are mounting a title challenge for a second straight season. January miss-out Erling Haaland is also tearing it up at Dortmund, and he will likely have an enormous buy-out if United were to come calling again.
James Maddison, Jack Grealish, and Kai Havertz headline other targets to discuss, but of course they’ll cost quite a bit of money too, and all of it rests upon whether anyone actually wants to come play for Manchester United by the time this season ends. The club may have to resort to chasing second choice targets.
Of course, money needs to be spent to improve this team, which has been shambolic at times this season, and even more may need to be spent if the decision is made to yet again change managers in the summer. Given the series of failed appointments — and inconsistent backing in the transfer market — the United manager’s job is arguably as undesirable as it’s ever been. For a marquee appointment like Mauricio Pochettino, new signings would have to be guaranteed, something which notoriously bad negotiator Ed Woodward likely can’t do. United’s best midfielder and current want-away, Paul Pogba, could be sold to bring in some extra cash in the summer, but it doesn’t seem as though the clubs that can afford him are willing to pay his set price. And even if he is sold, there is a possibility Woodward may have already spent that incoming fee preemptively on Bruno.
To attract the right players, and be able to afford them, United must return to the Champions League. However, with Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford at risk of being out for the season, United are in real danger of failing to capitalize on a struggling Chelsea, injury-ridden Tottenham, and (pending appeal) a banned Manchester City. A big 2-0 win at Stamford Bridge was important for the morale of the squad, and they followed it up with a comfortable 3-0 win over Watford, but too many times we’ve seen Solskjaer’s United stumble after big wins and fail to keep momentum going. A poor showing in a 1-1 draw with Everton at Goodison Park wasn’t a worst case scenario, but once again saw Solskjaer out-managed in an important fixture in the race for European qualification.
Unless there is a big turnaround on the pitch from the current inconsistency, it could be yet another disappointing window as United continue a slip into obscurity. The fact of the matter is that United’s name alone won’t always attract big name players, and the outcome of this season will have a significant impact on who they can bring in. It could well be Champions League or the sack for Solskjaer, who has quite the task if he wants to see out his rebuild.