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Manchester United look set for a drawn out summer transfer window

United are one of the few expected big buyers in the market, but everyone is waiting for the first domino to fall

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There used to be a time when Ed Woodward was actually able to move somewhat swiftly in the transfer market. Manchester United’s Executive Vice President had a disastrous first season in charge, but by year two had begun showing signs that not every deal would drag on all summer.

That summer Ander Herrera was signed on June 26th. Two days later Luke Shaw followed. A year later Memphis Depay announced his move to United on May 7th. On July 13th, the club announced the signings of both Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger.

Woodward also worked quickly when José Mourinho came aboard. Less than two weeks after hiring Mourinho, United had signed Eric Bailly. Zlatan Ibrahimović signed on July 1st, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan arrived five days later.

This seems hard to believe now. Recency bias plays a big role in this, but it’s hard to remember United moving quickly to sign anyone of late. Since 2017/18 United’s earliest signings have come in early July (Victor Lindelöf on July 1, Romelu Lukaku on July 10, Diogo Dalot on July 1, Fred on July 1, Lee Grant on July 3). United were reportedly close to finalizing the Daniel James deal on May 10 last year, but even that dragged on until June 12 (albeit that was partially due to James’ personal situation).

Aaron Wan-Bissaka was a priority signing for United last season. Everyone knew it would happen and it still dragged on until June 29th. United opened the dialogue for their number one transfer target, Harry Maguire, in May. That negotiation still dragged all way the way until the 5th of August, six days before United’s first match of the season, and even then Maguire had to “call out from a training session to push it through.

One of the reasons these negotiations drag on is the “Manchester United premium.” Clubs know that United have money and make United pay more. United don’t want to be taken advantage of and thus try to negotiate it down. That didn’t work with Harry Maguire of course, but it might have with Bruno Fernandes.

There’s a strong perception among many that Bruno Fernandes’ negotiations last January dragged on a few weeks longer than necessary, but United ended up paying less than Sporting’s asking price. If true, that’s a good job by United’s negotiators, but it likely cost the team a few points in the table, and possibly a trip to the Carabao Cup final.

In the past year, Woodward has done nothing to alter the perception that he can’t efficiently get transfers done. In fact, he made it worse in December when he was quoted as saying that signing players is hard.

“‘It’s hard enough to get three players done in a transfer window. ‘To get six or seven done is extremely difficult if you are getting proper talent.”

Those comments look even worse when you look at a club like Borussia Dortmund who announced four new signings less than two weeks after the Bundesliga season ended last season.

This season, there’s been a lot of chatter about United restructuring their recruitment strategy. The recruitment is now handled primarily by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Mike Phelan, and United’s increased scouting department. The negotiations are headed by Matt Judge. Woodward has taken more of a backseat. The long-rumored director of football still hasn’t appointed, but at least this is a step in the right direction.

The restructure has given fans a twinge of hope that maybe United will be able to move quickly this summer. The Athletic reports that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer met with transfer target Timo Werner in Berlin back in February. The club have been in constant contact with Jadon Sancho for months.

This should be easy. United want Sancho, Sancho wants to join United. While personal terms haven’t officially been agreed upon, it’s been reported it’s a non-issue with the two sides on the same page. United also want Jack Grealish. Grealish too wants a move to Old Trafford. Ideally, it shouldn’t be hard to get these deals done quickly.

Unfortunately, it’s not an ideal world.

On Thursday afternoon it was reported that RB Leipzig striker Timo Werner would be signing for Chelsea. Huh? Chelsea?

Werner going to Chelsea caught many by surprise. The German striker was heavily linked with a move to Liverpool as he was Jurgen Klopp’s top transfer target and the striker himself was keen on a move to Merseyside. Werner has a £54 million release clause that needs to be triggered by June 15th.

According to The Athletic “Chelsea moved swiftly when an opportunity presented itself.” That shows you the value of being able to move quickly.

With Werner’s saga now over it was only natural for some to start wondering if United would move to officially lock up Sancho — the Bundesliga’s other hot commodity this summer — sooner rather than later.

The answer to that is: probably not. And Werner going to Chelsea only further complicates the matter. Werner didn’t just go to Chelsea because they moved in quickly. He went there because Liverpool pulled out.

From that same Athletic piece.

Werner set Liverpool a separate deadline to make a final decision on whether they were prepared to meet his release clause. Klopp consulted with Fenway Sports Group, then called the striker to explain why the move would not happen. Sources have told The Athletic that the Liverpool manager insisted the reasoning was purely financial, rather than any negative reflection on the player or his proposed role in Klopp’s squad.

That’s a big deal. Back in April when the club reversed their decision to utilize the government’s furlough scheme, Liverpool chief executive Peter Moore warned of “unprecedented operating losses” as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, Liverpool, the European Champions and the team about to win the Premier League, can’t afford the £50 million release clause for Werner. This is probably entirely COVID-19 related, but the fact that last fall FSG’s other team, the Boston Red Sox, traded MLB MVP Mookie Betts so they wouldn’t have to pay him next summer, makes you think. Even if it’s just a bit.

If Liverpool don’t have money, who does?

Manchester United do. By the same token as Liverpool, United’s owners have signaled their strong financial position as their other team, the Tampa Bay Bucaneers, have shelled out big money this spring signing Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski.

They’ve also made this clear throughout this lockdown. They’ve almost made it too clear, which means the United premium looks set to come roaring back.

We’ve already seen it with nearly all of United’s transfer targets. Borussia Dortmund have already said they won’t lower their asking price on Sancho. Aston Villa have slapped an £80 million price tag on Jack Grealish. Birmingham City want more money up front for Jude Bellingham. Napoli still want around £80 million for Kalidou Koulibaly while Bayer Leverkusen are looking for £90 million for Kai Havertz.

All those prices will come down eventually. They have to. Clubs need money. That was made especially clear by Leipzig who originally supported Werner’s plan to either go to Anfield this summer or stay in Leipzig for another season — even though his release clause would be £25 million less in 2021. According to The Athletic, the loss of revenues from the pandemic meant that the club needed to sell Werner this years no matter what, even if it’s not to his preferred destination.

If Leipzig, a top four team in the Bundesliga and a team still in the Champions League, need money that badly than so do all these other clubs. United will likely give Birmingham City more money up front in exchange for less money overall. That’s a strategy that many teams will likely employ. Or the reverse could be true. Clubs may take smaller increments of payment over more time so they can say they sold for the full number.

The thing is, no one wants to be first.

Say Aston Villa realize relegation is a certainty and the lack of match-day revenue means they need to sell Grealish no matter what, and they’re willing to go as low as £25-£30 million for him. They’re not going to agree to that deal until they see other players move for reduced prices.

On the other side, say BVB are in a position where they don’t have to sell Sancho this year and can hold out for their asking price. United decide that despite the effects of the coronavirus they can afford that full price for Sancho, knowing they’ll probably get other players at a discount.

Should that happen, it can’t be announced anytime soon. If it is, all United’s other transfer plans immediately go up in smoke. If Villa see United spending £100 million on Jadon Sancho, there’s no way in hell they’re lowering their asking price for Grealish. They’ll drag it on and on until the very end when they know they have to sell.

And thus, it becomes a waiting game. Werner moved early because he had a release clause with an expiration date. For everyone else, clubs will wait for the dominos to fall. That’s probably going to take a while, and it means we’re set for another year of Manchester United’s transfer business dragging on and on.