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Ed Woodward’s dragged out Manchester United transfers: Strong negotiating or incompetence?

Woodward gets a bad rap for not being to complete big transfer deals. Does he deserve it?


Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

We are the fools. Silly us. We allowed ourselves to believe that, given Jadon Sancho has been Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s number one target for over a year, and that personal terms have long been reported to be done, Manchester United would wrap up a Jadon Sancho transfer pretty quickly.

It’s like we learned nothing from Harry Maguire.

This is what Manchester United fans have come to expect. While other clubs take care of their transfer business quickly, United’s seem to constantly drag along. Harry Maguire was targeted early in the window last year but didn’t arrive until August 5th. Bruno Fernandes’ saga dragged on all through January, likely costing United points in the table and possibly a place in the Carabao Cup final.

Despite successive managers publicly pleading to get United’s incoming signings done before preseason, year after year the biggest one keeps dragging on. Given there’s been little — if any — improvement on that front in the seven years Ed Woodward has been on the job, the whole thing reeks of incompetence.

It’s not as simple as that.

Since Ed Woodward was named United’s executive vice chairman, he has turned United into a commercial juggernaut. The club has an official sponsor for everything. They’ve got money coming in from every direction possible. They bring in more commercial revenue than any other club in the world. That’s something that Woodward has bragged about, as he should. It’s quite the accomplishment.

But when you publicly brag about how commercially successful you are, the public knows that you’re printing money, and part of the public are other football clubs.

And now that they know you have money, they want some of it. Ousmane Dembele and Coutinho were not £100m+ players, but Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool knew that Barcelona were sitting on €220 million of Neymar money. They wanted their share of that.

Thus, the “premium” for teams that have money is born. That leaves Woodward with the unenviable task of having to knock that premium down for every transfer he tries to make.

When selling teams aren’t in dire need of money, it makes it even more difficult. Leicester City didn’t need money, so they didn’t need to sell Maguire unless their valuation was met. Last year Sporting reportedly were in discussions with Tottenham over Bruno Fernandes, with the valuation being around €40-€50 million. Sporting needed the money and knew they had to sell, but when Fernandes signed a new contract that gave them the ability to raise their asking price a bit into the region of €65 million.

But when Manchester United came calling? Well, suddenly Sporting now wanted €80 million.

The negotiations dragged on for a painfully long time in January. That was partially because Sporting wanted Fernandes to play in their upcoming derby, and partially because Ed Woodward knew he had to set a tone. He wasn’t going to publicly be bullied on transfer fees.

In the end, United signed Fernandes for €55 million (about £47 million). That fee can rise to €80 million if certain incentives are hit. Already some of the incentives have hit (Champions League qualification) increasing the fee to €65 million, with the rest being based on individual success.

That’s a win for both sides. United can say they knocked the price down, while Sporting can say they held firm and didn’t sell until United offered up the full €80 million.

That seems to be exactly what’s happening with the Jadon Sancho transfer. At the end of the day, United are going to “pay” Borussia Dortmund the €120 million asking price. What they’re now haggling over is how much are they actually going to pay up front and how much will be incentive-based.

It’s all about PR. When Borussia Dortmund slapped a €120 million price tag on Sancho, United simply couldn’t say “sure, we’ll pay that.” That would set a terrible precedent for the future as teams would just add more money to their price tags than they already do (just look at Aston Villa, slapping an £80m tag onto Jack Grealish).

On the other side, there’s Borussia Dortmund. Everyone knows they’re a selling club. But they can’t just let all the big clubs come in and easily poach their players. They need to hold their ground too.

If they bend too quickly to United trying to lower the price, that looks bad for them. They need to appear to be coming from a position of strength. Eventually they’ll work something out, the deal will get done and BVB will be able to turn to their fanbase and say “we held firm until United ponied up the €120 million.”

The rest is all just noise. It’s all part of playing the game. Michael Zorc’s comments about Dortmund planning on having Sancho around next season? He said the same thing about Ousmane Dembele.

The reality is Dortmund have already begun preparing for life after Sancho. They promoted Gio Reyna to the first team in January. After lockdown they started phasing Sancho out of their first XI. But by keeping him around for the preseason and playing him in their friendlies they can still claim “we were planning on having him this season but then Man United met our asking price.”

Technically, BVB still “win” this transfer. Everyone will remember the €120 million whether or not that amount actually changes hands.

The selling club always makes out better and Woodward has succeeded there. He got £67 million out of Inter for Romelu Lukaku despite having very little leverage.

But that one went down to the wire too. That’s just the way these big deals work. As annoying as it is to not get the players in before preseason Woodward does get them in before the season. The last big signing United made after the season had already started was Anthony Martial in 2016.

The problem Woodward currently deals with — from the fanbase — is the perception that he can only work on one deal at a time. Woodward has done nothing to alleviate that perception — in fact he’s probably only made it worse.

That’s caused a fear this season that if the Sancho deal doesn’t get done United won’t end up signing anyone. This year is a weird transfer window, and I know it certainly feels different, but there isn’t any precedence for thinking this will be the case. Quite the opposite actually.

In 2016 Paul Pogba was the #1 guy. We knew about this from the moment the season ended. Talks began right at the start of the window but the transfer wasn’t completed until August 9th — four days before the season began. United still signed Eric Bailly, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Zlatan Ibrahimović in between.

Last year the club began negotiations for Harry Maguire in May. That deal didn’t go through until August 5th — four days before the season began. They still got Daniel James and Aaron Wan-Bissaka in before they left for their preseason tour.

It’s annoying to not get these deals done early and the manager can certainly get frustrated to not have these players in during preseason but Pogba (albeit after a one game suspension), Maguire, and Fernandes all went straight into the team merely days after they signed. They all fit right in immediately. Jadon Sancho would too.

It may seem like this only happens to United but it doesn’t. It took Barcelona a while to pry Dembele away from Dortmund. It took them half a season to get Coutinho. It took Liverpool half a season to get Virgil van Dijk. It took a year for Real Madrid to finally close the Eden Hazard deal. Chelsea didn’t close the Kepa deal until days before the season (and they probably wish they hadn’t).

Not everyone can be Manchester City. They can move swiftly because money is no obstacle for them. £50 million for John Stones? Sure. £41 million for Nathan Ake? No problem. Who cares what kind of precedent it sets because whatever price you quote City will just pay.

The biggest deals take the most time. That’s just the way it works. You have two teams looking to find an arrangement that works for both sides, while also needing to come out of the negotiation without looking like they got bullied.

Woodward has to get this deal done. Sancho is United’s #1 target and he has been for some time. Solskjaer has been planning this for over a year, and if Woodward can’t deliver then that’s a major knock on him.

It’s going to drag out, but that’s the nature of these things. Big money deals taking a long time to complete doesn’t make Ed Woodward incompetent. Not being able to complete smaller deals in the meantime and coming away with nothing? That would.