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Manchester United are damned if they do, damned if they don’t

United are trying to operate sensibly in the transfer market, but are handicapped by the ramifications of their past mistakes

Manchester United Women v Lewes Women - WSL Photo by John Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images

If there’s one thing Ed Woodward and Matt Judge did a fantastic job of this summer it was destroying all the goodwill that had been built up at the end of last season.

Breakout years from Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford. Teenager Mason Greenwood replacing Romelu Lukaku and scoring 18 goals. Finishing third in the league with a paper-thin squad and reaching three cup semifinals, showing that Manchester United could compete on all fronts.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer came in with a three year rebuilding plan, and by all accounts year one couldn’t have gone any better.

Now it was time for year two. Supplement the existing pieces and fill in some holes. United would be bringing in Jadon Sancho — something that everyone knew would happen as far back as last September. When Solskjaer needed the reinforcements of Bruno Fernandes in January, the board delivered. Surely they’d deliver again this summer.

Yet here we are, over a week into the season, mere days away from the transfer window shutting, and Jadon Sancho still isn’t here. In fact, only one new player is here. It’s unacceptable.

It’s reasonable that fans are hysterical right now, but many fans were acting just as hysterically on August 15th when the transfer window had been open for just two weeks, already assuming United wouldn’t sign anyone — a naive assumption.

With United not having a preseason, what difference does it make if they sign someone on August 15th or August 28th? Getting the new signings in by the first game of the season was a priority. If they didn’t get them in time, there’s a level of failure to that, but all that mattered was that they were signed before October 5th.

I did believe United would get it done before the season started. Some fans believed that “United won’t sign anyone because Woodward never gets anything done,” but the recent history says completely otherwise.

Woodward has made plenty of mistakes in his job — mistakes that United are still paying for. In fact, he’s made enough mistakes that he shouldn’t even hold his job anymore. But he does, and that’s probably not going to change because he makes the Glazers a ton of money. So in that regard, all we can hope for is that he’s learned from his mistakes and doesn’t repeat them.

It had started to look like he has. Earlier in the summer, I wrote about how over the past four years Woodward has gotten United’s business done on time. Yes, the big deals like Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku, and Harry Maguire dragged on all summer, but in the meantime Eric Bailly, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Victor Lindelöf, Nemanja Matić, Fred*, Diogo Dalot*, Daniel James, and Aaron Wan-Bissaka were all signed before preseason training began. The last player Woodward had signed after the season already began was Anthony Martial in 2015.

There was good logical reason to believe that trend would continue this year. And now, I must say to Ed Woodward: thank you for making me look oh so foolish. I really appreciate it.

The attitude around this club has been toxic since the hiring of the great divider José Mourinho but for as bad as that period was, the toxicity has never been worse than this past summer. It got to the point where last week the club criticized their fans for their online negativity, claiming that it’s not easy to get transfers done and asking fans to be patient.

Let me be clear: YOU. CAN. NOT. DO. THAT.

A professional organization should NEVER turn around and throw the blame onto their supporters/customers. Ever.

But while United should never be briefing criticism of their fans to the media, that doesn’t mean that their words were actually wrong. Transfers are complicated, there are a lot of moving pieces, and fans do need to be patient.

It turns out that there is a section of the United fanbase who are loud hypocrites. They want a long term plan, but they also want to react to what just happened. When Andy Mitten shares tidbits like this, it only causes more anger.

Don’t get me wrong. Not responding to the player’s agent is unprofessional and disrespectful. But not dropping everything to sign a player who was suddenly offered to you (and United get plenty of players offered to them) isn’t a bad thing. If that offered player wasn’t part of your plan, his availability shouldn’t cause you to abandon your plan just to sign him.

Perhaps it’s not that the fans want United to have a long term plan, it’s that they want the club to have their long term plan.

There is a non-zero chance that United don’t have any sort of long term plan. There is a much greater non-zero chance that they do. Even if Woodward and co. don’t have a long term plan, we very much know that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer does. The story of Woodward walking into Solskjaer’s office after just a few days and being shown Solskjaer’s vision for what the team will look like in three years isn’t a myth — it’s been reported on by every media outlet that covers the sport.

So if Woodward doesn’t have a plan, at least Ole does. You (I’m speaking to both Mr. Woodward and the fans here) should trust that process because so far he’s given you no reason not to.

Those fans call for a plan but as soon as the club loses 3-1 to Crystal Palace — their first loss in 14 league matches — they’re already calling for Ole’s head. Ole has a plan for how to use his goalkeepers this year, but as soon as Dean Henderson makes one save in keeping a clean sheet over bloody Luton Town there are already fans calling to abandon that plan and throw Henderson in goal for the Premier League.

It’s hard to imagine that there isn’t a long term plan. Ever since Woodward has taken over, the issue hasn’t been a lack of long term planning, the issue has been not sticking to that plan. The club hired David Moyes on a six year contract. They changed their minds 10 months later. The plan when they hired Louis van Gaal was another six year plan — Van Gaal would manage for three years and then turn things over to Ryan Giggs for three years. They abandoned that plan after two years. At least Mourinho was only hired on a three year plan (before the club gave him a dubious extension) and they managed to get 75 percent of the way there before realizing this wasn’t it.

United in the post Sir Alex Ferguson era have done almost nothing but make mistakes. They’ve made hiring mistakes, they’ve made signing mistakes, they’ve made financial mistakes. All those mistakes have long term ramifications.

Those ramifications are being felt right now. Their bad signings and even more dubious contract extensions have put them in financial hell. It gives them very little flexibility in the market. COVID-19 has only made those problems even worse. United boast about being one of the richest clubs in the world but there’s a difference between being rich and being liquid. The two clubs above them in the Deloitte money rankings — Real Madrid and Barcelona — also don’t have any cash to spend this summer.

Ed Woodward started his career by getting taken advantage of in the transfer market, over and over again earning him a reputation as someone who could be had. Changing that reputation is not easy to do. United need to be tough; not just show a willingness to walk away from a deal, but to actually walk away from it. They did this last December with Erling Haaland. The parameters of the deal didn’t work for them so they walked away. They were slagged off by their fans for missing out on him.

They walked away from Sergio Reguilon because it was a bad deal. Making yet another bad deal would be worse long term for the club than not making any deal. This caused the fans to only grow more hysterical. Literally a day later every credible journalist reported that United were already in advanced negotiations with Alex Telles. Guess they had a plan.

But Telles of course hasn’t signed yet, because United and Porto are £6m apart on their valuation for the player. And you’ll never believe this, but that has caused the hysterics to come back!

United value Telles at around £12 million, which the player agrees with. Porto want £18m. That’s a 40 percent increase over United’s valuation! There was no price tag placed on Telles before he started being linked to United. Therefore it’s entirely possible that Porto’s valuation of the player was right in the £12m-£14m range, but when they heard United were involved they cranked up their price.

This is exactly what United are fighting against. The Manchester United tax. £6m may seem like they’re fighting over pennies, but United need to be firm on the small deals just as much as the big deals. If United just paid the £18m no questions asked, teams would just continue to massively raise their valuations when United come calling (looking at you Aston Villa).

United are still squabbling with AS Roma about the Chris Smalling sale over just a few million. United need to sell Smalling. It’ll give them a lot more flexibility, but he’s also their best saleable asset. They shouldn’t accept a bad deal.

If it takes them a few weeks longer to sign Telles for the right terms then so be it. The short term loss is worth the long term gain. If they can’t come to an agreement, they may have to walk away to show they will no longer be bullied.

But despite these good reasons to not budge, United need players to improve the squad. It’s a double edged sword — they’ll be damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

Nowhere is this more true than with Jadon Sancho.

At this point United HAVE to sign Sancho. They’ve let it drag on all summer for various reasons, but Sancho is Solskjaer’s number 1 target. You can’t promise the manager that you’ll deliver and then not deliver. You can’t fail to bring in his biggest target and then claim you’re backing him.

There are no alternatives to Sancho. There are inferior players on the right wing; young players with potential. But none of those 20 year olds are what Jadon Sancho already is at 20 years old.

There will be an unrecoverable amount of egg on United’s face if they don’t get this deal done.

Personal terms with the player have reportedly already been agreed, but the fee with Dortmund has not. Back in July there were reports that the fee had been agreed, but then Woodward went back to try and lower the upfront cost in order to conserve part of the budget for other signings. If this is true, United have the money for Sancho, and if they can’t get that initial price down they’ll pay it. But if they knew this was the price back in July, why didn’t they pay it then?

Of course had they done that and used up all their available money, they’d still be damned for not signing anyone else. Because of a series of past mistakes and abandoned plans, United just can’t win.