Down The Wings

Manchester United Fan Blog

Where Manchester United Lost The Transfer Window

The Premier League’s Summer transfer deadline day is behind us, 59 days later than last season, and so it’s finally time to tally up the hits and misses and assess who outsmarted who during this historic window. 

(All transfer fees mentioned are as found on Transfermarkt.)

The COVID-19 Window”

First and foremost, this was no regular transfer window for several reasons ranging from the very obvious (COVID-19’s financial effects) to the less eye-catching (for the first time since 2017, the season started before the market closed). Obviously, a lot of clubs would have a hard time finding value under such extraordinary circumstances. Many haven’t. 

But crises do tend to lure into the limelight the more creative and savvy boardrooms and coaching teams capable of spotting opportunities where others can only see roadblocks, and using it to their club’s long-term advantage. 

Just as well, then, as Warren Buffett says, does the low tide reveal who has been swimming naked. 

Intelligence over Cash

Four Premier League clubs with the fanbase and financial means to spend heavily, did so exceptionally wisely. Tottenham, Liverpool, Arsenal and Everton are the four clubs that deserve most credit for how they handled “the COVID window” and will probably reap the benefits for seasons to come. Just to be clear, we’ll only be talking about arrivals in this article, not departures. 

Other clubs have also been smart, of course. Aston Villa have probably landed the most important deal they could in extending Jack Grealish’s contract. Ross Barkley, Emiliano Martinez, Ollie Watkins and Bertrand Traoré also proved fine additions to their squad, and their 7-2 thrashing of Liverpool implies at least something is going right. Sheffield United, too, have made smart additions to their squad. 

But the four big-time winners do stand out. No, Liverpool has not performed well despite key arrivals. And no, we didn’t get to see Gareth Bale back on the pitch in a Tottenham shirt just yet. 

What is most striking is that these four clubs have two things in common. Two very basic ingredients that seem to be drivers in their transfer market successes this window. It’s tempting to think of the transfer market as a crapshoot, that could go anyone’s way. But there is definitely a good way, and a bad way to approach it.

1. The Manager – Director of Football Partnership

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The first thing these clubs share is a tandem of a negotiator/football director type executive and a coach with a clear vision, working on the same wavelength.

Arteta and Edu are on the same page, identify targets together and devise a strategy to acquire those targets. Arguably their most important achievement has been to get Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to “sign da ting,” but renewed deals for Martinelli and Saka, as well as securing the arrivals of Willian, Gabriel Magalhães and Thomas Partey will strengthen this squad greatly and provides an exciting look into the future of Artetaball. Arsenal also has the only departure worth a mention here, as they have managed to get Matteo Guendouzi out the door.

Ancelotti, Moshiri and Brands have directed all their strengths into what must be one of Everton’s greatest ever transfer windows, bringing in James Rodriguez, Allan, Doucouré, Ben Godfrey, Robin Olsen and exciting prospect Niels Nkounkou. Everton looks transformed into a genuine top 3 contender.

Jurgen Klopp and Michael Edwards ruthlessly and single-mindedly look for and find value often where no one else is looking. They are unafraid to walk away from a deal they feel is overvalued; they are equally unafraid to act if an expensive deal is the right one for them to make. Thiago, Tsimikas and Diogo Jota are both surprising and exciting acquisitions for a club that clearly remains highly ambitious and wary of becoming predictable – even if they are not performing well right now. 

Daniel Levy, while obviously Spurs’ general chairman, could easily get a job as director of football at just about any European top-tier club – and then they still have Steve Hitchen, and recently, Trevor Birch pitching in. While Mourinho was told there wouldn’t be any budget available for a major squad overhaul this Summer, Levy was smart enough to recognize there were bargains to be made in the uncertainty of the COVID-19 window. Spurs signed Sergio Réguilon, a hijacked Manchester United deal, as well as Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Matt Doherty, Carlos Vinicius, Joe Hart, and the great homecoming of Gareth Bale on a season-long loan. Where Tottenham looked properly lost at times during 2019-20, Bale’s arrival seems to have made Son play as if possessed, Kane has started delivering goal after assist after goal, new arrivals have strengthened in critical areas, and even Tanguy Ndombele has started to unlock himself and jump right into the first-team midfield. 

2. Long-term Footballing Vision

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The second element these four clubs share tends to come with the first (but not necessarily so), and helps shape and solidify the manager – DOF collaboration. 

These four clubs all operate on a long-term vision, which they translate into a plan of action which they can execute during the transfer window. This limits the chances of emotion taking over, even as deadline day approaches. Meaning: less panic buying, and in theory, a more rational, coherent and integrated approach to recruitment. 

Because of the high stakes, the small pool of talent, and the complexities of dealing with people as though they were commodities, the transfer market is full of pitfalls. 

We all know these: the over-valued aging star past his prime (commands a huge wage); the overhyped prospect that has only performed at a high level for a single season; the bidding wars; the marquee signing that is in truth surplus to requirements from day one. 

There are other pitfalls too: the tendency of clubs, especially benefactor-owners and PR-sensitive chief execs to build top-heavy teams with understaffed or below-par defenses. The perceived advantages of signing an English star in a Premier League (and how their prices are inflated by the homegrown-player rule). 

The Rest

It is clear, for instance, that when clubs decide to simply back the manager in the market, or when there seems to be no formal prioritization of positions that need strengthening, the results can turn out lopsided. Chelsea spent no less than £200 million to start the season with a top-heavy squad. The only additions to the 10th worst defense of the 2019-20 Premier League a now 35 year old Thiago Silva and 21 year old Malang Sarr. Stade Rennais’ Edouard Mendy was brought in to replace the 2nd worst Premier League keeper of 2019-20, Kepa Arrizabalaga. Meanwhile, Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech and Kai Havertz were brought in to compete with Tammy Abraham, Billy Gilmour, Olivier Giroud, Christian Pulisic, Mason Mount and Callum Hudson-Odoi. Ben Chilwell was brought in for £45 million while Nicholas Tagliafico was available for 30, though the homegrown-player rule might have something to do with that. To be fair, they did let go of Willian, Pedro, Ross Barkley and Michy Batshuayi. Early results show that coherence is a long way’s away, and raises questions of the individual acquisitions’ compatibility as a group. 

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A good example of a manager – executive team that seems to operate without much of a long-term vision is Manchester City. Once again one of the richest clubs in the world approached the market more with restraint than any kind of real vision. Rúben Dias, Nathan Aké and Ferran Torres are all fine additions, but they won’t likely fill void that Vincent Kompany, David Silva and Leroy Sané have left behind anytime soon. Let alone the fact that with Oleksandr Zinchenko falling out of favor over the last seasons, they are still without a specialized left back. Without a clear vision and the targets that come with it, City seem lost in the market when forced to make decisions. They have the good sense to walk away from what they consider to be a bad deal, but subsequently fail to find a good one to replace it. So once again, they are rolling the dice, hoping that their current squad will somehow pull it off despite the glaring shortcomings. 

What about Wolves? Despite making some key acquisitions, Wolverhampton Wanderers have to ask themselves: can Jorge Mendes replace a DOF, and is becoming a Portugese proxy club a healthy long-term goal?

Manchester United

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Then, of course, there is Manchester United. First and foremost, it is very much worth noting that while both United and Arsenal aimed to go after their top target at the very end of the window, United managed to tell the world about theirs months before the window opened, confident they would sign Jadon Sancho at a valuation completely of their own, from a Borussia Dortmund that was in no need to sell and was very clear about that and their £120 million valuation from the start. Where United failed, Arsenal triggered Thomas Partey’s release clause on deadline day and managed to complete their top target’s move to the Emirates.

United also refused to £30 million for Sergio Reguilon, as well as any deal that included a buy-back clause as they felt that was unbefitting of a club their size. Levy had no such objections and happily hijacked the transfer deal from under United’s executives’ nose. They were now forced to go for second choice Alex Telles, scrambling in the end to get the deal done before the transfer deadline, before announcing their new signing that had just been very publicly been deemed second choice before the eyes of the world.

Rather than finally bidding Dortmund’s asking price for Sancho or completing a deal for Ousmane Dembélé with Barcelona, United signed 33-year-old Edinson Cavani, who will command the club’s fourth-highest wage, £10 million in agent fees, and had already been offered, unsuccessfully so far, to every other major club in Europe. United also completed deals for teenage prospects Amad Traoré and Facundo Pellistri, who were swiftly repackaged as first-team reinforcements rather than Academy additions. Donny Van de Beek, the only top-class acquisition of United’s summer window, was available only because Real Madrid had pulled out of their agreement to sign the player.

All in all, Manchester United spent about £85 million not to get their main targets.

So, what went wrong at United? A clear sporting long-term vision seems to be missing both in the coaching and executive branch. The focus seems to lie on regular impactful acquisitions or brilliant runs of individual form to galvanize the team towards a top-of-the-table finish, rather than a long-term playing style and tactical approach. 

The fact that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had to pitch the idea of a long-term rebuild to this board when negotiating his long-term appointment also does seem to speak volumes.

But, more importantly, there is still no director of football. More worryingly still is that Ed Woodward, Matt Judge and the Glazer family seem to be of the opinion that, like Daniel Levy, they are doing just fine without one.

They are no Daniel Levy, however, and their judgement loses credibility with every passing transfer window.

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