Much like Lyle Lanley told the residents of Springfield before they purchased the monorail, Ed Woodward as chairman of Manchester United is like a horse with a spinning wheel. No one knows how he got it, and danged if he knows what to do with it.
The latest international transfer window closed on Monday, and much like the last couple, Woodward and United were left with not much more than a handful of themselves. And it sounds like no one can decide whose targets they should pursue, and the ones they do go after are chased in such a Grimace-like fashion that it doesn’t matter anyway.
Last winter, during the January window pre-pandemic, United were desperate to bring Erling Haaland to the club. He was the center forward they could build around for the next decade. Instead, they watched Borussia Dortmund outmaneuver them, and on the very last day had to shuttle in Odion Ighalo back from China, which if we continue the Simpsons metaphors was pretty much unveiling the Jimmy Carter statue.
Despite that, United were able to secure a Champions League finish thanks to Leicester’s collapse, Chelsea’s spotty form, and an avalanche of penalties given that Bruno Fernandes could convert. Heading into this abbreviated offseason, United were clear that their two main targets were Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho and Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish.
Which was curious on both counts. Sancho is a world class player who would help any team, but United’s needs were a defensive midfielder, a central defender, and a left back before they even thought about buffeting a front line that already was sporting Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, and Mason Greenwood. The latter is probably not ready to take on a full-time role yet given his tender age, but you could do worse. Grealish would have only backed up Rashford on the left of the three, or pushed Rashford to the middle where he’s not as effective, or Grealish would have been in the same midfield jumble with Paul Pogba and Fernandes that the team can’t solve.
Of course, the club didn’t end up with any of them. Even though Dortmund was very clear on the price it would take for United to pry Sancho loose, United never offered them anything close to that, assuming they would just take a below-market offer and thank United for the chance to do so. And while United still thinks every club is desperate to take their money and player to wear their shirt, neither was the case. Dortmund are a Champions League club themselves with title aspirations in Germany that are still counting the money they received for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Christian Pulisic, and others. Sancho is hardly unhappy in Germany, where he’s an automatic starter, and never really agitated for a move.
United never came close to Villa’s valuation of Grealish, and he stayed put as well.
Which means the club still hasn’t addressed any of its problems, and once again had to scramble to get anyone in on the last day of the window. They signed free agent Edinson Cavani, whom they could have had at any time, even though he only netted four goals last season with PSG and is 33. Cavani has always been as good as the players around him, as his main style of play is to stand still at the penalty spot and hopefully far more talented midfielders and forwards can ping the ball off of him into the net.
Amad Diallo and Facundo Pellistri are signings for the future, not the now. Before the season, the club brought in Donny van de Beek from Ajax Amsterdam, but he only adds to perhaps United’s biggest problem. He plays the same position that they can’t fit Pogba and Fernandes into at the same time. All three are advanced midfielders, and playing Pogba as the deepest leads to comedy acts like the 6-1 mauling Tottenham just put on them, capped off by Pogba giving away a penalty with a West Side Story like slide across the stage into Harry Kane. They need a holder behind Pogba and Fernandes, or van de Beek when he plays, and they failed to get one.
Alex Telles at left-back is an upgrade from Luke Shaw, but he gets a nosebleed in his own half. Which pairs nicely with Aaron Wan-Bissaka at right back, who gets a nosebleed when he’s in the opponent’s half. And they’ll be flanking a central defense that came up with this immersive theater experience last Sunday for Spurs’ first goal.
For “the biggest club in the world,” they now have an extremely thin front line that’s an injury or two from trying to pass off Ighalo and Cavani with a straight face, a midfield that can be torn through quicker than a stoner through a bag of Doritos, and a central defense that has a brain bubble whenever walking and chewing gum at the same time.
Their determination to sign both Sancho and Haaland, blinders to any alternative, and failure to secure either left them desperately clawing at whatever they could find before the store closed. It was the height of Christmas Eve shopping at the gas station. The manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has either been totally let down by the higher-ups, or completely neutered, or both. There isn’t really a plan emanating from either.
Maybe they can get 22 penalties again.