With less than two weeks remaining until the transfer window closes, all does not appear to be well in the Manchester United camp.
Manager Jose Mourinho has rarely looked anything other than glum on the sidelines, visibly aghast whenever he remembers how many of his first-team squad are still not available to him while they take a late summer break after World Cup duty.
Things seem to have been even more frustrating on the transfer front, as although they moved quickly to nail down Fred, Diogo Dalot and Lee Grant, only one of those three would be considered an immediate first-team option, while attempts to supplement the squad further have, on the face of it at least, hit a brick wall with time starting to run out.
Executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, meanwhile, is still chasing after Gareth Bale to a degree that is long past the realm of irresponsible, and seems scarily close to camping outside Real Madrid’s Valdebebas training complex with a boombox a la John Cusack in Say Anything.
Reports on Thursday suggested that Man United have approached Leicester City about potentially signing defender Harry Maguire, though Leicester will, understandably, do everything in their power to hold on to one of their star assets.
At this point it would seem that, with the Foxes set to reject the mooted £65m first offer, Man United would probably have to make Maguire the most expensive defender of all time to prise him away from the King Power – and even then, the Leicester owners don’t exactly need the money.
The problem with pursuing Maguire, of course, is that Mourinho has recruited two £30m centre-backs in the past two summers. By signing Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof, the central defensive problem was supposed to have been fixed by now, and yet the manager seems to have more faith in the old guard of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones rather than his own two purchases.
That’s before even getting to the full-backs. Daley Blind, a veritable swiss-army knife of a footballer, has already left, and Matteo Darmian is surely set to follow. Mourinho patently has a problem with Luke Shaw and his attitude towards giving him game time seems to change like the weather, so once again it appears to be a case of using Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia, both of whom will be 33 when the new season starts, as the first-choice full-backs in a squad that is supposed to be evolving,
All of this, meanwhile, is happening against the backdrop of Anthony Martial’s increasingly likely departure. The latest reports from that saga appear to indicate that Mourinho and Man United are willing to sell to a foreign bidder, but will that stance hold if Chelsea are the only ones left at the table when the time comes to make a definitive decision?
It all points to a severely muddled transfer policy where manager and director aren’t on the same wavelength, where Mourinho’s desire to see his own targets brought in is clashing with Woodwards invariable need to see star names come through the Old Trafford doors.
At the very root of Man United’s problem is the lack of a shared vision, one which stems from Woodward trying to control two totally different areas of the club. Trying to look at the bigger picture at what a signing like Ivan Perisic, for example, can bring to the table is difficult because the other part of his brain is telling him that Bale would be a better target because he’d be a far greater commercial success.
The main issue with that is valuable time is then wasted on fanciful notions while the more attainable targets slip through their fingers.
It’s patently obvious now that the club need a director of football-type that isn’t also so heavily invested in the commercial and financial side – someone to oversee the long-term planning of the team and put a much-needed sense of cohesion into what has been a confusing and wasteful transfer policy ever since Woodward took the helm.
Compare Man United’s approach to that of Arsenal or Liverpool this summer. Both of those sides recognised which areas of the pitch they needed to improve, and with almost laser-like precision they have largely done so. Finding structural weaknesses in those teams is getting harder and harder to do because the personnel overseeing transfers are going to great lengths to address them, whereas Man United aren’t.
Man City and Tottenham, while quiet themselves this summer, have laid so much groundwork over the past couple of years that they already boast excellent squads, ones that don’t need major surgery this year to maintain what they have already accomplished. They’ll spend, of course, like City have already done with Riyad Mahrez, but one gets the sense that Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino would be quite content if the transfer window closed today.
Mourinho’s preferred back five are all Alex Ferguson signings, with every attempt at bringing in a new face for each position in the past five years hitting a brick wall – how many more expensive arrivals, the likes of Martial, Shaw Di Maria, have to be brought in and then spat out before someone to take charge of what is an increasingly messy situation?
Concocting transfer policies on the fly with crayon on the back of a napkin isn’t conducive to a long-term strategy – Man United need to stop just winging it and hoping for the best.