“It is typical United,” Sir Alex Ferguson once said. “We tend to do things the hard way.”
It is a sentiment the legendary Manchester United manager had echoed at several points during his 27-year tenure. Usually it was with reference to a failure to take control of a two-legged affair at the first time of asking, or leaving it late to grab an all-important winner. At times, Sir Alex seemed to have an almost perverse pride in the club’s odd quality of putting its fans through the wringer on the way to its goals.
The great man would probably not have had such wry pride in that love for difficulty in matters of recruitment and squad building. But somebody, somewhere, must. This summer is proof of that.
Erik ten Hag is determined to add a new striker and midfielder to his squad, while a goalkeeper has become another priority position given the uncertainty surrounding David de Gea’s future at the club. A raft of players have been linked, with most of them playing at clubs determined to squeeze every penny out of Man United. £70m+ has seemingly become the default asking price for a footballer in many cases.
That seems true of Randal Kolo Muani and Andre Onana – two players who have enjoyed excellent seasons for Eintracht Frankfurt and Inter Milan, and subsequently been mooted at targets for The Red Devils. Both players are reportedly being seriously considered by the club as potential new recruits, and both would certainly address areas of need.
The noise around Franck Kessie at Barcelona is not quite as loud, but as an energetic midfielder capable of scoring goals from the number eight position and playing a key role in his team’s pressing structure, he certainly seems to fit the mould of the kind of player Ten Hag would be interested in.
There is a very real possibility that Man United sign all three, and doing so would certainly improve the Dutchman’s squad. Kolo Muani is expected to leave his club this summer for around £85m, while Onana could cost up to £70m, as per The Athletic. Kessie, meanwhile, is reportedly up for sale at around £30m. An outlay of £185m to address Ten Hag’s three priority positions would be achievable this summer, pending player sales and/or the outcome of the ongoing takeover saga.
Given the quality of that trio, there would be few grumbles with that strategy, save for one important detail:
All three players moved on free transfer twelve months ago.
Manchester United have one of – if not the – largest and most well-funded scouting networks in world football, and would no doubt have had people monitoring the situations of the above players. But there has often been a disconnect between the various contributors to recruitment decisions which has left recommendations to fall by the wayside.
Had Kolo Muani, Onana, and Kessie been identified and sought after, Erik ten Hag would have walked into the building with a squad far more suited to his needs.
Rather than the desperate scramble to recruit Jack Butland, Marcel Sabitzer, and Wout Weghort in January – three players who will no doubt end up being answers to a difficult pub quiz question in time – United would have been without such gaping holes in the squad in the first place.
Ten Hag would have had a striker who could both stay fit and score goals (they do exist, apparently), a dynamic midfielder of undoubted quality to help Casemiro shield the defence and support the attack simultaneously, and a goalkeeper brilliant at helping his team play through an opposition press.
There is no telling where United might have ended up last term had they managed to sign the trio, and it is rather concerning that none of these players were on the radar 12 months ago, in any but the most cursory of ways.
Arguably, a pursuit of Kessie might have been a lost cause, such is the hypnotic pull that Barcelona appear to have on players. But in the cases of Onana and Kolo Muani, it is hard to imagine either player turning down a move to Old Trafford in favour of Eintracht Frankfurt and, to a lesser extent, Inter Milan. Both have expressed their desire to play in the Premier League, after all – one of them even has a relationship with the manager.
Hindsight tells us that not signing Kolo Muani was the most egregious of the failures, given the obvious need for a centre forward, even twelve months ago. But given the player’s meteoric rise over the last year, it is unfair to judge that missed opportunity too harshly – every club in Europe bar one made the same mistake, after all.
Onana is perhaps the more troublesome case. His aforementioned work under Ten Hag would surely have been appreciated by the club when they were in the process of assessing managerial candidates, while his qualities in contrast to De Gea were obvious. His age profile and ability were already admired around Europe. Onana was even determined enough to move to Inter Milan, where he faced competition from the long-serving Samir Handanovic – presumably he would have fancied his chances against De Gea all the same.
What this should serve as is a lesson of sorts. Manchester United don’t always have to do things the hard way.
When opportunities are allowed to pass by, it could end up costing you £185m.