Manchester United’s January transfer window shows how they plan to address key problems with the squad

After a disastrous few years in the transfer market, there are several indications that the Red Devils’ stance is beginning to change.
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There’s no denying Manchester United’s transfer policy has been sketchy at best in recent years, but there are tentative signs that perhaps their approach is changing.

In the past, the club have too often been tempted by the low-hanging fruit when it comes to concluding deals.

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No-one epitomises this more than Donny van de Beek, with the Red Devils signing an attacking midfielder in the summer of 2020 despite having Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba already in their ranks.

But Van de Beek’s stock was high after an impressive few years at Ajax, and United simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity even though there was no obvious plan as to how he would fit into the United team.

Cristiano Ronaldo joined in the summer from Juventus. Credit: Getty.Cristiano Ronaldo joined in the summer from Juventus. Credit: Getty.
Cristiano Ronaldo joined in the summer from Juventus. Credit: Getty.

While last summer’s business did largely address the areas United were lacking in - centre-back and right wing - the purchase of Cristiano Ronaldo was far from a necessary move given the resources they had up front.

Then there’s the debate surrounding whether Ronaldo’s inclusion in the team actually strengthens them, and it was a transfer that seemed as motivated by merchandise and social media interactions as the on-field benefits.

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This approach has led to other areas of the team being overlooked, namely defensive-midfield, and means United’s squad has stagnated. Evidently a replacement was needed for Nemanja Matic, United’s only real holding-midfielder, but instead another attacker was brought in to bolster United’s ranks.

Perhaps such a policy could have worked had the club then looked to move on some of their other attacking resources and reinvest the funds into areas where the team are lacking. But in contrast, the Red Devils opted to stockpile players.

Martial and Lingard have been frustrated with their lack of game time. Credit: Getty.Martial and Lingard have been frustrated with their lack of game time. Credit: Getty.
Martial and Lingard have been frustrated with their lack of game time. Credit: Getty.

The Red Devils’ bloated squad

Such a strategy has resulted in United having perhaps the deepest talent pool in the Premier League, except they haven’t opted to call upon those extensive resources and have afforded little game time to several undoubtedly talented players.

The consequence of this is are obvious, and clearly there have been too many disgruntled squad members, chiefly Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard, Donny van de Beek, Dean Henderson and Eric Baily.

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Knowing when to sell is as much a part of a club’s transfer policy as recruitment. Chelsea are evidence of this, with the Blues allowing youth graduates Fikayo Tomori, Marc Guehi and Tammy Abraham to depart last summer, as well as Kurt Zouma.

Even champions Manchester City sold Ferran Torres this window despite Pep Guardiola being a huge fan of the Spanish international, but the club and manager recognised the sense in selling and making a profit on the player.

In the main, first-team players United have sold in recent years have been those who were seen as surplus to requirements, while Romelu Lukaku’s departure was largely driven by his desire to leave to the club.

Daniel James was sold to Leeds last summer. Credit: Getty.Daniel James was sold to Leeds last summer. Credit: Getty.
Daniel James was sold to Leeds last summer. Credit: Getty.

The exception in the past few windows is Daniel James, a rare deal where United acknowledged the value in allowing the player to depart for a significant fee.

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The same approach should have been deployed with the likes of Henderson, Lingard and Martial, while there was no logic in handing new deals to Juan Mata and Lee Grant.

A change in approach?

But for all the questionable manoeuvres in recent times, in the current window there seems to be a slight shifting in the status quo.

Ralf Rangnick’s openness when it comes to transfers has been refreshing, and he’s freely admitted to having conversations with Martial, Lingard, Van de Beek and Henderson, compared to guarded responses of his predecessors.

Even the decision to allow Martial to leave was a break from the norm, rather than insisting on retaining his services for the rest of the season. A similar approach with Lingard and Van de Beek, with both players heavily linked with moves away in the coming days, would also be encouraging.

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Meanwhile, the search for a holding-midfielder, not a particularly sexy position, suggests the club are prioritising the areas where the team are actually lacking, rather than adding depth to already stacked positions.

The appointment of John Murtagh as the club’s first-ever Director of Football last March also indicates they acknowledge their policy in recent years simply hasn’t worked, and for all the questions surrounding last summer’s signing of Ronaldo, the moves for Raphael Varane and Jadon Sancho were logical decisions from the new chief.

With Ralf Rangnick joining the board in a consultancy role from next season, and the appointment of a manager who will align with his and the board’s thinking, perhaps finally there is the emergence of a holistic approach being taken to transfers.

Rangnick even mentioned in his first press conference about the need for United to invest cleverly and be able to sell players on for a profit.

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The foundations of how a top-level sporting organisations should be run appear to be in place, but actually turning them into anything more than clever ideas and fancy Powerpoints is the next challenge for United.

A lot of work and innovation will be required next summer if United really are to challenge for silverware next season.

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