Erik ten Hag has already hinted at where Manchester United will aim to strengthen in the January transfer window.
The Red Devils have already lost one member of their squad which ended the pre-World Cup section of the season, with Cristiano Ronaldo’s acrimonious departure from Old Trafford confirmed this week. United had already looked short of options up front prior to the 37-year-old’s contract being terminated, so his exit only amplifies the situation.
Ten Hag is now left with Antony Martial as his main striker, although the Frenchman has managed just two league starts this season due to injury. Marcus Rashford has deputised through the middle on occasion, but he’s best suited to a position on the left flank, while youngster Charlie McNeill has made just one senior appearance and evidently is deemed ready yet for a regular role under Ten Hag.
Therefore, it would be no surprise if United were to add reinforcements in January and the Red Devils manager has already provided an indication that he wants to add more depth in the attacking areas.
Speaking two weeks ago, in the build-up to the Premier League clash with Fulham, Ten Hag was asked about his first few months in charge at Old Trafford. “One of the conclusions you can make is about the front line and there is a concern,” he responded.
“I think we really made progress in football, pressing, playing out from the back and also attacking, but the final third of our game, we have to improve. But you need numbers available and we have to cover so many games that you need rotation otherwise you don’t keep the players fresh. We need players who are available and at the highest level in the front line.”
Asked if those comments applied to players already at United, or potential recruits, Ten Hag replied: “Both. But first look in our squad. We are happy.”
In October, Ten Hag also implied United could look to bring in players mid-season and said transfer plans continuously happen ‘in the background’.
“In this moment, also last week, we focus on the games, in the background we always continue a process, working on the squad so we want to have top sport culture,” he explained. “You see and examine how you can improve and that’s what we will do.”
Transfer policy examined
The dearth of options up front does present United with a real issue in the second part of the season. Not signing a striker could prove to be the Achilles heel which stops the Red Devils from achieving their ambitions in 2022/23.
Yet, making long-term additions in January also presents its own issues, with clubs often reluctant to sell mid-season as it may derail plans, and there is limited time to identify a replacement. This can result in overspending and strikers such as Coady Gakpo and Victor Osimhen, who have been linked with a winter switch to United, will come at a premium.
The alternative is a short-term solution, perhaps an experienced forward coming in on loan to ease the pressure on Ten Hag until the end of the season, allowing him to make a more informed decision next summer. But this policy also brings with it uncertainties; what if the striker doesn’t settle and how motivated will a temporary recruit prove to be?
It’s also an indictment of United’s transfers policy that four of the last five strikers to have joined the club were short-term solutions: Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Odion Ighalo, Edinson Cavani and Ronaldo. Repeating that flawed strategy brings its own challenges and whichever path Ten Hag takes in January, it will be littered with obstacles to outmanoeuvre.