Manchester United are in the midst of a summer overhaul in which they are hoping to bring in five new players – and yet their future may hinge on another kind of deal.
Erik ten Hag is desperate to bring in reinforcements in the summer transfer window, with Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard, Edinson Cavani, Nemanja Matic and Juan Mata all leaving the club and those left over low on confidence after a miserable season. Clearly, if Ten Hag is going to turn around the slowly sinking ship which has gone five seasons without tasting silverware, he is going to need a successful transfer window.
United have made around £120million available to their new manager, who wants two central midfielders, a centre-back, versatile striker and full-back. Ten Hag has made Barcelona midfielder Frenkie de Jong his number one priority , has sanctioned a contract offer for Christian Eriksen and pushed forward a move for Ajax winger Antony .
With 69 days left to run until the summer transfer window closes, there will be plenty of twists and turns in United’s efforts to reinforce their squad. Those are the short-term considerations, but another longer-term strategy call could well be much more important and influential at the club in the coming weeks.
There has been plenty of movement behind the scenes at United recently. Ed Woodward is gone and has been replaced by Richard Arnold as chief executive. Football director John Murtough has seen his power increased, with Darren Fletcher in place as his deputy, while the scouting department has been gutted .
It seems the club could be on the verge of making another significant move, with former Liverpool transfer chief Michael Edwards among those being eyed as a potential sporting director. Edwards stepped down at Liverpool at the end of the season and handed over the reins to his deputy Julian Ward to end an 11-year stint at the club.
The appeal is obvious. The former Tottenham employee rose through the ranks at Liverpool, with his use of data in recruitment helping to shape the club’s recent success. Alisson, Virgil van Dijk, Mohamed Salah, Fabinho, Andy Robertson, Sadio Mane, Diogo Jota… the list of his successful transfers is a long and impressive one.
Whether United beat Chelsea, who are also interested following the departure of director Marina Granovskaia , to the punch to land Edwards or not, the club simply have to embrace the sporting director structure. United have been run in a chaotic fashion for several years and must move into the modern era. Sporting directors have become a trend for good reason.
Having someone at the top of the power structure who is responsible for the overarching strategy and direction of the club brings clarity – something much needed at Old Trafford, where the club are still paying the price of the wayward Woodward years. Fans didn’t need reminding of the omnishambles in the transfer market, but they got one last week when a very open and honest Arnold spoke to fans at a Cheshire pub .
“We spent a billion pounds on players,” United’s chief executive said. “We have spent more than anyone in Europe. I’m not thrilled where we are. It doesn’t sit easy with me and I worry how we get this sorted for the future. What’s happened is we have f***ing burned through cash,” he said. You can’t go to our training ground and say ‘show me where the £1billion is because we haven’t spent money well historically.”
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He’s spot-on. According to a study from February , United have spent £1.3bn in the past 10 years while bringing in £397m in player sales to give them a whopping negative net spend of £908m. That, unsurprisingly, is the worst record of any club in Europe and hasn’t brought much reward.
By contrast, under Edwards’ guidance, Liverpool have splashed out big fees on the likes of Van Dijk (£75m) and Alisson (£66.8m), but have received value on that investment while also selling well to help balance the books. While United top the table in terms of negative net spend in the past decade, Liverpool sit 14th on around £298m – some £700m better off than their rivals.
It remains to be seen whether Edwards would be willing to swap Liverpool for their biggest rivals this summer. But even if he isn’t, United should not abandon the sporting director plan. Their current focus is on providing Ten Hag with new players for the upcoming season. For the sake of their long-term success, they must ensure the new recruits are not the only arrivals this summer.