The decline of Manchester United as English football’s predominant force is best illustrated through the failure of their transfer strategy in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson age.
This is a club that has spent no less than £1 billion on new signings over the past eight years and has very little to show for it.
There have, however, been signs of progress in the last two transfer windows. While there is still no Director of Football in place at Old Trafford, United no longer appear to be making signings on impulse. They have a profile of players to target - young, hungry and largely homegrown. This led them to the additions of Daniel James, Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka last summer, with all three among the club’s best performers this season.
This profile will likely guide Man Utd’s summer business, and they have a lot of it to do. A number of players will be into the final year of their contracts (see Marcos Rojo, Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard, Paul Pogba and Sergio Romero), meaning Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ed Woodward will have to be even more active than usual in the market.
Presuming three new faces will be signed, as was the case last summer, we have put together a masterplan to guide Man Utd. Who should they sign? What sort of player should they target? Let’s start by breaking their greatest needs into three positions.
At present, Man Utd’s tactical game plan is lopsided with the majority of their play coming down the left side. This is because between Anthony Martial, Luke Shaw, Brandon Williams and Marcus Rashford (if he’s playing out there) Solskjaer has no shortage of attack-minded players who can carry the ball up and down the left.
It’s a very different story on the right. Not only do United lack natural wingers on that flank, save for James, but Wan-Bissaka’s weakness as a full-back is also in the attacking side of his game. This has led to many reports putting Jadon Sancho as Man Utd’s top target for the summer, with discussions between the Premier League club and Borussia Dortmund reportedly already underway.
It’s easy to see why Sancho is seen as United’s dream signing. The teenager has notched 14 goals and 15 assists in 23 Bundesliga appearances this season and has averaged more final third passes per 90 minutes (28.6) than anyone else in the division. He would bring a balance to Man Utd’s team that is currently lacking.
Adama Traore would also strengthen Man Utd’s side down the right side. The Spaniard has been the Premier League’s most prolific dribbler this season, and by some distance, averaging 5.2 per game compared to Wilfried Zaha’s average of 4.7 per game in second place. Traore has also added a final product to his skill set, averaging 1.4 key passes, 1.2 shots and contributing seven assists.
United’s January signing of Bruno Fernandes gave them the sort of attacking creativity and invention that they had desperately lacked over the first half of the season, but their midfield still requires reconstruction, especially if Paul Pogba is to leave the club in the summer as is widely expected.
Jack Grealish has recently been the subject of strong speculation linking him with Man Utd. The midfielder is averaging 20.9 final third passes per 90 minutes this season, averaging 2.1 shots on goal per 90 minutes for good measure. These are remarkable numbers for a player with a team down near the foot of the table.
James Maddison also satisfies much of the criteria of what Man Utd are looking for. The Leicester City midfielder is averaging 2.7 key passes per game in the Premier League this season and, much like Grealish, carries a goal threat of his own. Grealish and Maddison are destined to be compared for years to come and either would fit in well at Old Trafford.
The sale of Romelu Lukaku to Inter last summer left a hole in Man Utd’s attack. The Belgian was the only dependable goalscorer Solskjaer had and no direct replacement was signed. Martial and Rashford have stepped up somewhat, but United could still use an out-and-out centre forward as an option.
Odion Ighalo has exceeded all expectations since joining on loan as a short term fix in January. The Nigerian striker has averaged 1.8 shots on goal per game he has played for United. He is capable of playing with his back to goal, allowing others to build attacking moves off him. There is nobody else like him in Solskjaer’s squad and making his loan move permanent might make sense.
Victor Osmihen, another Nigerian striker, could also be an option. He has netted 13 times in Ligue 1 for Lille this season and at the age of 21 his signing would be much more of an investment in the future than that of Ighalo.
It’s Osmihen’s movement inside the penalty area that makes him so dangerous. He is also strong in the air and would likely accept a secondary role behind Martial and Rashford.
IF THERE'S MONEY LEFT
Even if Man Utd are able to sell Pogba for £100 million or more, their transfer window budget could be affected by a number of factors including whether or not the club qualifies for next season’s Champions League. This means they might have to shop at a lower level to reinforce other areas of their squad.
Moussa Niakhate of Mainz would be a good option at centre back. The 24-year-old is winning an average of 2.2 of his 3.8 aerial duels per 90 minutes in the Bundesliga this season. The Frenchman has pace and is likely to get better with better players around him. What’s more, Man Utd could hope to sign him for around £20 million.
Odsonne Edouard might also be available for a similar fee as a centre forward, shining for Celtic over the past two seasons. The French striker has scored 29 times for the Hoops over 2019/20 and at 22 is likely to improve further.
Sergio Reguilon could be a good option as a left-back, impressing on loan at Sevilla from Real Madrid this season. The 23-year-old reportedly has no future at the Santiago Bernabeu, but has recorded four La Liga assists, averaging 1.6 key passes per game.