Man United’s pursuit of Mason Mount and the importance of knowing when to walk away

If Manchester United walk away from negotiations for Mason Mount after Chelsea rejected a third bid from them, worth £55m, it would have merit. People at Old Trafford feel that selling clubs impose a “United tax” on transfers, driving up the price of players, just because of who is calling.

Their director of football John Murtough experienced this last year with a young player he knew had been offered for £15 million ($18.9 million). When United called his club, that fee nearly doubled to £28m. The only way to stop it is to say no, go ahead and sign another player in the same position. Repeatedly.

The problem is that United have a track record over the past decade of becoming fixated on their goals and eventually succumbing to demands. Antony is an example of that. Early in the summer of 2022, United said they would not pay Ajax more than £60m for him. Eight weeks later, as the transfer deadline approached, they agreed an £85m deal.

Edwin van der Sar, Ajax’s managing director at the time, explained the process from his side and told Athletics: “We would have liked to have kept him here for a year longer – there was no dire need to sell him, we had money in the bank – but the fee was so high. We challenged United to go as far as possible.”

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When conversations over a fee begin to sound like an episode of British quiz show Ant & Dec’s Limitless Win, where contestants answer questions to climb a never-ending money ladder, it’s no wonder Chelsea feel they can push for £65m on Mount, despite the player having a year left on his contract and wanting to join United.

Leicester City hit a similar jackpot four years ago, waiting for United, then managed by Ed Woodward, to meet their £80m asking price for Harry Maguire – a world record for a defender.

If there is such a thing as a “United tax”, perhaps it is because the clubs look at the money being made at Old Trafford and believe that some of it should be passed on to them.

Given the interest payments, it’s a waste to use credit to pay for new players when the club generates so much revenue, but Premier League rivals won’t mind that much, only when you see the huge finances at United’s disposal.

Despite the positive revenue news, staff at the club insisted they will not go higher than £55m for Mount and will stop communications if Chelsea show no move, although talks are underway to see if the payment structure can be changed to find an agreement. They have seen Chelsea sell Mateo Kovacic to Manchester City for £30m (£25m, plus £5m in add-ons) this week and question the difference between that fee and their valuation of fellow midfielder Mount, especially given that City are bankrolled by Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth.

However, Kovacic is 29 and was set to become a free agent next year. Mount is 24 and a Chelsea academy product popular with fans who have been at the club since he was six years old. Sources say Chelsea want a good fee for him to combat any supporter unrest over a sale. There is also the aspect that Chelsea might want to buy from City in the future, as they did with Raheem Sterling last summer.

The reason given by United for not splashing out on £55m for Mount is that Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules limit what they can spend after the club lost £115.5m for the 2021-22 season due to to play matches behind closed doors during the pandemic. United also overspent their signings budget last summer by more than £100m, so a recalibration is required.

Whether FFP is a shield for the Glazer family’s general reluctance to commit funds to the club they still own, only time and more accounts will tell. Historically, United spend less on signings when they qualified for the Champions League than when they had to return to the hugely lucrative competition.

You may have noticed that there is also a proposed takeover underway, and while United deny that the ownership uncertainty is affecting transfers this summer, several agents looking to do business with the club are reporting that only one major signing can be made, before there is clarity on that front.

Regardless, United need to get good deals for the sake of long-term sustainability. Their negotiation of red lines will only be taken seriously in the market when they are seen as having the courage to walk away from the table.

Mason Mount and France’s Adrien Rabiot at the 2022 World Cup (Photo: Richard Heathcote via Getty Images)

The one transfer that stands out as a case of United signing a player for less than the sellers originally intended is Jadon Sancho. Borussia Dortmund wanted £100m in 2020. United got him for £73m a year later. Regardless of his influence since, it looked like an effective negotiation at the time.

United have placed a value on Mount, so they should follow through by stepping away and pursuing other options.

Manchester City have been wise to this for several seasons and dropped the rising cost of Maguire in 2019. Last summer they let Chelsea sign Marc Cucurella from Brighton & Hove Albion and instead signed fellow left-back Sergio Gomez from Anderlecht for a fifth of the cost.

Liverpool made a move for another England midfielder, Jude Bellingham, and let it be known in April that the economics of a deal with Dortmund no longer made sense for them. On 14 June, Bellingham had joined Real Madrid in a deal worth £113.5 million, while Liverpool took advantage of a release clause in Alexis Mac Allister’s Brighton contract to sign him for around a third of the fee.

United did not make a move for Mac Allister – instead preferring Mount – but are now in talks with Chelsea as one of them has reached an impasse and another Brighton midfielder has come into focus.

They have contacted Moises Caicedo’s representatives and suggested they would be prepared to go higher than Mount for a fee because the Ecuadorian is three years younger. But Caicedo would represent a much harder deal to do than former team-mate Mac Allister because, despite his agent’s efforts when he negotiated a new contract in March, there is no mechanism in the document that a potential buying club could trigger.

That being the case, Brighton are looking to be paid £100m for Caicedo, and that has led those connected to seriously doubt United’s chances of landing him, or even their true intentions. They speculate that United may have touched base on Caicedo to frustrate Chelsea’s bid for the same player.

It must be recalled that United were unable or unwilling to shed Caicedo’s representative status when he opened negotiations to sign him at the end of 2020. Brighton instead bought him from Independiente del Valle in his homeland for £4.5m in that season’s winter window. United staff asked Brighton counterparts about Caicedo’s progress when the clubs met at Old Trafford on the opening weekend of last season, giving the impression they sensed a missed opportunity.

Part of keeping costs down is United having the acumen and foresight to go for lower-profile players with the necessary skills, although manager Erik ten Hag primarily requires signings who make an immediate impact and have the strength of personality to play at Old Trafford .

Adrien Rabiot fit the Ten Hag criteria and United made contact with the French midfielder, who was out of contract at Juventus, earlier this week. However, on Tuesday he had signed a one-year deal to stay at Juventus, removing a Mount alternative from the list. It was a curious episode that began last August when Murtough flew to Turin to speak to Rabiot’s mother, Veronique, and returned knowing their contract demands were too high and uncertain about the player’s supposed quiet nature.

United have no doubts about Mount, and are well aware of the necessary contract, but whether they can find a solution with Chelsea will speak to the club’s long-term bargaining power.

(Photo: Jacques Feeney/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

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