Ten Hag cannot let Man United fall behind in the transfer market

Rob DawsonCorrespondentJune 28, 2023, 8:00 a.m. ET6 minute reading

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This summer was supposed to mark the start of a new era at Manchester United. Instead, it’s been the same old story so far.

Instead of new owners sweeping into Old Trafford to inject new life into a sleeping giant of a football club, supporters have seen their rivals take the first steps in the transfer window. Of the Premier League’s traditional top six – which has expanded to seven following Newcastle United’s return to the Champions League – all but one have signed at least one new player ready for next season, or are at least very close to doing so. No prizes for guessing the odd one.

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United manager Erik ten Hag enjoyed a relatively successful first season in charge – winning the Carabao Cup, reaching the FA Cup final and finishing third in the league – but he will know better than anyone that if you stand still in the Premier League, you end up moving backwards. Just ask Jose Mourinho.

In 2017-18, Mourinho’s second season in charge, United finished second to Manchester City and reached the FA Cup final, where they were beaten by Chelsea. There was cautious optimism that with a productive transfer window they could close the gap on Pep Guardiola’s side and become serious title contenders for the first time since their last triumph in 2013. But when Mourinho turned up in Los Angeles for the start of United’s pre-season tour in July 2018, he was already convinced that he would not get the financial support he thought he needed.

Stone-faced from the moment he arrived in California, he was asked at his first press conference at UCLA if he was optimistic about United’s chances of challenging City. He refused to answer. After another press conference, he signaled to the assembled English journalists that he wanted to talk to them away from the cameras. Huddled in a corner, he revealed he was keen to get rid of Anthony Martial, only for executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward to say a few days later that the French striker would definitely be staying.

Mourinho’s mood was so bad throughout the US tour that when talk show host James Corden arrived at the training ground to film an episode for “The Late Show”, the United manager initially refused to attend but only relented at the last minute . The final insult to Mourinho was Woodward and the recruitment team vetoing Jerome Boateng because of the Bayern Munich centre-back’s injury record, and by the end of the tour Mourinho and Woodward were barely on speaking terms.

The cautious optimism of the early summer was long gone as United began the new season with just five wins from their opening 13 games. Mourinho was away for Christmas.

Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag has yet to sign this summer.Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images

Ten Hag may not have Mourinho’s fiery attitude towards the media, but when it comes to improving the squad, he can be just as demanding. The Dutchman sees it as a manager’s job to challenge the board and, as he puts it, “always wants more.”

He is sympathetic to the club’s financial position, with the transfer budget limited by Financial Fair Play (FFP) restrictions. But he still wants at least one striker, one midfielder and one goalkeeper before the season starts. United have had three bids rejected by Chelsea for Mason Mount, although their latest bid of £55 million ($69.9 million) is still on the table. There is also interest in, among others, Harry Kane, Rasmus Hojlund, Moises Caicedo and Andre Onana, but so far valuations set by opposing clubs have proved problematic.

Concerns over FFP mean United can only realistically spend between £100m and £150m on new players, and while that figure would increase with any funds raised through departures, the financial situation can be summed up by their interest in Jude Bellingham and Declan Rice. Ten Hag likes both players but United were nowhere near when Bellingham joined Real Madrid for Borussia Dortmund for an initial £88.5m simply because they couldn’t afford it. It’s a similar story with Rice, a player who has been tracked since he was a teenager because of West Ham United’s demands to receive £100m. Arsenal lead the race for his signature ahead of Manchester City, with United a distant third.

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United insist there is money to spend — the latest financial results, published on Tuesday, showed £73.7m. in cash or liquid assets plus a projection of record revenues for the year – but they will have to be careful how they are spent.

It is impossible to judge a transfer window before it is closed, but the uncertainty surrounding the club does Ten Hag no favors at all. When will there be clarity on ownership, with the Glazer family evaluating takeover and minority investment offers? What happens to Mason Greenwood, who is on United’s retained player list but the club are yet to make a decision on his future? Will David de Gea sign a new contract? What does the squad look like next season? These are questions that need to be answered, ideally before the preseason tour of the United States, which begins in New York City on July 20.

As Mourinho found, optimism generated by a positive season can be quickly washed away by an idle summer. Long away from Old Trafford, he still sees the 2018 window as a missed opportunity to build a team capable of matching City’s.

Ten Hag is the latest United manager to try to rein in Guardiola and his team, but even this early in the summer there is a danger of history repeating itself.

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