Manchester United’s 2018-19 campaign was one of their worst seasons in recent memory: They sacked a manager, failed to challenge for a single major honour and finished sixth, five points adrift of the top four and Champions League qualification.
Ending the season 32 points behind champions Manchester City and 32 points ahead of relegated Cardiff City in 18th place, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his players quite literally found themselves drifting along in No Man’s Land, having posted the club’s worst-ever defensive record in a Premier League season by conceding 54 goals in 38 games. To put the seal on a dismal campaign for a club with more domestic titles than any other English team, neighbours City achieved an unprecedented domestic Treble, while traditional rivals Liverpool won the Champions League to claim their sixth European Cup — twice as many as United’s all-time haul of three.
Against that backdrop, it was clear that United faced a crucial period of rebuilding at the end of the season, especially after 2018’s summer transfer dealings under Jose Mourinho saw them spend just £75m on the unimpressive Fred, Diogo Dalot and third-choice goalkeeper Lee Grant combined.
Players need to be sold or released and top quality reinforcements added quickly to put United back on the road to success. But sources have told ESPN that Solskjaer has been given just £100m to spend on new arrivals. If the Norwegian wants more money, he has to raise it by selling players who either have no future at Old Trafford or want to move on.
Just 10 days ahead of United’s planned return to preseason training on July 1, Solskjaer has added just one player, spending £15m on 21-year-old Swansea winger Daniel James, to a squad that has lost senior figures Marouane Fellaini, Ander Herrera and Antonio Valencia since the start of 2019.
United have handed out some new contracts, with 31-year-old attacking midfielder Juan Mata the latest to get one after Ashley Young, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling. But while key stars like Marcus Rashford and David De Gea continue to keep the club waiting on their contract negotiations and the widely-reported plans to appoint a technical director to help improve player recruitment have yet to bear fruit, United once again find themselves in a state of flux during the hugely important summer transfer window.
Real Madrid, who rival United’s claims to be the biggest club in the world, have already responded to last season’s disappointing campaign in Spain by signing five new players, including Eden Hazard and Luka Jovic, for initial fees exceeding €300m.
Meanwhile at Old Trafford, 21-year-old James is the only new face, with efforts to sign Newcastle youngster Sean Longstaff, Leicester’s Harry Maguire and Crystal Palace defender Aaron Wan-Bissaka all making little progress due to United’s attempts to negotiate deals with a low basic offer and incentivised bonuses to potentially take the fees higher.
Having earned a reputation as a club that would spend over the odds to sign players following Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, United are now perceived to have gone too far the other way, with selling clubs bemused by their attempts to buy players for knockdown prices. United’s £40m valuation of England centre-back Maguire was dismissed out of hand by Leicester, who will not even contemplate selling the 26-year-old for anything less than £80m.
United’s executive vice-chairman, Ed Woodward, is determined to oversee a more strategic, value-driven approach to the transfer market, modelled on the so-called “transfer committee” at Liverpool that has transformed their squad with such success in recent years. United’s own “transfer committee” comprises of chief scout Jim Lawlor, global scout Marcel Bout, analyst Mick Court, chief negotiator Matt Judge as well as Solskjaer and his coaches, with Woodward also involved in discussions. But last season’s transfer dealings proved so unsatisfactory to Mourinho, who was not given the centre-back he demanded, that an acrimonious air pervaded Old Trafford and ultimately resulted in the Portuguese’s sacking in mid-December.
With Solskjaer being handed such a limited transfer budget, the warning signs are already appearing ahead of the 2019-20 season.
The United manager wants a centre-back and right-back — Maguire and Wan-Bissaka are the top targets, but their combined asking prices amount to £135m — and he is also keen to bolster a midfield that has been weakened by the January sale of Fellaini and Herrera’s exit as a free agent. Newcastle midfielder Longstaff, 21, is regarded as a player with the potential to develop into an established performer, but one who is not yet ready to make a sustained difference in the Premier League, and United are reluctant to meet Newcastle’s £25m valuation.
Further forward, Solskjaer and assistant manager Mike Phelan were keen to sign Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho but the German club’s £80m-plus price tag has made that move a non-starter. Similarly, United are now no longer in the running to sign Ajax captain Matthijs de Ligt due to the emergence of Paris Saint-Germain as a suitor for the 19-year-old.
If United choose to sell Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku or De Gea, the proceeds could enable Solskjaer to target more expensive and experienced recruits, but on that basis he would only be replacing manpower rather than adding to it.
Having wanted to hit the ground running with key targets signed up in time for preseason training on July 1, Solskjaer is struggling to make headway with the funds at his disposal. United had hoped to avoid what has become an annual summer saga in the transfer market this time around but, once again, the storm clouds are beginning to hover over Old Trafford.