Let’s not beat around the bush: Manchester United made a real mess of recruitment and transfer business more often than not between 2013 and 2020.
The summer of 2013 had effectively been like a curtain falling, with Sir Alex Ferguson and David Gill both leaving Old Trafford within a few weeks of each other. For 10 years they had guided and executed the club’s recruitment, building Fergie’s third great team to conquer Europe in 2008.
When they left, there was suddenly a gaping hole in United’s ability to both identify the right players for the requirements and to get deals done.
In 2013, there was talk of United re-signing Cristiano Ronaldo, a bigger bid than Real Madrid for Gareth Bale and interest in Cesc Fabregas. New chief Ed Woodward infamously left the club’s pre-season tour of Australia very suddenly that summer to carry out ‘urgent transfer business’.
Whatever that business was, it was never heard of again because nothing ever came of it.
But this is how United’s recruitment seemed to carry on year after year. There was often big ambition and expectation and poor execution. Deals for Thiago Alcantara and Toni Kroos fell through and they went elsewhere, while the players that the club did manage to get weren’t the right ones.
Angel Di Maria was a flop, Bastian Schweinsteiger was past it, and Alexis Sanchez plain didn’t fit in.
United rebuilt at vast expense for successive managers in Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho without any real success. The money spent for the former ultimately hindered the latter because there was no way to get rid of old signings and not enough resources to bring in new ones on top.
There was no higher plan or structure to recruitment and it showed. Even when there finally was a plan, the dreadful inefficiency still lingered and remained crippling.
United did manage to strike early deals for Daniel James and Aaron Wan-Bissaka in the summer of 2019, but the pursuit of Harry Maguire turned into a summer-long saga. Months were wasted haggling over a transfer fee that was never going to change and the £80m that was eventually agreed in early August could have been agreed in June. Maguire missed pre-season as a result.
The Jadon Sancho saga was even more frustrating in 2020. The coronavirus pandemic was an unfortunate factor that didn’t help matters when United suddenly dropped what they were willing to pay in the circumstances, but where 2019 had at least shown some early signs of promise, it was like an instant rewind to the hopelessly inefficient days of old. Months wasted, no deal.
When United signed Edinson Cavani in October, four months after he became available as a free agent, it reeked of complete desperation. The fact the Uruguayan has proven to be a huge success is irrelevant to what it initially represented and has been a stroke of dumb luck more than anything.
Now, however, things do seem to be coming together. It is still early days, but United are well on the way to securing an agreement with Borussia Dortmund for Sancho that could be announced soon after Euro 2020. That would mean he can be a United player at the earliest opportunity and have the opportunity to be involved in pre-season, albeit a shorter one because of the tournament.
If Sancho trains with United on the first day that he would have been due to train with Dortmund, that is a finally significant success to have a major signing though the door and in full preparation.
Fans will hope that lessons have been learned at last. Sometimes deals can be quite easy and that has shown in virtually wrapping up the signing of Tom Heaton to bolster the goalkeeping ranks. Kieran Trippier will yet be an important test of the recruitment department and negotiators because it stands to be straightforward on the face of it but could still end up dragged out if done badly.
Other talks will always be going on in the background, but if Sancho is closed early it leaves more time and focus to properly move onto those other things as well. This, above anything, is where United have fallen down in the past few years and what finally shows signs of being corrected.