Towards the end of last season, just as Manchester United’s bad run was really getting going, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had a fairly frank chat with Ed Woodward. The manager argued that, without significant investment and change, the 2019-20 season would be a write-off and it would be unrealistic to expect a title challenge within the next three years.
So far, there hasn’t been much investment, and very little has changed.
The issue isn’t so much the lack of signings, something fairly natural at this early point in the window, but the lack of positive indications that will change.
It is why this is developing into one of the bigger stories of the summers, and why there has already been commotion about it all.
All that does seem to change, in fact, are the names and number of United’s targets. Just as they seem focused on one player, another in the same position is brought up out of nowhere. The latest is Norwich City’s Max Aarons, as a potential alternative to Crystal Palace’s Aaron Wan-Bissaka.
Some of this is the usual summer cycle and vested interests looking to influence the market, but much of it also has some credence. United sources would similarly argue there’s little credence to the idea it’s “scattergun”.
There is a fair and understandable difference between keeping options open and initial contact, as with some alternative options, and the more focused pursuits we’ve seen with players like Wan-Bissaka.
“The approach is properly working on one target in a priority area at a time,” one figure highly familiar with United’s transfer strategy says, although with a significant caveat. “Whatever it is, it’s not working.”
One significant theme of the summer has been great differences between United’s valuation of targets, and that of their clubs. They have been informed of a set asking price, only to make offers way below that.
It has already happened with Wan-Bissaka, and now been reported in relation to Leicester City’s Harry Maguire.
“It all ties in with what I’ve been told of underwhelming offers United have been making,” another club source says.
This has raised questions about the club’s actual financial clout, especially as stories now widely circulate that they need to sell before they can buy.
There are two elements to consider as regards the latter.
The first is that this strategy isn’t all that new. United were told in the summer of 2017 that Tottenham Hotspur wanted £50m for Eric Dier. They responded with an offer of £22.5m.
The second is that sources say the real issue here is about squad size. They need to get players off the books to clear space, something that – once again – has not been easy.
The only players they could in fact easily get rid of are those they want to keep, like Paul Pogba and David De Gea.
And one of the reasons they want to go is because of the state of the squad left by this recruitment strategy.
Many of the bigger targets are the same. Jadon Sancho’s camp do not want to “put him in that environment”, and sources now say it’s similar with Declan Rice. United have investigated a potential future transfer but the player does not feel it’s “the right time”.
This is a source of some of the growing transfer issues. United are beginning to find difficulty in getting the signings of the levels they need.
This is not to dismiss purchases like Dan James. There is a logic to them, regardless of questions about whether other clubs were interested in him.
But that logic needs to be part of the logic of an overall strategy, something that still does not seem the case.
This is what it keeps coming back to with United. This is what remains inescapable.
There was a feeling at the start of the summer they would eventually bring at least five in: two midfielders, a right-back, an attacking player and – depending on the signing – a centre-back.
That, like many of their current bids, is very much up in the air. So, more pointedly, are the targets for next season. It could require more frank chats.