Manchester United do not typically make signings in the winter window, feeling that clubs are reluctant to let go of genuine talent midway through a season. This time, though, there is a pressure to replace Cristiano Ronaldo.
Manager Erik ten Hag told reporters at United’s Spain training camp during the World Cup break that he wants to add to his attack: “We do everything in our power. We are doing research on every opportunity and we do everything we can if that opportunity is there to contract them.”
Here, The Athletic looks at the possibilities for moves both in and out next month, and who will make the final call on deals.
Last three January window spends
How much money is likely to be available this month?
Ever since the summer, when United went over budget by £100million, this winter window has been looked at as one for preservation rather than augmentation. United’s first-quarter financial results detailed the extent of the issues — an overall debt close to £1billion, with just £24.3m cash in the bank (in June 2019, they had £308m).
But Ronaldo’s departure heightens the need for a centre-forward and Ten Hag might yet exert his influence on recruitment to see money made available. Agents are wondering what United being up for sale means for signings, but some feel that it would make sense for the owners, the Glazer family, to once more dip into the revolving credit facility to enhance the chances of Champions League football next season. Qualification after missing out this season would raise the value of the club.
Who makes the key decisions about signings?
Ten Hag’s voice is the most prominent over the identities of targets — he held crucial sway over the pursuit and costs of Antony in the summer — but he works in conjunction with a recruitment team who are increasingly data-led. Ten Hag has a good relationship with football director John Murtough, and the ultimate sign-off comes from Joel Glazer. This will continue even through the talks over United’s prospective ownership, with “business as usual” being the mantra from Old Trafford.
Joel, the most involved of the Glazers in club affairs, has continued to communicate with chief executive Richard Arnold over the running of United.
Steven Brown, United’s head of recruitment, oversees the scouts and collates the information. Dominic Jordan, the club’s first director of data science, scrutinizes the statistics. Murtough’s deputy Andy O’Boyle is also involved in discussions.
Murtough takes the lead on negotiations with agents and executive counterparts, with Arnold occasionally stepping in when large sums are being committed.
Which position is the priority?
Finding a striker to fit Ten Hag’s ideal was the overriding requirement, even before Ronaldo’s exit last month. Anthony Martial could do the job but has been sidelined with three different injuries already this season. He cannot be relied upon.
Marcus Rashford has played up front but is most effective coming off the left, and he may well be needed there with doubts over Jadon Sancho’s return. Teenager Alejandro Garnacho would be expected to get more game time, and Antony and Anthony Elanga are options on the wings but the situation is quite stark.
A right-back to rival Diogo Dalot, who had started 20 of United’s 21 games this season before missing their first post-World Cup fixture against Burnley in the Carabao Cup last Wednesday, could be another requirement. Aaron Wan-Bissaka had only played four minutes all season before being named in the team to face Burnley but acquitted himself well, including his first assist in 18 months.
Ten Hag said afterwards: “It is clear Wan-Bissaka has a future. He had some good years at Man United and from the start of this season, he had a lot of illnesses and injuries. From the restart on, he is fit and he could train with the team.”
It was a position Ten Hag wanted to strengthen in the final days of the summer window, with talks held over US international Sergino Dest, who moved to AC Milan instead on loan from Barcelona.
Who are plausible targets?
Cody Gakpo has come under discussion again. United agreed personal terms with his representatives in the summer and the player himself was preparing for a move, only for Ajax to raise the Antony price, which prohibited further spending. Since then Gakpo has enjoyed a good World Cup, and Ten Hag’s liking for him has remained. Scouting department staff are aligned in that thinking.
Gakpo’s best position is left wing, although he has been starting through the middle for the Netherlands in Qatar. The uncertainty over Sancho means flexible players will be especially useful.
In the summer, PSV Eindhoven intimated that a €50 million bid would be required on Gakpo, a fee protected by his contract running to the summer of 2026. PSV are also aiming to win the Eredivisie title for the first time in five years and believe Gakpo is central to that goal. There are suggestions they need to sell, though, so there may be room for manoeuvre.
Ten Hag is with the same agency as Gakpo. The Athletic has been told Murtough met with Kees Vos, CEO of SEG agency, at Carrington in the last fortnight. Voss is a regular at Old Trafford and the pair see each other regularly.
Ruud van Nistelrooy, his PSV counterpart and a former United hero who himself swapped the Dutch club for Old Trafford 21 years ago, said last week: “If I have the choice, I prefer (he leaves in) the summer, but it can also be now. You know there comes a time when you can’t say no.”
Whatever money is spent will come out of the summer budget and Ten Hag must decide, in conjunction with Murtough and Joel Glazer, whether that is the right call.
United could opt for a lower-cost, more experienced striker.
Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting’s contract at Bayern Munich expires in June so the Cameroon international — who’ll be 34 in March — might be available. Summer 2015 buy Memphis Depay, now at Barcelona and 29 in February, was offered to the club in the previous window. There are scant attractive options in this mold, however.
At right-back, United have scouted Bayer Leverkusen’s Manchester City academy graduate Jeremie Frimpong. But it is expected that they will only be looking for a loan signing at this position.
Who could be heading out?
Wan-Bissaka was available in the last window and United will listen to offers now, too. Crystal Palace made contact about bringing the 25-year-old back to Selhurst Park but weren’t prepared to bid anywhere close to the £50million fee United paid for him to move in the opposite direction in 2019.
In the circumstances, Murtough convinced Ten Hag to give Wan-Bissaka further consideration to see if he could recapture his previous good form, but his only Premier League appearance so far came against Liverpool in August as an 86th-minute substitute. He did start both the recent friendlies in Spain, however, before continuing against Burnley with Dalot out after going off injured in Portugal’s final game of the World Cup. Dalot, who had displaced Joao Cancelo in the Portugal team, will not be sidelined for long. A loan departure appears most likely for Wan-Bissaka.
United are also expected to entertain talks about Brandon Williams, who returned from injury in those games against Cadiz and Real Betis. Williams went on loan to Premier League strugglers Norwich City last season and it may be that a permanent transfer now makes the most sense, with Ten Hag’s view of the situation being influential.
Axel Tuanzebe, who had two loan spells at Aston Villa and Napoli last season, is available. But he is currently working his way back to fitness after injury. Tom Heaton may want to secure regular football after falling behind Martin Dubravka in the pecking order.
Which World Cup star would be perfect for United?
An alternative to Gakpo is Goncalo Ramos.
To replace Ronaldo in Portugal’s starting line-up for a World Cup knockout tie and then instantly score a hat-trick in what is your first international start shows he has a granite mentality, while his finishing in that match against Switzerland was razor-sharp. His all-round play was good too.
It continued a productive season for the 21-year-old, who emerged after the summer sale of Darwin Nunez to Liverpool to score 15 goals for Benfica.
Ten Hag likes Ramos, but again, the cost would be a factor.
(Top photo: Goncalo Ramos, Cody Gakpo, Jeremie Frimpong; all Getty Images)