Manchester United’s January transfer window: Wout Weghorst – loan, two goals in 20 Premier League games for Burnley; Marcel Sabitzer – loan, two goals in 40 Bundesliga games for Bayern Munich; Jack Butland– loan, third-choice goalkeeper at Crystal Palace.
When the market opened opportunity knocked but was ignored by the owners, the Glazers, who showed no ambition to try to end the club’s decade in the title wilderness. On 1 January Erik ten Hag’s team were 11 points behind Arsenal, each having played 16 matches, and ahead were meetings with Bournemouth (3 January), Manchester City (14 January), Crystal Palace (18 January) and the Gunners four days later. When United beat the Cherries and Arsenal dropped points by drawing with Newcastle on the same day, the maths was simple: win their next three games, including at the Emirates, and the gap would be down to a maximum of three points and a championship charge was on, despite Mikel Arteta’s trailblazers having a game in hand.
For the best chance of this scenario the Glazers, at the start of the market, had to back their impressive manager with funds to buy the elite centre-forward who might help fire United to the championship or at least contend until the end of May. Because this is the damning charge against the Glazers’ proprietorship: how, since Sir Alex Ferguson’s 2012-13 champions, the Americans have overseen dismal failure to make even a serious challenge.
Last month Ten Hag manoeuvred United into a position to shake up what appeared a straight shootout between Arsenal and Manchester City. Cristiano Ronaldo’s exit expunged the dressing room of a malignant force and freed up space for a fleet-footed finisher of the Ten Hag school who could compete with Anthony Martial and ease the pressure on Marcus Rashford.
The usual price might start at about £60m yet Cody Gakpo was available for an initial £35m. But, no. The word was Ten Hag had drained the budget in the summer when Antony (£85m), Casemiro (£70m) Lisandro Martínez (£48m) and Tyrell Malacia (£15m) arrived. A club-record £218m outlay is not parsimonious but all the manager had were Ronaldo’s saved wages of about £12m, meaning he was £23m short of Gakpo’s price: relative chump change for a commercial operation of United’s scale, particularly when the riches for claiming crown No 21 (and those in glamour and prestige) would make a comfortable profit on the spend.
Weghorst, whom Burnley had loaned to Besiktas, signed on 13 January. The next day United beat City 2-1. So far, so good: six points from six, meaning at Selhurst Park there was a once-in-the-past-decade chance to experience what was lost when Ferguson retired: the intoxication of a race to finish first. Beat Palace and Ten Hag’s men would motor on a high to Arsenal, who might then have felt the weight of a 19-year wait for the championship.
Too late, though. Gakpo or AN Other might not have scored the goal that would have defeated Palace but United will never know. Instead, a dying-moments Michael Olise free-kick caused two dropped points, Weghorst appeared what he is – a one-paced striker – and momentum was checked. Four days later United lost 3-2 in north London and the glimmer of tilting at glory was gone.
Now, as Palace arrive for Saturday’s reverse fixture, United are 11 points behind, having played a game more than Arsenal. Suddenly Tottenham, who have chalked off one more match than Ten Hag’s team, are on 36 points to their 39 and in the fray for a top-four position.
At the window’s start, Arsenal led by seven points and went on to buy a European club and international champion, Jorginho (for an initial £10m), a 28-year-old forward with four years’ Premier League experience in Leandro Trossard (£21m) and 22-year-old centre-back Jakub Kiwior (£17m), as a back-up: £48m spent from a position of strength as champions, or champions-elect, should do. United’s budget managed three loans of which Weghorst and Sabitzer (a replacement for the recently injured Christian Eriksen) were sticking-plaster acquisitions.
When the Glazers, who are selling United, finally depart their sour legacy will surely be a debt of more than £500m and no champion team since Ferguson walked away. Having to service that arrears-mountain while the six siblings have drawn dividends of £150m since 2016 can only be detrimental to squad investment. So there should be no surprise that in their (expected) last window they failed their manager when he presented them with the chance of a return to the big time.
Last week Ten Hag quipped he was not “Harry Potter” (in reference to Rashford’s upturn in form). But last month’s transfer policy showed he would need to be a wizard to claim the main prize (barring a real-life miracle) and instead he has to be a finder of cut-price gems that can form part of a cup-winning and Champions League-qualifying side.
The 53-year-old may do it. Weghorst starred at the World Cup for the Netherlands and has scored in United livery – though not in the league; Sabitzer offers a flexibility of attacking positions and is experienced in European competition. United are in the Carabao Cup final this month and remain in the FA Cup and Europa League.
But elite clubs strive to be No 1 and work to narrow the odds of their manager achieving this. The Glazers, to the tune of £23m, could have stretched themselves to go for it. But they did not.