As far as headlines go, the Manchester Evening News’s offering of ‘Manchester United could buy and sell players in January transfer window’ was perhaps the most unknowingly hilarious.
It was a basic presentation of some banal Ole Gunnar Solskjaer quotes, designed to feign some sort of inside knowledge. It was also a statement of literal fact: Manchester United could buy and sell players in January transfer window. That is how this sh*t works.
Three months prior, the same outlet – and indeed the same journalist – relied upon the same faux-revelatory rhetoric. The club’s ‘stance’ on transfers in the winter was made clear as early as September: ‘Manchester United remain open to making signings in the January transfer window on the proviso the right players are available.’
Every other club, of course, is only interested in the wrong players who are unavailable.
These are the vague platitudes, attributed to those mysterious ‘high-level sources’, that have come to symbolise a club insistent that they are different while continuing to battle with their own identity. That has manifested itself in on-pitch struggles underpinned by boardroom fallibility, and the stagnation shows little sign of abating in either area.
The latest example of mismanagement at the highest level came on Monday, with another message from within.
‘Manchester United are interested in James Maddison, but are wary that it is difficult to conclude big transfers in January,’ Sky Sports claimed. Scouts had been tracking the Leicester midfielder all season, they stressed, leading them to two conclusions: he would be a perfect signing at an imperfect time. Both of which were apparent in the summer before all of the ‘tracking’.
Of course, transfers are inherently ‘difficult to conclude’ at any time by their very nature. They involve so many variables in clubs, players, agents and the subsequent fees that even the most apparently simple negotiation is protracted, the most straightforward deal susceptible to collapse at any moment.
That effect is certainly magnified in January with restricted time and clubs reluctant to disrupt their season. Yet ‘difficult’ is not impossible. It is an excuse offered before failure. United have no intention of signing Maddison now; they just want people – fans – to know they’re doing something.
While Liverpool pushed the boundaries of professionalism in the summer before they signed Virgil van Dijk, those bridges were carefully and painstakingly rebuilt by the time they announced his impending arrival on December 27. Manchester City identified Aymeric Laporte as ideal and broke their transfer record to sign him that same window. Even last year, Leicester themselves laid the groundwork to permanently purchase Youri Tielemans.
None of those deals were simple. All of them made a mockery of the theory that there is ‘no value’ in the ‘difficult’ winter market.
So to pretend that ‘even those with the pull of Manchester United’ struggle ‘to get big deals over the line in the winter market’ is insulting, laughable and lamentable. Not only because ‘the pull of Manchester United’ is no longer nearly as irresistible as it once was or they would have you believe, but because it is justifying and accepting negligence. History is littered with examples of the ‘difficult’ January market bearing the most bountiful fruit for those who are prepared to put in the work. United are experts at planting the seed but not going through with the harvest.
“It’s a different era and a different time,” said Solskjaer of next opponents City on Monday. “When the owners came in, you knew they were going to go for it. We are still in our own heads one of the biggest clubs in the world, but we know that’s going to take time.” And therein lies the problem: United is still a club that operates with a preconceived idea of what they were rather than what they actually are. The only difference between them and the rest is that no-one else so happily excuses such relative mediocrity.
Manchester United could buy and sell players in the January window. But you sure as hell wouldn’t back them to actually do it.