Woodward must deliver Man Utd’s most crucial post-Fergie signing

Ian Watson
Sir Alex Ferguson

The bullsh*t gauge was once again pushed to its very limits during the reading of Ed Woodward’s opening remarks to a Manchester United fans’ forum earlier this week. But the executive vice-chairman was right about one thing: this summer is ‘an important opportunity’ for United to make tangible progress in the rebuild of their squad.

Leaving aside the fact that every window represents a similar chance to implement positive change and that this one is only viewed as critical because of their many previous failures, this summer could certainly go a long way to putting United back closer to where they feel they belong. But only if they make perhaps the most important signing since Sir Alex Ferguson relinquished his hot seat almost seven years ago.

Since that May day in 2013, United have signed fewer hits than misses, despite Woodward boasting about United’s success last summer while neglecting to mention that they still didn’t do enough. With the January window only recently shut, much of the gossip around United centres on creative players like Jack Grealish and James Maddison, and thrilling wingers such as Jadon Sancho. But Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s most pressing need is for a central striker.

Solskjaer has had to muddle through without a proven centre-forward all season – and boy, has it shown. But still, United refused to act last month until Marcus Rashford, himself not a central striker, was sidelined with a back injury. Only then, in the last few days of the window, did they finally go to market, when all that was left on the shelf was Odion Ighalo or Glenn Murray.

Ighalo may prove to be an inspired short-term signing but his arrival and its hasty manner directly contradicts Woodward’s talk of ‘a clear plan and philosophy’. Landing Erling Haaland may have given Woodward more authority to speak in such terms but no, the Red Devils suddenly developed principles when it came to dealing with the Borussia Dortmund star’s agent.

Romelu Lukaku’s success at Inter Milan has also applied a gloomier filter to United’s recruitment decision-making. The Belgium striker has struck 21 times for Inter while the criticism of United’s willingness to sell grows with each goal. But selling Lukaku was not United’s big mistake. He wanted to leave and Solskjaer was happy to sell after two years at Old Trafford during which both parties made basic mistakes. Failing to adequately replace him with a top-class, proven striker was United’s grave error, which is why they must make it third time lucky in the summer.

As United have demonstrated, that’s easier said than done. When was the last time the Red Devils identified and signed a striker who was a sustained success for any period longer than a season or two?

Wayne Rooney? Ruud van Nistelrooy? United have bought many strikers since, with the list stretching to Henrik Larsson, Dimitar Berbatov, Carlos Tevez, Javier Hernandez, Michael Owen, Mame Biram Diouf, Robin van Persie, Radamel Falcao, Anthony Martial and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Van Persie and Ibrahimovic were both brilliant for a year; Tevez never quite made the position his own and Hernandez was a wonderful impact striker. But not in a decade and a half have they signed and retained a potent goalscoring centre-forward who is capable of leading their line for more than just a year or two.

Woodward and Solskjaer have a ‘young and hungry’ mantra when it comes to identifying transfer targets and in some other areas, United have covered themselves for the long term. Their other reported summer targets could provide that longevity too. But in attack, not yet have they found a forward to make them stop playing the field.

Who might that be? As Woodward says, United should have enough recruitment gurus to work that out for themselves, the same talent-spotters who analysed 804 right-backs before they settled on the most obvious of all, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, last summer.

The net need not be cast quite so far and wide this time; a quick look at the basic numbers paints a clear enough picture to start. Ciro Immobile, Robert Lewandowski and Timo Werner lead the charts with all three already having hit 20-plus league goals for the season. United haven’t had a player break that barrier since Ferguson retired and took Van Persie’s mojo as a souvenir.

Jamie Vardy and Sergio Aguero also feature in the European top ten, which gives a clearer hint at the calibre of goalscorer United should be targeting. Combine that level of potency with the creativity we know they want, and United could indeed seize their ‘important opportunity’. But with Woodward grasping, who knows what, if anything, United might end up with.

Ian Watson