With their back-up goalkeeper getting recalled early and an injury to a key player, Manchester United had their work cut out in the January transfer window.
The contrast between Manchester United’s January transfer activity and previous windows has been striking. Last summer, United spent weeks and weeks in an ultimately fruitless quest to get Frenkie De Jong to Old Trafford. This time last year, they were frantically shovelling players out of the door on loan while bringing in no-one new whatsoever.
This transfer window has been different. The removal of Cristiano Ronaldo from the payroll freed up a substantial amount of money, but with the club up for sale and having spent just over £225m last summer, it is hardly surprising that Manchester United should have thought twice about spending anything in this particular window. Fortunately, the improvement seen throughout the squad over the first half of this season meant that, for once in recent years, major surgery was not required.
But even so, the news that Christian Eriksen will now be absent for most of the rest of this season came late and will have hit hard. Eriksen hasn’t quite hit the levels of praise of his team-mate Casemiro, but he’s been a creative workhorse for them this season, with only Kevin De Bruyne credited with more assists in the Premier League. To lose such a player was an obvious blow.
To old United, this might have felt like a catastrophe. But the Manchester United of 2023 feels very different and this was reflected in the speed with which they managed to secure the services of Marcel Sabitzer from Bayern Munich for the remainder of the season. As a player, Sabitzer cannot really be considered a direct replacement for Eriksen and further shuffling may be needed to accommodate him.
The club only found out about the extent of Eriksen’s injury on the morning of the last day of a frenetic transfer window, so to bring in a reasonably accomplished player at such short notice is something of an achievement. The Manchester United of just a couple of years ago – and arguably less – would likely have run around the boardroom table as though their hair was on fire before offering Juventus £200m to sign Paul Pogba yet again.
If there’s one lesson that Manchester United definitely seem to have learned since the arrival of Erik ten Hag, it’s that building a successful team isn’t all about the signings that will make the club’s commercial partners purr, or which have come about because of the unduly persuasive influence of agents and representatives. Marcel Sabitzer’s arrival feels like a signing guided by people who understand football better than they understand noodle partners or replica shirt sales.
Not every player has to be the one to make the difference. A lot of the time, making a difference is what really matters. Manchester United had an unexpected and not-insignificant issue that they needed to deal with very quickly; the solution that they found may not be completely perfect, but it’s way better than anyone would imagine them managing in previous years.
The same could be said for the club’s other January arrivals, Wout Weghorst and Jack Butland. The return to form of Marcus Rashford this season has been exceptional, but Rashford isn’t a ‘number 9’, and their only specialist doesn’t exactly have the best record at not getting injured. Weghorst spent the first half of this season scoring a goal every other game in Turkey, and while picking a route to his arrival through the loan agreement between Burnley and Besiktas made the mechanics of the loan more complex, it didn’t make him astronomically expensive.
Similarly, the arrival of Jack Butland as cover for David De Gea was surprisingly sensible. Martin Dubravka had been brought in on loan for the first half of this season from Newcastle United, but Newcastle wanted him back at the start of January and Butland, who was highly rated and has played nine times for England but whose career has been stalled somewhat by injuries and patchy form, seems like a decent enough replacement for the second half of this season as cover.
Of course, some will be wondering why Manchester United were only in the market for loan deals and free transfers in January, and the short answer is that their years without success on the pitch finally seem to have caught up with them from a financial perspective. Manchester United make a lot of money but they’re a football club, not a golden goose, and commercial revenues have not been keeping pace with their spending on both wages and transfers. The club’s net debt has risen from £260m in 2015 to £660m at the end of last year.
In particular, successive shirt sponsorship deals with Chevrolet and Team Viewer have been considered pretty disastrous for the sponsors concerned, to the extent that last month the club and Team Viewer mutually agreed to end a contract which they had originally agreed to run until 2026. The club has already confirmed that it has started looking for a new shirt sponsor for the start of next season.
None of this is disastrous – they’re not Everton – but with the club being up for sale and losses mounting in recent years, it is hardly surprising that spending should have to be trimmed in the middle of the season, though pleading poverty sounds hollow when we recall just how much they spent last summer. And until new ownership is confirmed, spending will have to continue to be capped. This is why a protracted sale process is really in no-one’s best interests.
Perhaps the tightness of the club’s financial position has gone some way towards forcing the club to be more sensible in the transfer market. There seems little doubt that the influence of changes at scouting level have played a part. But whatever the causes, the results are very much the same. Manchester United are being sensible in the transfer market, even if it may only have been because previous insensibility is forcing them to act this way.