There are three guarantees for Manchester United every transfer window.
Number one: they’ll be linked to countless players without signing them. Two: when they do sign someone, they’ll be forced to pay an overinflated fee. And thirdly, selling players will be a hassle.
Ever since flogging Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid for a then-world-record £80million back in 2009, recouping cash on stars deemed to surplus to requirements has been a struggle for the Old Trafford hierarchy. Only twice since his departure have United managed to make even half of Ronaldo’s fee in combined player sales over the course of a year.
Each of those occasions has seen a big-name player leave for a similar sum to the one they’d been purchased for just a year or two prior – namely Angel Di Maria and Romelu Lukaku. Take them out of the equation and there’s very little money generated from outgoings which has led the Red Devils into facing football’s most confusing jeopardy: Financial Fair Play.
Once United began negotiating the signing of Mason Mount in June, it became apparent through various reports that manager Erik ten Hag was working on a limited budget due to FFP fears. His club’s disastrous record of selling players was coming home to roost.
Even though Mount was eventually signed for a guaranteed £55m, followed by Andre Onana for £47m and Rasmus Hojlund for £72m, the exact structure of those deals remains unknown and payment might not come until future transfer windows. That’s just like the club’s future under the Glazer family, leaving the Old Trafford hierarchy including chief executive Richard Arnold and football director John Murtough – mainly in charge of transfer negotiations – to sort out the mess of United’s failings in the transfer market.
This summer, prompted by suggestions that UEFA could clamp down on the Red Devils through FFP sanctions, there’s been a keen focus on offloading players of some financial value, whether that be high or low. There were eyebrows raised when United sold talented academy graduate Zidane Iqbal to Dutch side Utrecht for less than £1m, but a buyback option on the Manchester-born Iraq international could make it a savvy piece of business.
Then there’s Alex Telles, whose £4m departure to Saudi Arabia side Al Nassr offered a small boost to Ten Hag’s kitty. But United’s three other sales – and potential fourth – best represent their steady improvement when it comes to selling, starting with Czech goalkeeper Matej Kovar, who on Monday completed a £7.7m move to Bundesliga outfit Bayer Leverkusen.
The 23-year-old featured in pre-season and his distribution impressed supporters, some of whom even tipped him to play backup to Onana this season. But when Xabi Alonso’s Leverkusen came calling, United struck a deal and were happy to sell Kovar so long as it meant getting a decent fee for a player without a senior appearance for the club.
Yes, they could’ve clung onto the Czechia youth international and hoped that he’d become even more valuable or their No.1 goalkeeper, but the Red Devils put sentiment aside for the sake of getting the right deal. Staying on that line of thinking, perhaps no departure this summer represents their more measured and strategic approach to offloading players than Fred.
A beloved member of the dressing room for his tireless work-rate, bubbly personality and sprinkles of quality, it was seemingly decided early in the window that the Brazilian would be on his way out should a club come in for him. Now 30 and having entered the final year of his contract, Fred has been shipped out to Turkish giants Fenerbahce for a useful £12.9m.
That could go a long way in funding United’s move for Fiorentina midfielder Sofyan Amrabat, a player who Ten Hag rates highly after working with him in the Netherlands. While games like Monday’s unconvincing 1-0 victory over Wolves could’ve done with a player of Fred’s profile in midfield, keeping him as a backup for another season only to lose him for free next summer would’ve been a costly decision.
A more straightforward decision was to sell Anthony Elanga to Nottingham Forest for a cool £15m. Still only 21 and with bags of potential, there’s a good chance that Swedish forward Elanga could prove Ten Hag wrong for not extracting his potential.
However, that price was too good for Red Devils chiefs to turn down. The elephant in the room here is Harry Maguire, who looked set to give United a significant £30m boost before his transfer to West Ham stalled.
There’s still the possibility of that move happening and despite the fact he cost £80m four years ago, Arnold and Murtough accepted West Ham’s offer. Crucially, Maguire’s £200,000-a-week wages would also be off the books, another financial boost.
There’s also time for more sales in the final 16 days of the transfer window, with further outgoings planned. Dean Henderson, Eric Bailly, Brandon Williams, Donny van de Beek and Anthony Martial are all still on the chopping block, and could bring in handy funds for Ten Hag to further plump up his budget.
Should they stay, depart for nominal fees or leave on loan, then it’d serve as a reminder that the Red Devils are far from the finished article when it comes to selling. But there’s no doubt that with Arnold, Murtough and Ten Hag at the helm, United have come to the realisation that it’s time to right another of the previous regime’s wrongs.