Man United hampered by lack of progress on potential sale amid slow start to EPL

AP , Thursday 24 Aug 2023

By spending big money on a new goalkeeper and striker, Manchester United looked to have addressed the main weaknesses in their squad and laid the foundations for a potential title bid in the English Premier League.

Erik ten Hag
Manchester United s head coach Erik ten Hag applauds during the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester United and Wolverhampton at the Old Trafford stadium in Manchester, England, Monday, Aug. 14, 2023. AP


There’s still, however, so much more to fix at a huge club seemingly stuck in neutral while negotiations over a possible sale move along at glacial pace.

On the field, United has made a slow start to the season, with an underwhelming 1-0 home win over Wolverhampton followed by a 2-0 loss at Tottenham.

The trumpeted arrival of ball-playing goalkeeper Andre Onana from Inter Milan and young striker Rasmus Højlund from Atalanta — at a combined cost of around $140 million — will take time to have an effect. Indeed, Højlund has yet to even begin full training with the squad after arriving with an injury.

Then there’s the third offseason signing, Mason Mount, who has slotted in as one of two No. 8s alongside Bruno Fernandes, ahead of holding midfielder Casemiro. The new midfield set-up has looked imbalanced so far and is a work in progress, with that transition facing a delay since Mount picked up an injury that might rule him out for up to six weeks.

Delays. Ah, United manager Erik ten Hag is used to them.

After all, he’ll have surely hoped by now for some movement on — perhaps a conclusion to — the sale of the club to Qatari banker Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad Al Thani or British billionaire Jim Ratcliffe.

That might have given Ten Hag and United’s recruitment team more money to spend in the transfer window. Could Højlund have been Harry Kane, for example? Could Declan Rice have come to United instead of Arsenal?

Instead, a summer of paralysis. There’s eight days to go before the window shuts and United might not add another player to the squad, despite frequent speculation — as there always is with United — about incomings.

For the moment, Ten Hag can only focus on Nottingham Forest in the league at Old Trafford on Saturday. In theory, it looks like a home banker, with Forest one of the worst teams on the road last season.

However, Forest didn’t roll over when it was losing at Arsenal 2-1 on the opening weekend of this season, and United has been far from convincing so far.

Marcus Rashford has been deployed as a central striker while Højlund regains fitness and he looks out of place there, preferring to be starting on the left wing. There remains a question mark about the effectiveness and output of Antony on the right wing and the same thing can be said about Jadon Sancho, who has been a letdown since joining from Borussia Dortmund two years ago.

In central midfield, will there be enough energy when, as is likely, Christian Eriksen joins Fernandes and Casemiro in the absence of Mount?

“There's always going to be criticism when you play at this level and especially at this club,” United defender Victor Lindelof said. "We want to play at the highest standard and supporters watching us expect that from us.

“We've just got to step it up and perform better.”

A win against Forest might paper over the cracks ahead of tougher assignments against Arsenal and Brighton either side of the international break. Then there’s the start of the group stage of the Champions League, which will really test the strength of United's squad.

In a transfer window when Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and City have been spending big, United has again lagged behind. Spending $82 million on Højlund doesn’t come without its risks, too — he is 20 years of age, scored 10 goals in all competitions in his one season at Atalanta and has played fewer than 100 senior games.

It's early days but it seems Ten Hag already has his work cut out to make his second season at United a successful one.

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