Manchester United’s transfer window didn’t go exactly as planned, both in terms of the pre-decided budget and recruitment of the right profiles. And yet after a long summer, which saw the club’s recruitment team spend the majority of their time in Amsterdam, the Red Devils look well equipped to challenge for a place in the Premier League’s top 4.
United’s original budget for Erik ten Hag’s first transfer window was outlined at £120m. By the end of August, they spent £229m on bringing in six players through the doors at Carrington.
Ralf Rangnick suggested that the club needed to sign ‘maybe 10 new players’ for their rebuild that triggered 14 first-team exits. However, unlike Nottingham Forest (21), United’s incoming list was never going to reach double digits.
The plan was to fill the void in key positions through smart and controlled acquisitions. A midfielder capable of dropping deep and progressing the play, a left-footed centre-back, a right-back who can drop into central areas but also overlap and cross when needed, a reliable number nine, and a left-footed right-winger were marked as key profiles to best replicate the manager’s Ajax side. This was also the reason why John Murtough rarely looked anywhere else other than the Johan Cruyff Arena to strengthen United’s squad.
Frenkie de Jong’s move failed to materialise due to his deferred wages and unwillingness to depart Camp Nou. The new right-back signing relied on Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s exit, but the Englishman eventually stayed. Darwin Nunez was deemed too expensive and Marko Arnautovic’s off-field issues prevented any talks from advancing.
To the club’s credit, in Lisandro Martinez and Antony, they managed to add two players who were a perfect fit in Ten Hag’s system at Ajax and have all the potential to thrive under him in England. Meanwhile, the other four incomings – Tyrell Malacia, Christian Eriksen, Casemiro, and Martin Dubravka – weren’t exactly high on the Dutchman’s wishlist, but they all bring some valuable qualities to the table.
The first signing of the Ten Hag era was hijacked from Lyon at the 11th hour. Initially, the way United signed the Feyenoord talent grabbed a fair share of headlines instead of his quality. That was partly because he was seen as a mere backup to Luke Shaw.
Shaw was among the biggest culprits for United’s embarrassing defensive showings in the opening two games and was subbed off for Malacia, whose positional awareness and tenacity quickly convinced the manager to hand him his first start against Liverpool.
In his four starts so far, Malacia has been an assured presence out of possession and has shone in his inverted role when United have the ball. As shown during his time with Feyenoord, the Netherlands international also has the ability to drive forward and link up with his teammates in the final third once given more freedom to drive forward.
Eriksen’s chance creation rate at Brentford (only behind Kevin de Bruyne and Martin Odegaard since his debut) and his set-piece ability made him an attractive player to pursue, especially on a free transfer.
But much like Malacia, Eriksen’s arrival didn’t generate much hype, as the playmaker was expected to play a squad role due to the presence of Bruno Fernandes and Donny van de Beek.
However, United’s failure to sign De Jong has pushed Ten Hag to experiment with Eriksen in a deeper role in order to aid United’s progression from deep.
The difference the Dane has made to the United’s midfield through his composure in possession and pass selection has been nothing short of remarkable. Further, he regularly drives up and down the pitch and has averaged more distance covered per 90 minutes than any other United player this league season.
Ten Hag developed and trusted the Argentine for three seasons at Ajax before convincing the United board to make a move for him instead of long-term left-footed centre-back target Pau Torres. Martinez snubbed Arsenal to reunite with the 52-year-old.
Six games in, Martinez has already established himself as a first-choice centre-back at Old Trafford. He was named Man of the Match against both Liverpool and Southampton and has also bagged the club’s Player of the Month award for August.
Martinez’s attitude and intense tackling add much-needed aggressiveness to United’s backline. He comfortably steps into midfield with the ball, and continuously finds better angles – in comparison to Harry Maguire – due to being left-footed.
United were supposed to import their star midfield signing from Barcelona, but once talks stalled, they walked away from Camp Nou and struck a deal with Real Madrid for Casemiro.
The Brazilian is far from a De Jong alternative, and has minimal attributes in common with the Barca man. Regardless, he’s the best defensive midfielder in the world, fills a position that was left unchecked for years, and in the short-term solves more problems in the middle of the park than De Jong.
Casemiro’s tendency to break up play in the central areas will help his side in defensive transitions, while his physicality will lead to more success in winning second balls. United’s vulnerability on both fronts has been exploited by oppositions time and again in recent seasons. The five-time Champions League winner doesn’t excel in receiving passes in a deep position, facing his own goal, but has the passing range to find his teammates in the third phase.
The pairing of Casemiro and Eriksen brings complementary traits to the midfield and is certainly a huge upgrade to the ‘McFred’ double pivot.
The summer’s most expensive signing formalised right on transfer deadline day. The 22-year-old didn’t set his £86m price, but will be judged by it every time he dons the famous Red shirt. However, Ten Hag doesn’t care about the pressure his record fee accompanies because he has first-hand experience of Antony’s talent and his potential to transform United’s attack.
The United gaffer now has a left-footed winger at his disposal, who tends to stay wide and stretch defences to open new passing lanes and make space for midfielders to exploit.
He has the technical prowess to receive and control switches of play. The Brazilian talent’s dribbling ability and vision make him an unpredictable threat for full-backs, as he can drive inside the penalty area or pick forwards through early crosses.
The step up to the Premier League shouldn’t be tough for Antony, who has previously showcased his quality in the Champions League, where he was directly involved in six goals (2 goals, 4 assists) last season.
Considering how often Ten Hag’s Ajax played out from the back, a new goalkeeper was seen as a vital addition to challenge David de Gea, who struggles with the ball at his feet.
United opted not to spend big on a new shot-stopper and instead went for a budget signing in Martin Dubravka. The Slovak’s loan switch from Newcastle United was also confirmed on the last day of the window.
For now, not many anticipate Dubravka to dislodge De Gea as United’s No 1. But Ten Hag’s tactical switch has the potential to make him a wild card option.
After their Brentford humbling, United switched to playing long instead of inviting the press. However, the Spaniard’s distribution isn’t very good either, leading to United struggling to maintain possession. In comparison, Dubravka is a much more apt distributor of the ball.
The United hierarchy disregarded most of their scouting department’s inputs and instead backed their new appointee by spending more money than they’ve ever done in a window. How that decision will translate on the pitch will determine for how long the Dutch tactician’s dynasty will last in Manchester.