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Manchester United's Summer Transfer Splash and Big Looming Questions

Sports Illustrated logo Sports Illustrated 7/27/2021 Jonathan Wilson

Manchester United is addressing some key areas in the transfer market, but Paul Pogba's future remains a pressing issue for the title-chasing club.

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For a long time this summer, the transfer market felt like a game of chicken. Nobody quite knew what the impact of the pandemic will be on transfer fees and so nobody wanted to move first, with the result being that there was no liquidity in the market. Everybody needed somebody to jump, just to reassure everybody that players will still change clubs for eye-watering sums of money. Finally, the major dominoes are starting to fall, with Manchester United sealing the signing of Jadon Sancho from Borussia Dortmund and reportedly reaching the brink of finalizing Raphaël Varane’s move from Real Madrid.

Sancho joins for $100 million, around half what United was prepared to pay last summer. The fee may still be a risk in a time of such uncertainty, but it is a justifiable one. This, after all, is a 21-year-old who registered eight goals and 11 assists in the Bundesliga last season, a technically gifted and intelligent player who can operate from either flank. One of the doubts about United last season was its capacity to break down opponents who sat deep; Sancho should provide greater creativity in wider areas to counter that.

Even if he is a player who has been at his best with space ahead of him, he offers more in that regard than, say, Daniel James. The one slight caveat is that he has always been at his best when supported by an attacking fullback which, at United, would mean him naturally starting on the left to link up with Luke Shaw, in the position that tends to be preferred by Marcus Rashford. But still, after a couple of seasons in which it has seemed that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has only trusted a core group of around 11 or 12 players, it’s a sign of progress that he will have some difficult choices for big games in the coming season.

A fee of just under $60 million has reportedly been agreed for Varane who, even after a difficult season at Real Madrid, still represents a clear upgrade over Victor Lindelöf and the injury-plagued Eric Bailly as a naturally right-sided central defender to partner with Harry Maguire. More than any other position, probably, that was an area United needed to address. Varane, like Maguire, is comfortable on the ball and will step into midfield—although he will look rather more graceful when doing so.

Raphael Varane, Paul Pogba are posing for a picture © Provided by Sports Illustrated

If there is a doubt, other than his indifferent form last season, it is that there have been times when he has been rattled by sides who press high against him, as, for instance, Manchester City did in the Champions League in 2020, but that is as likely to be a product of the system he was playing in as any individual failing. Football’s economics caution against buying a player at 28, as that is when they are at the top of their value, but even for a player with just a year left on his contract, even in such uncertain times, the fee seems relatively modest for a World Cup and four-time Champions League-winning player of such obvious class. It’s no secret that the pandemic has severely affected Real Madrid’s finances, and its willingness to sell Varane is probably indicative of it rebalancing its books.

With manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer having signed an extension through 2024, the immediate future at United looks relatively stable. Only two major questions remain. Firstly, there's the perennial issue of Paul Pogba, whose contract expires next summer and who reportedly has PSG as a willing suitor this summer. Does United really want to risk losing him on a free transfer for a second time? Yet can the club really afford to give in to the demands of his agent, Mino Raiola? Heading into his sixth season after he rejoined the club from Juventus, he remains a divisive figure, obviously talented, and yet still, at 28, lacking the consistency and discipline of a genuinely top-class central midfielder.

And then there is Solskjaer himself. That he remains as popular as he does with fans is more because of his status as a club legend from his playing days than for anything he has done as a manager. A second-place finish last season is obviously something of an achievement (amid COVID-19 conditions United was an unbeaten 12-0-7 on the road yet a rather vulnerable 9-6-4 at home), but 74 points is a long way away from a serious title challenge, and United went out of the Champions League in the group stage and fell in the Europa League final to Villarreal after a legendary shootout. It remains unclear whether Solskjaer is capable of crafting the sort of cohesive attacking plans that mark out the very best.

With an improving squad, his ability will come under increasing scrutiny. Poor results previously could be blamed on poor recruitment and other issues at the club. Those excuses are falling away.

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