For the first time since 2019, nobody passed through the January window at Manchester United before it closed.
Amad arrived last January after Bruno Fernandes and Odion Ighalo had touched down on the Manchester Airport runway in 2020. In 2019, United were under the caretaker management of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, won all but one of their matches in the new year and Solskjaer accepted the Manager of the Month award.
At his introductory press conference in December, Ralf Rangnick struck a reluctant tone when pressed on recruitment. January, he cautioned, was not an ideal time for ‘sustainable’ additions. For every Fernandes there is an Alexis Sanchez.
United were badly burnt by the opportunistic move for Sanchez in 2018. That immediately quashed any possibility of them taking a punt on the unloved Ousmane Dembele, despite mouthpieces doing Barcelona’s bidding and linking him to all and sundry. Dembele, like Sanchez, is into the last six months of his contract.
Officials at Paris Saint-Germain were mystified to awaken on deadline day to news they had agreed terms with Dembele. They hadn’t. United briefed that a tweet from a suspect account on Sunday that claimed they had bid for Dembele was inaccurate. Where United and Dembele were concerned, someone at the club agreed it was the ‘usual b——s’.
Exotic-sounding midfielders were baselessly linked with United to smoke out a genuinely interested club (Juventus signed Denis Zakaria) or to secure a big pay-day (Boubacar Kamara is out of contract in the summer). Some representatives and clubs’ behaviour in hawking clients across Europe is so tawdry they seized on the likelihood of a French-speaking midfielder of African descent (Paul Pogba) leaving United by incessantly linking them with French-speaking midfielders of African descent.
The absence of a permanent manager, the presence of an interim, a bloated squad and the constraints of the winter window made any January incoming at United a non-starter.
“We are running processes for our recruitment in the summer,” a senior club source said in early January. “We start in September and it starts to really solidify around this time of year, just in case there are ones available who we would want to bring in the summer who are available now. Although that’s a low probability.”
The re-emergence of West Ham’s interest in Jesse Lingard on Monday afternoon was curious in the wake of their defeat at United nine days earlier. United gave West Ham short shrift when they asked about Lingard early in the month in spite of the player’s preference to return to London.
Most expect West Ham, fourth at kick-off at Old Trafford, to tail off in the challenge for fourth place and they barely resembled a rival in a typically Moyesean performance against United. West Ham had one attempt on target.
United could have repaired a strained relationship with an academy graduate, got his wages off the books, banked a loan fee for and then goodwill ahead of a possible approach for Declan Rice. Ultimately, United deemed it was not worth the risk and their insistence Lingard had always wanted to stay stretched credulity.
The scheduled return of Pogba from a three-month absence with a thigh injury offsets the departure of Donny van de Beek in midfield. Pogba is Premier League-proven and Van de Beek isn’t, so Rangnick is sanguine with an internal replacement, even if said replacement has a shelf life of under four months.
United’s switch to a 4-3-3 formation is more inclusive for a trimmed squad bracing itself for a run-in laden with midweek fixtures (United have seven matches in 22 days in February). Van de Beek’s absence is practically irrelevant as he has not started a meaningful league match since December 5 2020.
Rangnick must maximise Pogba for the short remainder of his contract and he has suggested the Frenchman could earn a major transfer through his performances. The uneasy alliance between United and Pogba is about to enter the endgame.