United Close in on Sancho
Since losing to Burnley on 22 January, Manchester United have played 22 games, winning 15 and losing just two, scoring 54 times in the process, the majority of the goals scored by Mason Greenwood, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, their three brilliant forwards. Which is to say that, on the face of things, United have no need to pay Borussia Dortmund €120m for Jadon Sancho, except that’s exactly what they’re about to do – and with good reason.
Well though United played in the second half of the season, by the time the FA cup semi-final came around, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer felt obliged to leave out Greenwood and Martial because both had started five games in 16 days, and both were required in the next two games, to achieve Champions League qualification. There are those who feel that Solskjaer ought to have prioritised winning a trophy – though his priorities were probably decided for him, by his bosses – but either way, his players were clearly exhausted, because he felt unable to trust their deputies.
It is not simply a matter of conserving energy. When United played Arsenal in the 1999 cup semi, Alex Ferguson picked Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke to start up front then, when that match was drawn, replaced them with Solskjaer and Teddy Sheringham for the replay. To most observers it looked as like he was simply giving his preferred pairing a rest – United were also in the middle of a Champions League semi with Juventus – but Tony Adams, Arsenal’s captain, saw things differently. “I was concerned,” he wrote afterwards in the Observer. “I had got used to Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke after two hours of football and felt that I could handle them for another two. Now United had a new dimension with two fresh pairs of legs, two players fired up, and they relished it. I knew Ted would feel he had something to prove after not playing for much of the season.”
Years later, when Glazernomics were in full swing, we saw a different iteration of the same: unable to compete for the best players, Fergie instead collated as many options as he could. United’s last title-winning squad featured Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Shinji Kagawa, Nani, Ashley Young, Ryan Giggs, Javier Hernandez, Daniel Welbeck and Antonio Valencia – players he could either start, or call upon to present opponents with a different problem when things did not go to plan. The result was a lot of late goals and a league title won by the middle of April, but effectively secured significantly earlier than that.
Nonetheless, it is legitimate to note that United’s most obvious task is to find upgrades for Victor Lindelof and Nemanja Matic, and only once they’ve strengthened their first team should they add depth to their squad. But sometimes opportunities arise that are too good to refuse, and this is one. Sancho is a brilliant player, able to score, create, entertain – and, most importantly of all, win penalties. Opportunities to sign talent of that calibre is rare, so must be taken when they arrive. Sancho is expensive, it is true – “Daniel Harris understands” that a deal is close, and the clubs, agreed on €60m up front, are currently negotiating the structure of how a further €60m will be paid – but ultimately, if a signing works out, then it was worth whatever the buying club was lucky enough to spend on it. What is for sure is that United’s rivals will be hoping this deal does not happen – and with good reason.