Manchester United call to Saudi Arabia would highlight transfer strategy failings

It’s just over six weeks until the January transfer window opens for business and once again all eyes will turn to Saudi Arabia to see how the Kingdom backs up its £700million summer spending spree.

If Saudi Pro League chief Michael Emenalo is to be believed, the flow of traffic from Europe to Saudi Arabia will be quieter in January, with the astonishing business in the summer setting clubs up for the whole season.

But it would be naive to believe that there will be no business done this winter and it might be that some clubs in Europe go cap in hand to Emenalo, the SPL’s director of football, in the hope of offloading players they no longer want or need.
The league’s newly-minted status has been a lifeline for some clubs and Chelsea benefited in the summer, selling several cast-offs to the SPL to bring in transfer fees and get salaries off their ever-growing wage bill. There are plenty of clubs who will be hoping to field interest from the league this January, but according to Emenalo, the focus should now shift from individuals to facilities.

“I’m hoping (the January transfer window) is not very busy, because I think the job that was done has been quite interesting and aggressive, and most of the clubs, I believe, have what they need,” he told the league’s in-house media channel.

“And hopefully the attention will now turn to work within the training facilities to improve these players and to allow them time to adapt and perform. Now, whatever additional improvement that we need to do for any club, with time on our hands and preparation, we believe will be additions of the highest level.

“We will continue to support and to see every opportunity we have to bring more talented individuals that want to come to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that is open for business.”

You can certainly imagine Manchester United fielding a call from Saudi Arabia – or vice versa – ahead of the transfer window. Jadon Sancho’s time at Old Trafford is up given his reluctance to apologise to Erik ten Hag and although he turned down a move to the SPL in October, they might try their luck again.

If Sancho had any intention of saying sorry for his social media post claiming Ten Hag wasn’t being truthful with the reason for his absence after the defeat to Arsenal at the start of September, then he would have done it by now. He continues to train on his own and work out of the academy building and his days are surely numbered, whatever happens with Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s minority investment.

Raphael Varane is another who could be the subject of interest this summer. He remains committed to fighting for his place but has seen Harry Maguire, Jonny Evans and Victor Lindelof line up in front of him in recent weeks and that must be setting alarm bells off for the four-time Champions League winner.

There has been no indication he wants to leave and his injury record would be a concern for any potential suitor, but the World Cup-winner has the kind of profile that might be of interest to a Saudi league looking to continue to attract eyeballs.

Casemiro fits a similar profile. A hamstring injury will keep him sidelined until the end of December at least, but the Brazilian has struggled this season, having been outstanding in his first campaign at Old Trafford. He’s looked sluggish at times and the tailing off of his form will be of particular concern given he signed a five-year contract when joining from Real Madrid for £70million.

The fact there is uncertainty over the future of three players signed for a combined £185million to much fanfare at Old Trafford isn’t a good reflection of the recruitment department, especially at a time of change, with Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s minority investment in the club set to come with an overhaul of the sporting operations.

Sancho was signed to play on the right but prefers the left and issues around timekeeping and discipline would have emerged from Borussia Dortmund if United had done their due diligence to a suitable level.

Varane looked a snip at £42million but injury issues have been a constant theme to his time at United. He has been unavailable for one in three games on average and has suffered nine separate absences since joining the club in the summer of 2021.

Only six months ago, Murtough would have held up Casemiro as a piece of excellent recruitment. He kept the player keen on a move while Ten Hag tried to sign Frenkie De Jong and that meant the club could pivot quickly to the Real Madrid man, who was a major influence on and off the pitch last season.

But handing a five-year contract to a 30-year-old is always a risk and the early weeks of the season suggest age is beginning to catch up with the Brazilian. Ratcliffe reportedly raised the signing of Casemiro as an example of United’s questionable recruitment strategy during talks in March. It feels like he could be proven right earlier than expected.

It might be that none of the three end up in Saudi. Sancho could move elsewhere and there has to be a chance that Varane and Casemiro win their places back. But if United are looking to cash in, on the former Real Madrid men especially, then it only feels like further proof of a transfer strategy that hasn’t been working.

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