Manchester United’s transfer window is turning to an unedifying climax. Their failed pursuit of Marko Arnautovic has opened the door for agents to flood the club with offers from players previously seen as problematic.
If Arnautovic was deemed fit, albeit briefly, then what about Alvaro Morata, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang or Mauro Icardi?
All of these centre-forwards present issues to consider outside of pure football ability, but once an offer is made for someone like Arnautovic, a 33-year-old whose history includes two years in China and a ban for a nationalist explosion, the door is open to a change of mentality.
It’s worth remembering that United’s interest in Arnautovic was based on Erik ten Hag’s experience of working with the Austrian.
A major recruiting meeting was held in Carrington this week to sift through final options as the deadline approaches. Director of Football John Murtough was present and he continued his talks with staff at United’s training base on Thursday before flying to Turin to discuss Adrien Rabiot’s personal terms on Friday. Sources say Murtough left without yet finalizing a deal with Rabiot’s mother and agent Véronique.
Ten Hag had previously wanted new players so he could focus on tactics and develop his fitness, but there is a frantic feel to United’s business. This contrasts sharply with the serenity of Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham and Arsenal.
At United, the focus on a new striker intensified once Anthony Martial went down with the injury. Ten Hag ended up with a senior centre-forward in Cristiano Ronaldo, who had told the club he wanted to leave. Ronaldo now looks set to stay but the situation is precarious.
It is against this backdrop that United are trying to add to Ten Hag’s options up front and Athleticism understands that Morata is a real possibility. Sources claim United have held talks over the Atletico Madrid striker, who would be available for €35m (£29.6m, $36m).
Morata has spent the last two seasons on loan at Juventus, scoring 32 times in 92 games. He had two seasons at Chelsea and scored 16 Premier League goals in 47 games, but manager Maurizio Sarri told him his mentality was “a bit fragile”.
Atletico could accept a loan, but the Spain international, 29, would demand significant wages.
Sources have played down the chances of moves for Aubameyang and Icardi, two other players with impressive records but excessive baggage.
Mikel Arteta stripped Aubameyang of the Arsenal captaincy for disciplinary failings before allowing him to join Barcelona on a free transfer in February. It’s unclear whether Barcelona want Aubameyang gone after scoring 11 La Liga goals in 17 games, but removing the 33-year-old from the wage bill would help the club register his signings. Chelsea are interested in Aubameyang, who worked well with Thomas Tuchel at Borussia Dortmund.
Icardi, meanwhile, has had a checkered career, most recently missing Paris Saint-Germain’s Champions League draw against RB Leipzig last October for ‘personal reasons’. His wife and agent Wanda posted on Instagram, “Another family you ruined for a bitch.”
It is, however, the market in which United shop. Icardi has 173 career goals in 344 games for Sampdoria, Inter Milan and PSG, so the suggestion isn’t fanciful given the mounting pressure at Old Trafford.
Memphis Depay is another player whose agents have made contact with United. Depay’s brief United career was perhaps best remembered for turning up to a reserve game in his £250,000 Rolls-Royce Phantom against notice.
Depay has scored seven goals in 53 games at United but has rebuilt his career at Lyon and Barcelona and, at 28, is one of Europe’s most sought after strikers. He is expected to join Juventus on a two-year deal.
For United, the names are linked. Technical director Darren Fletcher was at the Hawthorns on Monday as Ismaila Sarr scored from inside his own half for Watford. United made a loan offer for Sarr in late summer 2020 as negotiations for Jadon Sancho stalled.
Talks for Benjamin Sesko came to nothing, with the Red Bull Salzburg striker agreeing to join RB Leipzig in 2023. United have always suspected a move between the Red Bull sides would materialize, but the player’s decision to 19 was always a blow. Sources say this reflected, in part, the clear plan Leipzig were able to lay out for his career.
PSV Eindhoven want to keep Cody Gakpo but may not be able to turn down a €50m offer. The 23-year-old striker, who does his best on the left, is highly regarded by many Premier League clubs, despite being undervalued in front of scouts in his side’s Champions League qualifier against Monaco this week.
The matter is complicated by the fact that PSV progress to the final round of the play-offs, where they will face Rangers. Playing in the Champions League group stage would please Gakpo. Nottingham Forest are also in the running for his signature.
There have been reports of approaches from United for Timo Werner, who has since joined Leipzig, and Hakim Ziyech as well. Others say Stuttgart striker Sasa Kalajdzic has expressed his wish to move to Old Trafford.
There is little common thread between all these different players in terms of style and profile, which indicates the indeterminate thinking that is driving United at the moment.
The club are united on one issue, however. Ten Hag has insisted Marcus Rashford will remain amid news of interest from PSG. The French champions want a player of Rashford’s characteristics and one of his representatives recently met with club officials in Paris.
Rashford’s contract expires in 2023 but the club have an option for a further year. Talks are expected.
United need more attacking players, not fewer.
(Other contributor: James Horncastle)
(Top photos: Getty Images)