ast weekend, a small but significant part of Manchester United’s online fanbase got themselves extremely excited by a new Instagram Story posted by their on-off transfer target, the Borussia Dortmund winger Jadon Sancho.
Over recent years, the increasingly feverish fetishisation of transfer gossip has been mirrored in the growth of an army of amateur online detectives who scour the social media posts of footballers – and often their partners and families – for even the vaguest hint they may be on the move. Planes are tracked across the North Sea. Isn’t that row of elms the same as the one outside Arsenal’s training ground? If I’m not mistaken, that broken grit box is from the A560, which is how you’d get from Manchester airport to Carrington if the M56 is gridlocked. And so on.
Here, Sancho had posted a picture of himself standing outside a park. But which park? Zoom right into the background, and tied to the park gates you’ll see a laminated notice bearing the logo of a local council. Zoom in even further, and it looks uncannily similar to the logo of Tower Hamlets. Stop the presses: Sancho is in London! Where United have an office! He’s signing! Maybe even in time for the Crystal Palace game next weekend!
Alas, when the teams finally emerged out of their tunnels and into the Old Trafford bio-dome, Sancho was notably absent. Donny van de Beek, signed from Ajax at the start of the month, would later appear from the bench and mark his debut with a sharp if ultimately meaningless goal. But for the first time since 2013-14 under David Moyes, Manchester United began a new Premier League campaign without fielding a single new signing.
The temptation among many of United’s angrier fans will be to link that fact with the disjointed, vaguely asthmatic half-performance they offered up in defeat, and redouble their clamour for reinforcements. Certainly as Roy Hodgson’s clever and spirited Palace side countered them almost at will, as Wilfried Zaha spun them this way and that, as United lost themselves in drowsy passing moves and crosses to nobody, it was hard not to feel that, on some level, Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side are missing something.
But is it simply a fresh flourish of the chequebook? Or is it something else as well? Because for all the extrinsic lack of quality it was possible to see other things here: a frazzled, undercooked team who have barely had time to reacquaint themselves with each other. Who five weeks ago were still finishing off a marathon 61-game season, while most of their rivals were already training for the next.
Some of Solskjær’s team have been available to him only since the start of this week. Paul Pogba has been recovering from Covid-19. Bruno Fernandes has a two-week-old baby at home. His captain, Harry Maguire, went on holiday and found himself in a Greek jail. In short: you could scarcely concoct a set of circumstances less conducive to a lightning start. Oh, but Ed Woodward is the problem here.
Naturally this is all a lot more complex than it looks, and not only because there is a large extent to which, yes, Ed Woodward actually is the problem here. But one of the more reductive consequences of modern transfer culture is the assumption that new signings are the only way of improving a squad. Underpinning this assumption are two more: that the worth of a player to a club is fixed and quantifiable, and that the worth of a team is simply the sum total of its constituent parts. What gets lost in all this is any sense of broader context: of the part played by coaching and conditioning, by cohesion and chemistry, by form and fatigue.
This is not to say United wouldn’t benefit from a few fresh faces in key roles. But there are multiple ways of doing this. Sancho would clearly be an upgrade on Dan James. The returning Aaron Wan-Bissaka would be an upgrade on Timothy Fosu-Mensah. Dean Henderson may yet prove an upgrade on David de Gea. A sturdy chest of drawers would be an upgrade on Victor Lindelöf. And in any case, United’s current recruitment priority should be in defence, where opponents are beginning to recognise their vulnerability in possession.
Meanwhile, instead of judging this side on 90 blanched minutes, perhaps it’s worth wondering how it may look at full strength, with some miles in its legs and some proper training under its belt. The spectacular second half of last season should deter a rush to snap judgments. The need for better recruitment existed before Palace tore them apart, and is no more pressing now. In short: United could probably use a transfer or two. But here, they just looked like a team in need of time.