It was around this time last year that Erik ten Hag summoned Manchester United‘s recruitment team to Amsterdam to start mapping out the first stage of his Old Trafford rebuild.
Less than 24 hours after winning his third Eredivisie title with Ajax, he sat down with assistants Mitchell van der Gaag and Steve McClaren and United football director John Murtough at his agency’s offices in the south of the city to talk through targets like Lisandro Martinez, Tyrell Malacia and Antony. Frenkie de Jong was also mentioned, and Cody Gakpo.
The theme running through the conversation was that while there was money to spend in Ten Hag’s first summer, he wouldn’t be working with an unlimited budget and some areas of the squad would have to be prioritised over others.
In the end, United spent more than they originally planned — in part because Ajax’s valuation of Antony rose throughout the transfer window — but there were items on Ten Hag’s to-do list that went unchecked.
Ten Hag has cemented himself as the most powerful individual at the club after a (relatively) successful first season, which could yet end with a second trophy if United beat Manchester City in the FA Cup final (stream LIVE June 3 on ESPN+ in the U.S.). but the message from the administration about his summer transfer plans will be similar to the one laid at in Amsterdam 12 months ago. There is money for some new players, but probably not as many as Ten Hag actually needs.
Sources have told ESPN that United are working with a budget of between £100 million to £150m which would be supplemented with funds raised by departures. There’s a feeling within the recruitment department that the squad needs to be “tweaked” with two or three new arrivals in key positions although there’s an acceptance that Ten Hag will want more.
It will be Murtough’s job, along with deputy Andy O’Boyle, to find a middle ground between Ten Hag’s demands and the reality of the club’s financial situation, impacted in part by a need to navigate UEFA’s financial fair play rules.
Ten Hag got his way last summer with the pursuit of Antony, but that was only because recruitment staff believed they would face more competition for the Brazilian winger down the line. Decisions are made on a case-by-case basis along with director of data science Dominic Jordan and head of recruitment operations Steve Brown and there is no guarantee Ten Hag will get his way with each target.
After a season during which United have struggled to score goals, the priority this summer is to sign a striker. There’s interest in Harry Kane but also a reluctance to get into prolonged negotiations with Tottenham Hotspur chairman Daniel Levy over fears he would want to delay any deal until closer to the Sept. 1 transfer deadline. Ten Hag’s aim is to have players signed before the preseason tour of the US kicks off with a flight to New York on July 20 and certainly doesn’t want to leave business until the last minute.
Aside from Kane, Victor Osimhen is being monitored, but Napoli don’t want to lose their star man and if he is available there would be significant competition from Bayern Munich and Chelsea. Bayern are also keen on Kane with Sadio Mane expected to leave after just one season in Germany. Both Kane and Osimhen would command fees in excess of £100m and so other options are being considered including Randal Kolo Muani, Dusan Vlahovic, Tammy Abraham and Brian Brobbey.
It’s the same with midfielders. Ten Hag likes De Jong, Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham but they will not come cheap. Borussia Dortmund are asking for a fee in the region of £130m for Bellingham, which would represent almost all of United’s summer budget, while West Ham value Rice at more than £100m.
Chelsea pair Mason Mount and Mateo Kovacic are cheaper alternatives while Adrien Rabiot, who came close to signing last summer, is out of contract at Juventus. James Maddison and Alexis Mac Allister have also been mentioned and United haven’t ruled out signing Marcel Sabitzer permanently, although his future has been complicated by a season-ending knee injury.
Ten Hag, according to sources, believes he needs another midfielder to compete with Christian Eriksen, who turned 31 in February, but what money is available depends on how much is used elsewhere.
He would also like another goalkeeper, even if David De Gea signs a new contract. There are concerns De Gea’s struggles with passing the ball out from the back is hindering the way Ten Hag wants to play but signing a new No.1 is something that might have to wait. Much will depend on how much money United can raise through sales.
Eric Bailly and Alex Telles, both out on loan this season, will be allowed to leave while Phil Jones and Axel Tuanzebe will be among a group of players released at the end of their contracts on June 30.
On top of that, the club are open to offers for as many as 10 first-team squad players including captain Harry Maguire and Scott McTominay. West Ham are expected to revive their interest in Maguire after making an enquiry in January and Newcastle are interested in McTominay, but not at United’s valuation of around £40m. It’s important United manage outgoing transfers well this summer to help ease their FFP concerns.
The uncertainty surrounding the ownership at Old Trafford is an issue heading into the summer with sources at the club accepting that they can only hope new owners — if they arrive — let Murtough and Ten Hag spearhead the recruitment drive. The upheaval at Chelsea following Todd Boehly’s takeover has been used as an example of the type of situation they hope to avoid.
For now, Ten Hag remains optimistic that he can oversee a productive window, saying last week that he believes “many quality players want to come” after some had “reservations” about signing for United a year ago. The first stage of the rebuild yielded a positive first season. More progress in his second year will depend on success this summer.