Man United are all in on Ten Hag – they almost doubled transfer budget after awful start
Man United are all in on Ten Hag – they almost doubled transfer budget after awful start

Erik ten Hag has felt the power of Manchester United’s financial muscle behind him in his first transfer window. A total spend on transfers of £229million ($264m) is the most in a single market for any United manager in history, and rivals the biggest financial commitments of clubs across Europe this summer.

Multiple sources say the original budget outlined in May, as Ten Hag took the reins, was £120m. There is always some elasticity given the unpredictability of the markets, but the gear shift to a figure nearly twice that size is particularly pronounced and all the more notable because it came after a disastrous start to the campaign.

Those familiar with the mood at Carrington after the 4-0 defeat to Brentford reported a spike in activity, with the message spreading in the industry that United executives, led by football director John Murtough, appreciated Ten Hag needed significant backing to have a chance of succeeding.

A group of senior players told the club hierarchy that reinforcements were required — noble rhetoric, you might argue, given some of their places would be at jeopardy.

Chief executive Richard Arnold became more visible and subsequent actions populated the belief that Joel Glazer was suddenly persuaded to allocate more of the club’s money to transfers.

That Tuesday following the result in London, which left United bottom of the table, a delegation flew to Madrid for face-to-face talks on Casemiro.

The next day, a bid worth €80million was placed with Ajax for Antony, a sum that earlier in the window had been ruled out by United as far too excessive. In late July, Antony was not regarded as an option due to Ajax’s demands.

It had long been communicated that United would only be able to afford one player of that value, but both joined for a combined outlay of £155.5million — ranking No 1 and No 5 in the list of Europe’s most expensive transfers this summer.

Several experienced sources in the game believe United, pressured into urgency by results and deadline, have substantially overpaid. Adding in the £57million fee for Lisandro Martinez, more than one established agent estimated the additional cost measured into the tens of millions.

Players are worth what a club is willing to pay and if this group of signings helps propel Ten Hag to an era of success then the extra zeros will shrink in significance.

There are though people close to United who wonder where the money is coming from and worry about the wider picture. Certainly, it will not be United’s owners opening their wallets in the way we have seen at Manchester City and Chelsea. Do those exclusive talks with Apollo Global Management, a private equity company, have any relevance? Would the Glazers consider placing more debt on the club?

At a time when United are exploring how to finance the enormous cost of renovating and rebuilding Old Trafford and Carrington, an additional £100m-plus on transfers cannot be ignored. Sources report a renewed attention internally on cash management for other projects.

Essentially United are all in on Ten Hag, after declining to use the January window to try to rescue Murtough’s first choice as United manager. Ralf Rangnick’s reign descended into trauma, his relationship with Murtough becoming distant as doubts on both sides grew.

Rangnick went on to prescribe “open heart surgery” on United and recommend up to 10 new players. They have ended up signing six.


The first player through the door was Tyrell Malacia. Left-back was not top of the priorities but Lyon’s approach for the Feyenoord player prompted United into action.

United offered Christian Eriksen a good salary and major signing-on fee to join as a free transfer a week later.

Lisandro Martinez arrived next, with Arnold and Murtough travelling to Amsterdam to conclude a fee with Ajax, who ramped up the price in the final face-to-face negotiations. Ten Hag wanted Martinez and Antony but at that stage Ajax would only sell one and the manager prioritised the Argentina defender.

Lisandro Martinez, Manchester United
Martinez forced his move through to Old Trafford (Photo: Manchester United/Manchester United via Getty Images)

Martinez had to do his bit too, pressing his insistence on leaving for a suitable offer — as had been promised by Marc Overmars before his departure as Ajax sporting director. According to De Telegraaf, Martinez unleashed on Ajax’s new technical director Gerry Hamstra, who was blocking the transfer. “You’re a fucking nobody,” Martinez was reported as saying. “You’re only here because Marc Overmars had to go.” Martinez moved two days later.

That same week Arnold and Murtough travelled to Catalonia to finally reach agreement on Frenkie de Jong for a fee worth €85million, six weeks after opening talks. Once the brinksmanship with Barcelona was over though, the guessing games with the player began. Time has shown that De Jong was never truly invested in coming to Old Trafford, no matter that personal terms were broadly agreed via the midfielder’s agents.

Ten Hag felt the player was open to coming and Murtough was given encouragement that solving the issue of £17million in deferred wages would unlock the whole transfer. Those proved to be miscalculations.

When in Miami for Barcelona’s friendly on July 20, De Jong gave indication he preferred to stay at the Camp Nou or join Chelsea because of Champions League football and London life. But heading into August United still felt his signature was viable and did not wish to move on in case his thinking shifted.

Waiting on De Jong caused a jam, however, with that major part of the budget ringfenced. More than one member of United’s executive structure voiced an opinion the pursuit should have ended sooner.

Simmering anxiety among supporters exploded into fury when United’s approach for Marko Arnautovic emerged hours before kick-off on the opening game of the season against Brighton & Hove Albion. Defeat poured petrol on emotions.

Having worked with Arnautovic at FC Twente, Ten Hag identified a streak in the striker he wished to add to his dressing room. The term “nasty bastard” was mentioned, in a complimentary way.

Fans though were aghast at United bidding for a 33-year-old who had spent two seasons in China and, of greater prominence, who had a chequered history on discipline. Arnautovic was banned by UEFA for one game at Euro 2020 for a nationalistic outburst against North Macedonia and further back was accused of a making a racist remark on the pitch, which Arnautovic denied.

Bologna had turned down one bid for Arnautovic but United intended to return with an improved offer. There was an internal expectation the transfer would happen. Then fans complained direct to Arnold, coaches also conferred, and United had a re-think.

All the while Rangnick, Arnautovic’s Austria manager, was left shaking his head in bafflement United would go for that profile of player. Some at the club feel that, on football terms, a deadline-day move might have been palatable to fans as a supplementary signing rather than a central one, but the moral objections were too distinct.

The episode was an example of the risk associated with following a manager on his recommendations unchecked.

Ten Hag has assumed the leading role in recruitment choices this summer, which sources say is expanded from his control at Ajax where Overmars conducted much of the strategy. Ten Hag was lobbying for a bigger say after winning multiple trophies and he has been granted that authority at United.

Having worked for six months to establish Ten Hag has the No 1 choice for United, Murtough has channelled his work in trying to support the Dutchman’s vision. Ten Hag has spoken of the collaboration he has with executive staff.

The issue, as some have privately questioned, is that when Ten Hag eventually goes will the next manager want the same type of players? Rangnick felt he inherited a Frankenstein squad of several different management styles.

United would hope that day is a long way off and getting the right players for this incumbent is the overriding priority. The next manager should in any case fit the same profile.

Still, it is clear the recruitment department has run parallel to the manager’s instincts this summer rather than guide proactively. It is a system built by Murtough but one that, on the evidence of current operating, remains in need of refinement. The best models present various options in targeted positions to managers and are then able to strike decisively.

United, conversely, have been accused of a groupthink that lets decisions drift.

Steve Brown, the head of recruitment who worked with Murtough at Everton, manages a network of dozens of scouts rather than talent spot himself. Instead, United have three chief scouts: Mick Court, whose speciality is video analysis, Simon Wells, who worked under Sir Alex Ferguson and was brought back by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and Jose Mayorga, a South American whose prominence has risen this summer.

Some agents feel there are too many people to contact and convince to get a proposal on the table. For others, reaching Murtough has been hard and they have gone to Arnold. Murtough has his own schedule and cannot answer every call, the frequency of which escalated in the aftermath of Arnautovic.

Agents acting on behalf of Adrien Rabiot had no trouble proposing the Juventus midfielder to Murtough as an alternative to De Jong. Ten Hag and senior scouts became comfortable with the move, which was thought to be low-cost, and United agreed a fee of around £15million with Juventus.

Murtough travelled to Turin to negotiate personal terms with the player’s mother Veronique but her demands would have placed Rabiot among the club’s highest earners and, on August 16, United pulled out. That was the same day that Casemiro became a reality.


The departure midway through July of Matt Judge, United’s chief contract negotiator, unsettled the club. Judge had been a fixture in the transfer market, for better or worse, for eight years. He was engaged on Malacia, Eriksen and Martinez.

To pre-empt the change, United hired Tom Keane in June on an 11-week secondment from law firm Brandsmiths, where he worked on sports cases. Keane got a handover from Judge before stepping into the position and many agents were directed his way when contacting United.

Keane has acted as an agent for his brothers Michael and Will, once negotiating contracts with Ferguson when the pair were in United’s academy, but it is believed his legal qualifications saw him appointed ahead of other candidates.

It was Keane who flew with Murtough to Spain three days after the Brentford defeat, in a meeting set up before that fateful game, to negotiate on Casemiro.

Talks were concluded within 24 hours and contrary to reports in Spain, which claimed the 30-year-old was doubling his salary, he joined United on a slight raise to his terms at Real Madrid, where he was in the top bracket of earners. His contract includes a cut back down to his previous level if United do not qualify for next season’s Champions League.

The appeal for Casemiro was for a new challenge. He informed Florentino Perez of his wishes after the Champions League final and again when he returned from holiday. Real reluctantly agreed to sanction his sale and agents made United aware.

Casemiro, phone
Casemiro’s deal could be worth £140m in total (Photo: Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images)

Communication was kept warm while United pursued De Jong and a decision to switch targets was made after the Brighton loss. The potential cost of the deal is in the region of £140million, transfer and wages over four years combined, but United were reassured by his excellent injury record and testimonials on his character. The scouting department mapped out how he would fit into Ten Hag’s team and gave full support.

The process was similar for Antony, a player United have watched since his days at Sao Paulo. Some early reports raised concerns over his size and dependence on instinctive actions. Later, at Ajax, those watching him for United felt his dribbling style may be susceptible to the physicality of the Premier League.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

What Manchester United are getting with Antony and why Ten Hag wanted him so much

Overall, however, United identified Antony as a potential signing before Ten Hag arrived and the recruitment department subsequently gave full backing. Ten Hag’s influence proved pivotal to the level of finance United reached.

Ajax’s price comes from not wanting to sell after letting five other players leave. Joel Glazer was convinced to sanction United’s second-highest fee for a player after seeing how much Antony wanted to join United. The Brazilian went on strike to secure his move.

Arnold and Murtough held talks with Edwin van der Sar while Keane handled the personal terms. United bid €80m, €90m, then €100m. Van der Sar has banked €167million this summer from United. Ajax’s total revenue in 2020-21 was €125m.

As doubts about Cristiano Ronaldo’s future continued, United also explored the signing of Cody Gakpo. Personal terms were agreed but United backed away from submitting a bid to PSV Eindhoven because of the rising price of Antony and a decision by Ten Hag to keep hold of Anthony Elanga. Leicester City made a loan bid for Elanga, with Everton interested.

Ten Hag was the key voice in allowing James Garner to leave. He judged Garner not at the level to play every week and United decided to bank cash rather than send the midfielder on loan where there was no guarantee his value would rise. There is debate over a fee that rises to £15.5million but given United’s past record at sales several sources view the income as fair.

Murtough did encourage Ten Hag to reconsider Aaron Wan-Bissaka, however. Ten Hag would have allowed Wan-Bissaka to leave at a cut price to West Ham or Crystal Palace, with the player’s family keen for him to return to London.

Agents representing Sergino Dest made a late attempt to reunite the former Ajax full-back with Ten Hag. But Ten Hag accepted that Wan-Bissaka has shown himself a very adept one-on-one defender in the past at United and believes work can be done to sculpt his attacking play.

The final incoming was Martin Dubravka for a £2million loan fee from Newcastle. United had set out to buy a third-choice goalkeeper but changed approach once Ten Hag considered his options and Dubravka is seen as adding genuine competition to David de Gea.


United’s structure is continuing to evolve. In April, Murtough made the decision to usher Jim Lawlor and Marcel Bout out of the club, two chief scouts. Lawlor had joined when Ferguson was in charge, Bout was hired by Louis van Gaal. Part of the reasoning behind the change was that United felt the number of recommendations from the department was insufficient. Others would counter that Lawlor, who had found Nemanja Vidic and Javier Hernandez, knew the quality required at United.

Murtough has made reporting lines clearer for scouts. Previously they were inconsistent — some went into Solskjaer, some into Ed Woodward. Now they all feed into Brown.

Evidently, there are issues to fix given the reliance on Ten Hag this window and disappointing returns from signings pushed by the recruitment department. Amad signed in a deal worth £37million two years ago but is on loan at Championship side Sunderland. Murtough worked hard to get Amad in before Brexit regulations changed yet this feels a major season for the 20-year-old winger to live up to the price tag.

Elsewhere, United have turned down deals that, on reflection, represented value. Moises Caicedo performed superbly at Old Trafford in a position United had desperately needed strengthening. Brighton signed him for £4.5million in February 2021 after United stepped away from talks with Independiente del Valle. Informed sources say United’s discretion was merited due to huge complications over payments to various agents but others point out how Brighton, a smaller club, managed to solve the issue.

Caicedo was sent on loan to Beerschot in Belgium to acclimatise to Europe and brought back at the end of last season in preparation for Yves Bissouma’s expected departure. Caicedo, who has 23 caps for Ecuador aged 20, was the topic of conversation between staff and United and Brighton after the game.

There is still a theory within the industry that United would prefer to spend big money on established players than make relatively low-cost purchases of emerging talents.

Rangnick urged United to follow a fresh strategy to sign Europe’s best young players and he advised the club to appoint a sporting director to oversee a vision for the future. Paul Mitchell was one of Rangnick’s recommendations.

United also inquired over Dan Ashworth before he joined Newcastle United. Any appointment would have needed to tesselate within the existing setup at Old Trafford, though, and the approach never gained traction. At Brighton, like the Football Association, Ashworth assumed the top role and Newcastle gave him a similar status.

Some sources are contemplating whether Michael Edwards could land at United when he finishes his time out after leaving Liverpool.

Manchester United
Ten Hag has been given Murtough’s full backing (Photo: Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images)

At the moment though, a team is being assembled around Murtough. Andy O’Boyle has joined as deputy football director from the Premier League and made a good early impression. This was the first summer of Dominic Jordan as United’s director of data science. It remains to be seen whether Keane is kept on.

Darren Fletcher remains technical director, although his role has been slightly tweaked. Woodward visualised Fletcher as being the first point of contact for senior signings, able to convey from a playing perspective all that United has to offer. Some believed this would mean Fletcher travelling around Europe making executive contacts.

But his desire to coach has seen him on the grass, with focus on academy player pathways. He was instrumental in Amad’s loan to Sunderland and his relationship with Birmingham technical director Craig Gardner, from their days playing together at West Bromwich Albion, was a factor in Hannibal’s loan and Tahith Chong’s sale.

Allied to this is Ten Hag’s agency SEG, led by Kees Vos, who has been present in the directors’ box for United’s opening two games. It is plausible SEG provides expertise and connections on transfers when required.

Murtough was at the King Power Stadium on deadline day, the meaningful work completed before United’s third win on the spin, but he has made a point of centring all activity at Carrington.

His office is down from Ten Hag’s, while Keane, O’Boyle, and Jordan were regularly seen at the complex. That way United’s executives can get a feel for the daily mood among the squad and staff. Woodward and Judge ran United remotely from the club’s Mayfair headquarters.

This was the summer that veered towards going the same way as 2013, when Woodward was new to the job of chief executive and David Moyes was entering another level of management. De Jong threatened to become 2022’s version of Cesc Fabregas.

This time, though, United have signed five players for the first team. It has come at a cost and time will ultimately tell, but the squad feels improved.

(Design: Eamonn Dalton for The Athletic)



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