As a concept, the ‘big six’ in the Premier League just about clung on last season, although Manchester United were much closer to West Ham in seventh than they were to Arsenal in fifth.
United held off the Hammers by two points to secure Europa League football. They were 11 points behind a rebuilding Arsenal, 13 behind a suddenly dangerous Tottenham, 16 adrift of Chelsea and light-years behind Liverpool and Manchester City.
So heading into this summer it was indisputable that United had more work to do than the rest of those clubs. They were the only member of that sextet to change manager but Erik ten Hag hasn’t yet been seen to walk on water, so he might need some new players as well.
Bu,t with the last days of June upon us United are still as at the table counting their chips and the pressure is about to increase once again, on the board and on football director John Murtough.
United have spent the entire summer so far playing a high-stakes game of brinksmanship with Barcelona for Frenkie de Jong. It’s a game they’re likely to win, at least in terms of signing the 25-year-old, but if his signature isn’t secured by the end of this week then the delay starts to become costly, eating into the hard bargain United are trying to drive.
De Jong would have been expected to report to Carrington for pre-season training early next week and if he’s not signed by then, the delay impacts his assimilation period, as well as having a knock-on effect on the time other new signings will have to work with Ten Hag in pre-season.
Tomorrow will mark 50 days since United approached Barcelona over De Jong, on the night they won the FA Youth Cup at Old Trafford and Ten Hag secured the title with Ajax. The following day Murtough met the new United boss in Amsterdam.
At that stage, it’s unlikely they thought this saga would still be going on. Convincing De Jong to move to Old Trafford was expected to be the biggest issue, but despite Barcelona’s need to sell a fee has still not been agreed.
De Jong alone will clearly not be enough at United. They need another forward and reinforcements in defence, probably centre-back and full-back, but the clock is ticking on this window and rather than being the busiest of the big six clubs, they are the ones yet to really get going.
Manchester City’s statement signing of Erling Haaland set the ball rolling this summer and the Blues have now agreed a fee with Leeds for Kalvin Phillips. Liverpool acted decisively to sign Darwin Nunez, a player United were interested in, and Tottenham have already signed Yves Bissouma, Ivan Perisic and Fraser Forster.
United could console themselves with the fact the window still has time to run and other clubs hadn’t yet acted swiftly, but Chelsea approached Manchester City over Raheem Sterling on Monday and could wrap up a deal this week. The West London club’s new owner and acting sporting director Todd Boehly asked City for their valuation of Sterling and is keen to avoid a long-running saga.
At Old Trafford, they might have expected Arsenal to be catchable, at least, next season, but they signed highly-rated Porto midfielder Fabio Vieira last week, are close to landing Gabriel Jesus and could get a run at United on Lisandro Martinez.
The Ajax central defender is wanted by Ten Hag, but a reunion with his former manager might be thwarted if Arsenal’s offer for the 24-year-old is accepted. United plan to focus on an attacking signing once De Jong is done, so might be too late for Martinez by the time they move on to their defence.
United’s slow start to the window has been less than ideal given the business they need to do this summer, but as the five clubs they are chasing down start to improve their own squads, it is only amplifying the pressure they will be feeling at Old Trafford.