Manchester United are not going to be doing any major business this January. The club has been telling us this for months but beyond what they’ve told us, their financial situation renders spending any money almost impossible. There’s also the INEOS Takeover to be mindful of. INEOS won’t be officially in place until after the January window but it’s hard to imagine they would sanction spending long-term money – from a position of desperation – on something short-term. Perhaps a short-term loan or two may come in, but United shouldn’t even be looking to do anything more than that.
That doesn’t mean nothing has been happening around Old Trafford. January is only 18 days old but there’s already been a flurry of players departing Carrington on loan for the second half of the season, some of which have been a little eyebrow-raising.
There are still another 13 days to go in the transfer window so things can certainly change, but let’s make sense of what’s happened already.
Donny van de Beak
(Loan to Eintracht Frankfurt, €11m option to buy)
No better way to sum this up than he went from wearing a shirt that said “TeamViewer” to one that says “Jobs Finden.”
The jump from the Eredivisie to the Premier League is a big one. It’s a different game out there. Hopefully, he plays well enough that Entrach Frankfurt utilizes the buy option. He’s not the highest earner and the fee may not be large, but every incoming pound counts.
(Loan to Borussia Dortmund, no buy option)
Let’s get a couple of things out of the way.
Jadon Sancho is now the eighth highest-paid player in the Bundesliga. Number one through seven all play for Bayern Munich. Numbers nine through 12 also play for Bayern Munich. Borussia Dortmund have said they cannot afford his wages full time and they weren’t just saying that.
The odds of finding a club willing and able to pay Sancho’s wages, let alone a transfer fee for him, are probably one percent. When preseason begins next summer the odds of Sancho still being employed by Manchester United while Erik Ten Hag is not, are much higher.
United may be happy to accept a £40m offer for Sancho this summer, but this loan seems less about creating a market for Sancho and more about long-term thinking. Erik Ten Hag is essentially an interim manager at this point. He doesn’t want to work with Jadon Sancho anymore. Jadon Sancho doesn’t want to work for Erik Ten Hag anymore. Get him out for six months, let him play football to hopefully regain his form, and see where things are come summertime.
(Loan to Burton Albion)
Hugill had 11 goals in 12 appearances for United’s U21 side last season and scored seven in nine appearances this season. It’s a good return. It’s also U21 football. Very hard to tell how that would translate to playing against men, especially in a physically demanding position such as striker, and especially in the Premier League against the best defenders in the world.
If Hugill could turn into a backup striker capable of eating minutes here or there for United that would be amazing, but his ceiling isn’t any higher than that.
(Loan to Sevilla, €20m option to buy)
Now’s where we get into the interesting ones.
In 2019 United made a renewed investment into their academy after neglecting it for nearly a decade. One of the first big signings they made was Hannibal. Fans had high hopes for Hannibal. As with every academy player who shows promise, he was going to be our future star.
He quickly showed he was too good for academy football. At 18 he was getting called up to his national team. He was a starter for Tunisia at the 2021 Arab Cup (though this was more of a B-team tournament) and went to AFCON a month later. Fans love his fiery attitude, and how he’ll always run hard and put in a tough challenge.
There are two issues with Hannibal. The first is his potential has always been there but years later that’s still all he’s got. Potential. The rest just hasn’t come in.
He had a decent loan spell at Birmingham last year but that was the Championship. There was nothing about his loan that said he was going to tear up the Premier League!
He got everyone out of their seats this season when he came on against Brighton and did this.
You can’t judge a player’s talent by wonder goals. Plenty of players score them. Andreas Pereira hit more than his fair share. They’re not something that happens too often. If you get three of them in a single season that’s a lot, but what are you doing when you’re not scoring wonder goals? How are you helping the team in those moments?
With Hannibal, the answer was, not a lot. He made his first Premier League start this season and while he ran around a lot, he didn’t particularly do much. He was especially disappointing when it came to getting on the ball, particularly because he’s a player who’s supposed to make things happen.
It’s a small sample, but a club like Manchester United can’t give chance after chance after chance to youngsters who aren’t doing the job. It’s the youngsters’ job to knock that door down and show the manager he can’t afford to drop him (I know I know, Scott McTominay – he’s a whole different story). In a season where Erik Ten Hag has been desperate for someone to pump some life into the attack, Hannibal not getting another look is an indication that he’s probably not impressing all that much on the training ground either.
The second issue is just timing. Hannibal’s best position is occupied by Bruno Fernandes. Hannibal is at the point of his career where he needs to be playing (and making a leap) if he’s going to be a star. That’s not going to happen at United where Bruno has at least another two years. The player isn’t going to want to wait.
Getting €20m for him would be a good deal for United. Then take that money and find the next Hannibal who will be ready right when Bruno is ready to be phased out.
(Loan to Benfica, £6m obligation to buy if certain requirements are met)
Fernandez is in a very similar situation to Hannibal. He also joined in 2019 as part of that renewed investment in the academy. He’s also a very highly touted player.
For Fernandez, the writing has been on the wall for a few months now. It looked like Fernandez could get a chance this season with injuries to backup left back Tyrell Malacia over the summer, followed by Luke Shaw picking up an injury early in the season. Injuries are the best opportunities for youngsters because they typically get a chance to find their feet and get some rhythm, but Ten Hag chose to start a right back, a center back, and a central midfielder at left back as well as make a last-minute loan deal for Tottenham’s third-choice left-back rather than give the academy kid an opportunity.
A few months later Alvaro publicly said that Ten Hag made it clear he wasn’t in his plans. The thing about signing a 16-year-old to your academy is they’re not going to have the same sentimental connection to the club as a local lad who’s been here since he was 10. Fernandez wants to play now, it’s easier for him to decide to leave.
(Loan to Granada, no buy option)
Facundo Pellistri has made 24 appearances for Manchester United which is about 24 more than I ever thought he’d make.
He’s gotten fans excited with clips of him putting in some nice crosses at the academy level but what else does he do? Even last season when trying to praise him all Erik Ten Hag could come up with was saying, that he goes to the outside of defenders which is different after they’ve been dealing with someone who cuts inside all game. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
Since joining United Pellistri has played more for his country than he has for his club. That’s always a popular stat but it says less about Pellistri and more about Uraguay’s other options on the right wing. Their backup right-wing plays in MLS.
Pellistri has had some bright moments off the bench – but it’s easier to make an impact off the bench when you get to run at tired legs. He’s never really looked like United standard.
Overall this window feels much more like United looking to use the loan system to find players new homes next season than getting these guys seasoning to come back to Old Trafford and make an impact. Frankly, that’s pretty much the way the loan system works these days. Of all the established first-team players at United, only Harry Maguire and Mason Mount* spent time on loan in their formative years, neither of which were at United at the time.
Clubs aren’t in the business of developing players for another club anymore. If the manager’s job is on the line (and it almost always is) if a player can’t help the manager win today, then he’s not going to play today.
While we all want to see academy players make the jump to the first team, the reality is most of these players are not going to be stars. Not only that, they just aren’t going to be good enough for what Manchester United want to be, and that’s ok. United put in renewed investment into the academy back in 2019.
Back then, the academy was in a bad place. There’s a reason there are no academy players between the ages of 20-25 in United’s first team right now. Just look at where academy players went on loan three to five years ago. It’s a who’s who of League Two or non-league clubs, and foreign clubs you’ve never heard of. Now they’re sending players to teams that regularly compete in Europe, with options to buy. This is a massive step up.
The academy was never going to go from barren to regularly producing talent overnight. This was just the first step, but the fact that there are already two players from this new era establishing themselves in the first team is unbelievable. That’s already an incredible hit rate.
Erik Ten Hag reportedly wants to raise the standard of what it takes for an academy player to make the jump into the first team. That’s a good thing. The truth is Alejandro Garnacho should be the bare minimum level of talent to get to the first team because, well…
I understand it’s hard to trust Ten Hag’s talent evaluations, especially considering James Garner and Anthony Elanga are having fantastic seasons after leaving. However, the reality is what they’re being asked to do at their current clubs is far different than what they’d be getting asked to do at United. I do think that Garner could have been a valuable squad player for this team – and you would like the academy to develop more squad players – but times have also changed. A lot of players would rather go be first choice elsewhere in the Premier League than stick around and be a squad player.
United are only going to be playing one game a week for the rest of the season. With trophy culture putting even more emphasis on cups these days Erik Ten Hag is going to keep selecting a full-strength team in the FA Cup (gotta develop those automatisms!). There just aren’t going to be opportunities for most of these players.
Seeing this crop of talent all leave at once may sting, but it’s a positive for the club that they’re back to producing players of this level. If they continue on this path United is going to reap the benefits for a long time to come.
*I’m not sure you can throw Diogo Dalot in there as United was trying to offload him completely that season but could only find a loan for him.