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Why Manchester United struggle to sell players in the transfer market

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Deadline day is so fraught with twists and turns Chris Smalling’s permanent transfer to Roma last year was literally off, on, off and then on.

Smalling had enjoyed la dolce vita in Rome, where he was dubbed ‘Smaldini’ and almost made their team of the decade. Smalling was 30, was into the last two years of his Manchester United contract, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer deemed him surplus and Roma had not concealed their desire to make his stay permanent. Yet an eminently sellable asset was nearly left marooned at United.

At 6.04pm on the October deadline evening, United announced the signing of Alex Telles and then at 8.52pm bade farewell to Smalling. Both deals were identical: €15million (£13.6m) up front with €5m (£4.4m) in add-ons. Fans read between the lines.

United used to insist there was not a de facto sell-to-buy strategy. Now they concede it exists. The club meticulously budgeted for two significant signings in Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane, recruited for reasonable fees reduced by personal and club circumstances.

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Beyond those marquee moves, any other incomings hinge on outgoings. Jose Mourinho was denied a centre-back in 2018 partially because Marcos Rojo was immovable. The timings of the Harry Maguire and Romelu Lukaku deals in August two years ago were not coincidental.

You can count on two hands the memorably standout fees United have received with Ed Woodward the bursar: Smalling, Morgan Schneiderlin (£22m rising to £24m), Memphis Depay (£16m rising to £21.7m), Adnan Januzaj (£9.8m), Sam Johnstone (£6.5m rising to £10m), Daley Blind (£14.1m rising to £18.5m).

They had to practically give Rojo and Alexis Sanchez away. Sergio Romero, a World Cup finalist and number two ‘keeper who would have been a number one at most Premier League clubs, was released.

United’s squad situation is healthier now after a gradual rebuild but they are still constrained in the seller’s market by incongruous contract renewals. The method in doling out deals to fringe players is to increase the asset sheet, with a player’s value higher.

But all it has largely achieved is bloating the wage bill, as United are not proactive or expert sellers. According to financial accounts up to March 31 2021, United are owed £50.1m in transfer fees. Of the £50.1m owed, around half (26.4m) is not due until some time after April 2 2022.

Lukaku wants to rejoin Chelsea this month The current market has been predictably slow after 17 months of next-to-no matchday revenue for clubs. Aston Villa’s sudden signing of Danny Ings was such a jolt because they have overpaid for a 29-year-old striker who had 11 months left on his Southampton contract. Ings has moved for £25m rising to £30m, a transfer that could spark a chain reaction in the market, albeit in the lower echelons of the Premier League.

Villa are bound to be more aggressive with £100m banked for Jack Grealish. The majority of clubs will haggle as money is tight because of the financial side-effects of the pandemic. They do not have the added pressure of results yet, either.

United have reputedly quoted Fenerbahce €25m for Andreas Pereira and Solskjaer is seemingly so mindful of his resale value he has started the Brazilian in two of United’s three pre-season friendlies. It has bed-blocked youngsters with a future at the club but if it generates funds for a third significant signing the strategy will have been vindicated.

Pereira, Phil Jones and Jesse Lingard would have been filed as the obvious ‘outs’ at the start of the summer. United could have released Jones last year had they not inexplicably rewarded him with a four-and-a-half year contract in February 2019. Jones, now 29, has started two Premier League games in the last two years, not played in 18 months and just returned from a 13-month lay-off. Who is going to pay for him?

Lingard, 29 in December, has under a year left on his contract and the majority of clubs are prepared to take a back seat and wait to see if he is available on a ‘free’ next summer. Ings, in a similar situation, has been an anomaly as Villa now have more money in their vault than Scrooge McDuck.

United cannot just give Lingard away when he has had a far superior calendar year than some of their forwards. Like with Smalling, they are entitled to demand a fair whack for a proven Premier League forward almost single-handedly responsible for West Ham dusting off their passports.

Out and out? A salient observation some United fans have made is Liverpool have just sold Harry Wilson, who never played for the club in the Premier League and was farmed out on loan the last three seasons, for £12m to Fulham.

Wilson, 24, is Championship standard and his valuation rose through a productive loan at second-tier Cardiff last term and inclusion in Wales’s European Championship squad. Fulham, relegated in their last two Premier League seasons, also have parachute payments to fall back on.

Still, it is a standout fee that is another reflection of Liverpool sporting director Michael Edwards’ expertise. Liverpool have also banked £17m from the sales of nonentities Marko Grujic and Taiwo Awoniyi.

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Despite their senior titles, John Murtough and Darren Fletcher are not as heavily involved in recruitment as some perceive. Murtough will take calls from clubs interested in a player yet is not the kingmaker. The burden still falls on the director of football negotiations, Matt Judge.

United’s unimpressive track record with sales is a symptom of Louis van Gaal’s reign. Van Gaal lit a fire sale that burned across two summers when United obtained fees for 15 players.

Van Gaal’s ruthlessness was required but United were shortchanged by a number of departures. Burnley bought Will Keane for £2m, Wilfried Zaha was sold for a fee rising to £6m, West Brom paid that for Jonny Evans, Nani went to Fenerbahce for £4.3m and Robin van Persie £4.7m. Lyon got Rafael da Silva for £2.5m and Javier Hernandez cost Bayer Leverkusen £7.3m.

Keane became a £30m defender at Burnley, Palace rejected a £70m offer from Everton for Zaha in 2019, Evans generated interest from Manchester City and Leverkusen sold Hernandez for £16m after two years. Nani started for Portugal in their European Championship final victory over France 11 months after he left United and was soon sold to Valencia at a profit.

Only Danny Welbeck (£16m) and Angel di Maria (£44m) fetched fees that reflected their valuation, and even Di Maria was at a £15.7m loss. With some players, Van Gaal was too quick to cut the cord when more funds could have been wired into United’s account. The club was a working fax machine away from accepting a compromise for David de Gea’s agreed sale in 2015.

Woodward has eschewed the ‘churn’ of the Van Gaal era and United have become inactive sellers. Italy has become a dumping ground (Smalling, Sanchez, Lukaku, Matteo Darmian, and Ashley Young) but there are fewer takers this year and, exactly 10 years on, there is the risk of Paul Pogba running down his contract again.

Twists and turns are inevitable with that saga.

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