Manchester United’s transfer window is veering towards an unedifying climax. Their aborted pursuit of Marko Arnautovic opened the door for agents to flood the club with proposals for players previously thought to be problematic.
If Arnautovic was deemed suitable, albeit briefly, then what of Alvaro Morata, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang or Mauro Icardi?
All of those centre-forwards present issues to consider outside of pure footballing ability but once a bid is made for someone like Arnautovic, a 33-year-old whose history includes two years in China and a ban for a nationalistic outburst, the door is open to a change of mindset.
It is worth remembering United’s interest in Arnautovic was based on Erik ten Hag’s experience of working with the Austrian.
A significant recruitment meeting was held at Carrington this week to sift through the final options as the deadline looms. Football director John Murtough was in attendance and he continued to hold further talks with staff at United’s training base on Thursday before flying to Turin to discuss personal terms for Adrien Rabiot on Friday. Sources say Murtough left without yet finalising an agreement with Rabiot’s mother and agent Veronique.
Ten Hag had wanted new players in by now so he could bed in tactics and build fitness, but there is a frantic feel to United’s business. It contrasts sharply with the serenity at Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham and Arsenal.
At United, the emphasis on a new striker intensified once Anthony Martial got injured. Ten Hag was left with one senior centre-forward in Cristiano Ronaldo, who had told the club he wanted to leave. Ronaldo now looks set to stay but the situation is precarious.
It is in that context that United are trying to add to Ten Hag’s options up front and The Athletic understands that Morata is a genuine possibility. Sources say United have held talks over the Atletico Madrid striker, who is thought to be available for €35million (£29.6m, $36m).
Morata has spent the last two seasons on loan at Juventus, scoring 32 times in 92 games. He had two seasons at Chelsea and scored 16 Premier League goals in 47 games, but was told by manager Maurizio Sarri that his mentality was “a little bit fragile”.
Atletico may accept a loan but the Spain international, 29, would command significant wages.
Sources have downplayed the chances of moves for Aubameyang and Icardi, two more players with impressive records but excessive baggage.
Mikel Arteta stripped Aubameyang of the Arsenal captaincy for disciplinary breaches before allowing him to join Barcelona on a free transfer in February. It is not clear if Barcelona want Aubameyang to leave after he scored 11 La Liga goals in 17 games, but removing the 33-year-old from the wage bill would help the club register their signings. Chelsea have an interest in Aubameyang, who worked well with Thomas Tuchel at Borussia Dortmund.
Icardi, meanwhile, has had an eventful career, most recently missing Paris Saint-Germain’s Champions League tie against RB Leipzig last October due to “personal reasons”. His wife and agent Wanda had posted on Instagram: “Another family you have ruined for a bitch.”
This is the market United are now shopping in, however. Icardi has 173 career goals in 344 games for Sampdoria, Inter Milan, and PSG, so the suggestion is not fanciful given the pressure ramping up at Old Trafford.
Memphis Depay is another player who United have been made aware of by one of the player’s representatives. Depay’s brief United career was perhaps best remembered for him turning up to a reserve game in his £250,000 Rolls-Royce Phantom against advice.
Depay scored seven goals in 53 games at United but has rebuilt his career at Lyon and Barcelona, and at 28, is one of Europe’s most sought-after forwards. He is expected to join Juventus on a two-year agreement.
For United, the names keep coming. Technical director Darren Fletcher was at The Hawthorns on Monday as Ismaila Sarr scored from inside his own half for Watford. United made a loan offer for Sarr late in summer 2020 as negotiations for Jadon Sancho hit a deadlock.
Talks for Benjamin Sesko failed to go anywhere, with the Red Bull Salzburg striker agreeing to join RB Leipzig in 2023. United always suspected a transfer between the Red Bull teams would materialise but the 19-year-old’s decision was still a blow. Sources say it reflected, in part, the clear plan Leipzig were able to present for his career.
PSV Eindhoven want to keep hold of Cody Gakpo but might not be able to turn down a €50million bid. The 23-year-old wide forward, who does his best work on the left, is highly regarded by many clubs in the Premier League, although he was under-par in front of scouts during his team’s Champions League qualifier against Monaco this week.
The matter is complicated by PSV advancing to the final play-off round, where they will face Rangers. Playing in the Champions League group stage would appeal to Gakpo. Nottingham Forest are also in the running for his signature.
There have been reports of approaches by United for Timo Werner, who has since joined Leipzig, and Hakim Ziyech, too. Others say that Stuttgart striker Sasa Kalajdzic has expressed his desire for a transfer to Old Trafford.
There is little common thread between all these various players in terms of style and profile, which indicates the indeterminate thinking pulsing through United at the moment.
The club are united on one topic, though. Ten Hag insisted Marcus Rashford will be staying amid news emerging of PSG’s interest. The French champions do want a player of Rashford’s characteristics and one of his representatives recently met club officials in Paris.
Rashford’s contract runs out in 2023 but the club have an option for an extra year. Talks are expected.
United need more offensive players, not fewer.
(Other contributor: James Horncastle)
(Top photos: Getty Images)