The uncomfortable truth: Arnautovic pursuit proves Man Utd no longer an elite club

Erik ten Hag Manchester United 2022-23 GFXGetty/GOAL

Richard Arnold was inundated with letters of protest from Manchester United fans in response to the club’s shock move for Marko Arnautovic. It was, it seems, the final straw.

Timing is everything – but it is hard to imagine when would have been the most opportune moment for news of interest in the 33-year-old former Stoke and West Ham striker to break. Certainly not on the same day as Erik ten Hag’s side kicked off the season with defeat to Brighton.

United supporters feel like they are being trolled by their own club.

It has reached that stage of the transfer window where anything goes at Old Trafford. The aborted move for Arnautovic proved that plans A, B and even C are off the table as desperation grips a club that continues to make the same mistakes.

A summer that started with Darwin Nunez as the lead strike target is ending with a man at the tail-end of his career, whom even United accept is not expected to be a starting centre-forward.

So, this is about bodies. Bodies to fill shirts – even if not sell them. Because, given the backlash on social media – and Arnold’s inbox after his email was shared online – it seems there wasn't going to be a run on Arnautovic shirts.

In the Bologna forward’s defence, he is a player of genuine quality – and would have added a different profile to United’s attack.

In fact, had they signed him four years ago when Jose Mourinho considered him a replacement for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, he might have proved a savvy addition.

He has proved himself a goalscorer in the Premier League with middle-to-lower-table clubs – which, on the basis of United’s current trajectory, might also be why they considered him a good fit.

But it would have meant the addition of another ageing striker – after the signings of Odion Ighalo, Edinson Cavani and Cristiano Ronaldo, with nothing like the CV of the latter two.

It was a desperate move after yet another calamitous transfer window that has seen United’s striker search go from Nunez to Antony to Benjamin Sesko to Arnautovic.

That is quite the evolution.

Sesko, who United were still hopeful of securing a deal for up to the weekend, is now joining RB Leipzig. Another one bites the dust.

But that is a consequence of leaving it too late to move for the RB Salzburg striker, who was not a priority at the start of the window.

Sources close to the Nunez deal claim United were far too slow in their pursuit of him – and that despite declaring an interest before Liverpool ultimately swooped.

There is another factor here. Cost.

United were quoted figures of up £50 million ($60m) by Salzburg, which was deemed too high.

Meanwhile, they didn’t want to get into a bidding war with Liverpool for Nunez, who will cost up to £85m ($100m).

At around £8m ($10m), Arnautovic was a much cheaper option, which irate United fans saw as Glazernomics in full flow.

In a summer when the club’s wage bill has been drastically reduced by the departures of high-earners, Paul Pogba, Cavani, Juan Mata, Nemanja Matic and Jesse Lingard, the replacements have so far been underwhelming.

With the bulk of the budget being reserved for Frenkie de Jong, it seems there is little room to spend on a high-quality forward.

But De Jong is another issue.

Over the space of three days, interest emerged in no fewer than four alternative midfield options: Fabian Ruiz, Adrian Rabiot, Guido Rodriguez and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic.

Sources say deals in principle have been put in place for a host of back-ups that United can turn to if the De Jong pursuit ultimately comes to nothing.

But in the case of Ruiz, who was considered among the most comparable alternatives to the Dutchman, United look to have left it too late, with the Napoli midfielder close to signing for Paris Saint-Germain.

Again, it all feels chaotic for a club who have spent fortunes overhauling their recruitment department over the past nine years.

The departures of key figures like chief scout, Jim Lawlor, and head of global scouting, Marcel Bout, were supposed to bring about another shake up.

Chief negotiator, Matt Judge, has gone as well, with Arnold giving football director, John Murtough, greater powers than ever.

Yet Ten Hag’s business so far is an indictment of the work carried out by United’s army of scouts and analysts.

He has focused his attention almost exclusively on players he’s worked with previously – or have links to Dutch football in the form of Tyrell Malacia, Lisandro Martinez, Christian Eriksen, Antony and De Jong.

Even Arnautovic is a player he last worked with more than a decade ago at FC Twente. What names were United’s recruitment team offering up instead? And who will they pursue now that the Arnautovic deal has been abandoned because of the spiralling price and fan backlash?

On the eve of the Brighton game, Ten Hag insisted he would only sign the “right” players – and would be satisfied to end the window with no more additions if he couldn’t land his preferred targets.

Much has changed in just a few days. Brighton will have been a wake-up call. It’s “a hell of a job,” said the Dutchman after the 2-1 defeat.

Just like his predecessors, he is discovering United do not have the pulling power they once had. Perhaps less now than they did for any of David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho or Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

For Erling Haaland there was no contest between the red and blue halves of Manchester. One look from Liverpool and Nunez only had eyes for Anfield.

De Jong has fought tooth and nail to stay at Barcelona – and even Eriksen took his time before deciding on United over Brentford.

This is where they are in 2022 – and perhaps the uncomfortable truth is they are shopping in a different market to the Premier League’s true elite.