The story of how Manchester United head into their opening game of the season with a half-fit, want-away Cristiano Ronaldo as their only available centre forward is one of failure on many levels. Injury to Anthony Martial this week has underlined the paucity of options for Erik ten Hag ahead of his first competitive match in charge against Brighton – but it cannot be used as the only excuse for their issues in attack.
United are now scrambling to try to sign Red Bull Salzburg starlet Benjamin Sesko before the close of the transfer window, with a growing sense of desperation.
It is now nearly two-and-a-half years since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer failed to convince Erling Haaland that Old Trafford was the best place to progress his career. In that time, United have failed to come up with another long-term option, as Odion Ighalo, Edinson Cavani and Ronaldo have perfectly represented the short-termism of a club that drastically restructured its recruitment department in a bid to identify the stars of the future.
Darwin Nunez was one of those. But as United dithered, Liverpool acted.
The Uruguay international is even believed to have been on United’s radar for some time before Jurgen Klopp became enamoured by him after receiving scouting reports in preparation for his side's Champions League tie against Benfica last season.
The signing was a triumph of the agility of Liverpool’s recruitment team in comparison to their rivals at United – and evidence of Klopp’s decisiveness.
Haaland, meanwhile, ended up at Manchester City this summer, meaning United will have to watch on as their two main strike targets of the past couple of years now threaten to widen their rivals' gap at the top.
It is still remarkable that Haaland could not be convinced to head to the red half of Manchester back in the winter of 2019. After all, Solskjaer had been his mentor at the start of his career at Molde.
It was a chance for Haaland to reunite with Norway’s most celebrated player – now the manager of a club adored in their homeland.
Haaland’s ties to City, where his father, Alf-Inge, played, were not seen as a major obstacle. And while, the sell-on clause his agent, the late Mino Raiola, insisted on inserting into any deal, was an issue, the brutal truth was Haaland saw Borussia Dortmund as the more attractive prospect.
After that failed pursuit, United’s desperation saw them try to sign former youth player, Josh King, and eventually land Ighalo from the Chinese Super League at the age of 30.
The following summer they had to be convinced by representatives of Cavani that, aged 33, he could still perform at the highest level.
The desperation of that transfer is underlined by the fact United were repeatedly offered Cavani when he was still in his peak years at Paris Saint-Germain and opted against a move.
In-between Ighalo and Cavani, there was strong interest in Timo Werner, but with the German intent on moving to England, and with Liverpool also pursuing him, he decided on Chelsea, who were the only club to firm up an offer as the rest of football was gripped by the financial uncertainty of Covid-19.
Repeatedly, United’s various voices in recruitment would come together to discuss targets, but rarely agree, with the analytics division and scouts often failing to reach consensus.
GOAL has learned that scouts would dismiss certain suggestions then merely offer up the name ‘Haaland’ when pressed for alternatives of their own.
By this point Haaland was no longer a realistic option, with the player totally unconvinced by United’s project since rejecting them the first time around. City and Real Madrid were the clubs he had his eyes on.
It is possible City would not have been an option had they completed the spectacular signing of Ronaldo last summer. But in a remarkable moment of agility of their own, United swiftly headed off interest from the Etihad to snap up the Portuguese themselves.
While Ronaldo is cited as one of the reasons for Solskjaer’s downfall at United, the former manager was totally onboard with his signing, even if he had not been a target that window.
And so a third 30-something striker was signed in the space of 18 months.
Add to that trio, Zlatan Ibrahimovic – who was 34 when signed by Jose Mourinho in 2016 – and there is a pattern of United signing veteran centre-forwards, while rivals like City and Liverpool continue to land emerging talents.
Mason Greenwood cannot be ignored – and the young forward’s unavailability has added to United’s issues – but they were pursuing strike-options even after he had broken into the first team.
It is evidence of the lack of imagination in United’s recruitment that Haaland’s name should repeatedly be put forward. The pursuit of Sesko does at least point to a new direction.
Despite changes at board level, this summer’s business has been directed by Ten Hag, who wants his former Ajax winger, Antony, to join him at Old Trafford. That would not solve the Dutchman’s striker issue, but would perhaps offer more freedom to use Marcus Rashford through the middle.
Now Sesko is the top striker target, with United aiming to jump to the front of the queue for the 19-year-old, who has been compared to Haaland. They are, however, reluctant to pay the likely asking price of £50 million ($60.4m) for a player who was not a priority at the start of the summer.
United's owners, the Glazers, will need to be convinced the teenager is the real deal and not just a panic buy to part with such a sum of cash.
The Americans remain the gatekeepers to United’s spending – and haggling over price tags has been an ongoing issue with transfer dealings, as the time difference between the UK, Europe and the United States a source of frustration during negotiations.
It has been questioned from within and outside the club why deals have to take so long where United are concerned.
The amount of money Ten Hag has to spend is another issue. It is understood that United were working to a budget of around £100m ($121m) before sales this summer, but they have already spent around £57m on Tyrell Malacia and Lisandro Martinez, with only about £8m coming in from the sale of Andreas Pereira to Fulham.
Departures of high-earners like Paul Pogba, Juan Mata and Cavani have significantly reduced the wage bill – but with Frenkie de Jong set to cost an initial £55m ($66.4m) if that deal can be secured, it leaves little room for a major outlay on a striker.
They may, then, have to exceed their working budget, but it will take consensus among Ten Hag, football director John Murtough and Glazers to spend heavily on Sesko.
With little over three weeks left to get their business done, United will hope selling clubs, such as Salzburg, reduce their expectations – but there is also the prospect that desperation will only rise within Old Trafford.