Erik ten Hag has grown accustomed to facing questions about Cody Gakpo since it became clear Manchester United would need a replacement for Cristiano Ronaldo in the January transfer window.
Looking ahead to Tuesday night’s Premier League clash with Nottingham Forest at Old Trafford, for instance, Ten Hag was informed of a comment from PSV Eindhoven coach Ruud van Nistelrooy that there would come a point when the Dutch club could no longer reject an offer for Gakpo.
Ten Hag remained poker-faced, keeping to his policy of not discussing other clubs’ players. “You can say that about many players,” replied the United boss.
Van Nistelrooy’s remark was widely believed to be a reference to United’s long-standing interest in Gakpo after Old Trafford officials held talks over a move for the Holland forward in the summer.
Turns out that Liverpool were first in line for Gakpo and the offer Van Nistelrooy alluded to from a PSV point of view was a club record £44 million ($53 million) bid from Anfield.
No sooner had United fans absorbed the shock news late on Boxing Day that Liverpool had gazumped their rivals to sign Gakpo than they were coming to terms with the reality that Ten Hag may be limited to loan options in January.
The uncertainty that hangs over the club after the Glazer family indicated their willingness to sell up following 17 years in power has impacted United’s transfer strategy, in addition to the fact that a club record £220 million ($265 million) was spent in the summer window.
Loans may be a better bet for United right now, possibly with the option to buy at the end of the season. However, Ten Hag’s assertion that he won’t sign a stop-gap calls for a delicate balance.
“We are aware that we have lost a striker so need to get one in,’ he added in the build-up to playing Forest. ‘But it has to be the right one who brings quality into the team, not just adding to the squad. The criteria is high here at Manchester United.”
Trouble is, it’s hard to set the bar high in terms of quality when you are working to a budget – even more so when your rivals are ready to spend big. Ten Hag said recently he had been assured by chief executive Richard Arnold that a takeover would mean more money for new signings. What he didn’t say was that the purse strings would be tightened in the short-term.
With the Glazers looking to sell for anything between £5-9 billion ($6-10.8 billion), and further huge investment needed to redevelop Old Trafford, no-one knows quite what the future holds. Against this backdrop of uncertainty, Liverpool pounced to sign Gakpo who has travelled to Merseyside to complete his move.
It’s credit to Ten Hag that people assumed United would be favourites due to his Dutch connections. They served United well when Antony and Lisandro Martinez moved from Ajax in the summer, the latter turning down rival interest from Arsenal.
Christian Eriksen had also trained at Ajax with Ten Hag’s blessing as he returned to full health before joining United as a free agent, while Tyrell Malacia arrived from Feyenoord.
But Gakpo is the one that got away and now United have to work out what to do next. Joao Felix has emerged as an option with Atletico Madrid looking to offload the Portugal star, and the club will have other candidates in mind. But January is never an ideal time to do business.
On the other hand, Ten Hag is well aware that United have only scored 20 goals in the Premier League this season, less than any of the other top-eight clubs including Fulham and Brighton.
It was notable that he talked up Marcus Rashford and young forwards like Alejandro Garnacho, Anthony Elanga and Facundo Pellistri when discussing the options available to him. It’s not impossible – although still unlikely – that United will stick with what they have for the rest of the season.
“Goals can also come out of our own club,” said Ten Hag. “See Garnacho, Elanga and Pellistri who made a good impression at the World Cup and also last week in the (behind closed doors) game against Everton, so there can be those first. I think Marcus is capable of scoring 20 goals in the Premier League. He got three in the World Cup so we know the potential to score those numbers in the league.”
With a deal for Gakpo off the table, United have a decision to make. Stick or twist? Loan or buy? The window opens on Sunday and a 31-day countdown begins.
- A Daily Mail report