Sam Pilger is a journalist and sports writer for publications such as Forbes, FourFourTwo, Optus Sport, The Athletic, Bleacher Report and The Times Magazine as well as the author of Manchester United’s Best XI. In this exclusive interview, we discussed the transfer window and Man United’s linked targets as well as go through the latest stories and rumours surrounding the club.
“Yeah, it was never going to be one that was done cleanly at the start of the window. United briefed about a month, or 6 weeks, ago that they were moving on from Kane, that they weren’t going to get dragged into it and that’s the one they didn’t want to do and that’s smart to not have that dragged out over the summer. I think the problem is a lack of alternatives as well, I mean yeah he does have a year left on his contract so Tottenham don’t have to sell him but I wouldn’t day it’s completely over as I do think there is some hop but it’s very narrow now.”
“It’s a balance. I think, ideally, Kane would like to go. Obviously, Bayern Munich have bid for him twice but I think he’s still very interested in breaking the Premier League record, I think this is his home and he wants to stay here and win. Bayern Munich is a strange club these days as it’ll give you some fun in the Champions League but eleven league titles, consecutive league titles, mean he could go there and win a league title, which he hasn’t won in England. However, I think, ideally, he would rather stay here and he has made it known that he would be interested in United. City were in for him two years ago and that was blocked and United are certainly keen on him, as he’s Ten Hag’s priority, but common sense will tell you this wasn’t going to get done early.
“There is some hope that, towards the end of the window, they (United) might try again, have a sniff around but on the face of it the club is looking at other options, which is sensible. I mean, you know, the new Tottenham coach (Postecoglou) has gone in there and he’s said “look, I’ve been given no guarantees about Kane”, which tells you everything. It’s fluid. It could change, Kane might start to agitate a bit and I find it strange that he wouldn’t, Tottenham aren’t going to win the league this season and might have a cup run or two, but for such a great player it’s a very mundane experience.”
“As great a club that Tottenham are, with the new stadium and everything, you know, they’re clearly a long way short of challenging for even the top four now. So, um yeah, he might start to agitate before the window shuts so keep an eye on it as I don’t think it’s completely gone.”
Kane Alternatives: Højlund?
“I understand it has changed, to the frustration of the United fans, from Kane to Højlund, which is quite a drop because in some Utopian world there was Kane AND Højlund, with one being for the future and the other for now. In a ideal world, that would certainly be perfect because there’s a lot of pressure on Højlund if he does come.”
“Højlund and Muani (Randal Kolo Muani), they’ve certainly had preliminary talks with but, again, people obviously know about the ‘United tax’ and so on. I think United thought they could get Højlund for £30 million or something, as he’s a player who scored 9 goals in Serie A and is still only 20 years of age. However, I believe there’s talk that Atalanta want between €60 – €70 million, so that’s around £55 – £65 million, and I mean that seems a bit silly but, again, three years ago United paid up to £37 million, and a lot of add-ons, for Amad Diallo. At that moment, Diallo had only played one senior game, so Atalanta have a case as goalscorers are such a premium and I know he’s been called ‘Haaland 2.0’ and has a Haaland ‘whiff’ about him, or comparisons, but that is a huge gamble.”
“I mean, it could work, it could be very exciting, but that’s still a huge risk and a lot on his shoulders plus there’s not a lot of support around him; obviously Weghorst has gone, Martial is in and out with injuries, Rashford doesn’t want to play up front and is better coming in off the left. So, you know, it’s not like “look, we’ll bed you in until you’re ready” but instead a lot will be expected of him immediately. He wants to come, he’s signed up with the same agents as Ten Hag (United manager), not that that guarantees anything, but yet again it’s the selling club who will hold on for as much as they can.”
“United do need to sign a striker and that’s the problem, the market knows they are desperate for a striker so they (selling clubs) will test you; “how desperate are you? We know, realistically, he’s worth £30-£40 million but we know you’re desperate so we’re going to say £70 million”. Unfortunately, and I think I tweeted about it not long ago, Antony came in as a €100 million player, which worked out at about £85 million, so clubs have seen United get impatient and just go “fine”. Antony, really, with what he’d done would have still been seen as pricey at £50 million for someone who did quite well in the Netherlands, but if he’s of come in at 22-years of age at £20 – £30 million, a sensible fee, then everyone would have gone “Oh wow, there’s a player here! What a talent”. However, because he came in at £85 million, he has to be world-class from day one and he’s had his up and downs and is clearly a good player, but he really needs to kick on this season.”
” So yeah, that’s the problem, United kept saying “no, no, no we’re not paying any more than £45-£50 million”, which is still a huge amount, and Ajax held out to get £85 million (chuckling) and we’re talking millions and millions here, so clubs look at that think they’ll try that on. You might even argue that Mason Mount for £55 million, with one year left on his contract, is an awful lot. However, I’ve heard the argument that Chelsea said if he didn’t have one year left on his contract then they valued him at £100 million because if you look at Declan Rice, who hasn’t achieved as much as Mount has, he’s going for £100 million but I know they’re different players.”
“There hasn’t been that much business, as you’ve seen, you know Mount got over the line but if you look across the Premier League not a huge amount of business has been done as it is very cat and mouse, all those clichés; people waiting and seeing, then there will be a dominoe effect with clubs doing business resulting in money flowing through.”
“As you say, the striker position is so sensual to United because I think Mount, Onana and Højlund will be very, very promising and very good but I don’t think that takes United above 3rd place, that doesn’t transform them, but a Kane would. I also think the goalkeeper situation has complicated the striker one, I mean it was very clear that United’s number one priority of the summer is a striker but they’ve bought a midfielder and now, soon, a goalkeeper so most of the budget has gone on them without buying a striker. For me, the goalkeeper situation changed after the FA Cup final as Ten Hag was willing to compromise, yet he’d said before “I can’t guarantee next season De Gea will be my number one” in an interview with Henry Winter of the Times just before the cup final. That was quite a big deal because you don’t say that about your number one goalie, it de-stabilises things, and everyone knows it’s about form but that was a big deal to say to say that about your 32- year old goalkeeper who had been at the club for twelve seasons.”
“Again, I think he (Ten Hag) was willing to compromise cause the budget wasn’t there for a goalkeeper AND a top striker but I think something snapped in him in the cup final whereby De Gea was at fault for certainly one goal and the passing meant United could build up no momentum, no pressure, because I think he gave the ball away twelve times. So, I think something snapped in him, as he was willing to compromise for another season and maybe get in a number 2 for around £20 million to apply some pressure on De Gea, but the cup final was a game too far.”
Another midfielder – Amrabaat? Lavia?
“Yeah, that’s right, I don’t have any other names than him (Amrabaat). I think Ten Hag is aware, as we all were last season, of a problem where the absence of Casemiro changes the dynamics of the team and, obviously, it’s difficult to get another Casemiro as a back-up. With is disciplinary record last season, he (Casemiro) did miss quite a bit and United suffered from that and, you know, there isn’t another player in that team that can play that role. Fred and McTominay both had decent seasons, they’re decent players, but none of them are a classic defensive midfielder and United suffered through that.”
“In Amrabaat, and Lavia from Southampton, i think there is a willingness and acknowledgement that the midfield needs something else, I do think that can be partly funded by the sale of Fred and/ or McTominay. At the moment, if you think, the starting midfield was Fernandes, Casemiro and Eriksen, there’s now Mount and the back-up cast is Fred, McTominay and Van de Beek, who was injured towards the end of the year. I feel Ten Hag knows that isn’t quite good enough and I think he will look for somebody like an Amrabaat or a Lavia if he can raise some cash through sales”
“So, yeah, I think that’s one to watch, that is not a priority, but once the dominoes starting falling later in the window.”
“With Lavia, United admire him as a player and you would expect him to leave Southampton, as they’ve been relegated and need to raise funds,but all the top clubs would be interested in him as he looks that sort of player. I’m sure he’d be willing to come to United, United are certainly interested in him, he’s not a priority but, as you know, during the window fans get hung up on United being in for everybody or linked with a lot of people. However, with any club, United have a list of probably five players for every position because that’s just doing their due diligence in recruitment. So is Lavia on that long list? Yeah. Does he make it onto the shortlist? I’m not sure, but he’s certainly a player they’re interested in but he might look and see Casemiro there so if another club offers him a starting position then that might appeal to him a bit more.”
“I would be surprised if a younger, Casemiro back-up wasn’t signed before the end of the window but, I mean, Kobbie Mainoo has a lot of buzz and talk around him is really, really strong. Ten Hag knows the United tradition, obviously he came from Ajax where youth is also so important, but he didn’t last year just throw around appearances for young players, as you saw, you had to earn it and he didn’t really rotate as much as it was expected. However, Kobbie Mainoo was one of those that he did give minutes to and I believe he did start in the Carabao Cup alongside a few appearances throughout, so that’s how much he is rated and you don’t want to put a block on him as well.”
New Centre-Back required: Now or next summer?
“I don’t think it is a priority at the moment, I think , for once, it’s an area United are reasonably well stocked in because if Martinez and Varane can be kept fit then that is what United haven’t had since Ferdinand and Vidic, which is a central defensive partnership that looks like it could win titles, plus they’re both World Cup winners. Then, beyond that, you have Victor Lindelöf who’s always been a good, solid player but really excelled in the last few months of the season and then the Ten Hag flourish of using Luke Shaw there, which was inspired.”
“Luke Shaw played there, played brilliantly there, and played well there against Manchester City in the victory in January, so if you can keep Haaland quiet then you must be good. Then, of course, there’s Harry Maguire. So, I don’t think it’s an absolute priority, you’ve always got to look to stock up your squad and improve it but I think there’s five players that can play at centre-halve but, again, it might be that if United can move on Harry Maguire on for a good transfer fee then, later in the market, they might look to top up with a young centre-halve.”
“I think United will listen to offers for Henderson, Maguire, McTominay, Fred but probably not both of them in the same market and Martial. Surprisingly, they would move him (Martial) on now but the full-backs are pretty set with Dalot, Wan-Bissaka, Shaw and Malacia, so that will be quite quiet I imagine. Jadon Sancho is an interesting one, I personally think he’s worth the patience of, hopefully, another full season with Ten Hag yet I believe Dortmund looking into MAYBE bringing him back but they chose not to pursue.”
“United signed him (Sancho) for £70 million so selling him for anything less than £45-£50 million would look silly but I think that looks unlikely. So, yeah, I think the names that you’ve seen are the most obvious ones so, as you said, United, who haven’t been great sellers, could raise £100 million on players who are not starters but played their part in the squad.”
“However, the problem United always have is wages. Maguire, among others, is going to have to take a pay-cut and leaving Man United is very difficult and United explored the Declan Rice deal, or thought about, when it was like McTominay, Maguire and some cash. The problem there is that McTominay is 26 years-old, probably thinks he can play for a better team than West Ham or a higher level, and Maguire is a starter for England and was Manchester United captain so that’s a real step down.”
“So, it’s about encouraging these players (to leave) and once everyone has been through pre-season and they get to the end of the window, they’ve had chats with the manager, they’ve played in pre-season, they read the writing on the wall a bit, then they either come back wanting to prove the manager wrong or that it is not going to work and look to move on.“
I would like to thank Mr. Pilger for taking the time out his busy schedule to have this exclusive interview. If you wish to keep up to date with his expert analysis and updates during the transfer window then please follow him at @sampilger on Twitter (X). Hope you all enjoyed.