Keep or sell? The deadwood Manchester United must offload this summer

Harry Maguire wore a hangdog look, though some would say he has for much of the last two years. Wout Weghorst did not score, but then he has not in 93 per cent of his appearances for Manchester United. With an equaliser required in the FA Cup final and three substitutions still available to Erik ten Hag, he opted for a solitary roll of the dice. That was bringing on Scott McTominay.

In Ten Hag’s defence, an aerial assault aimed at Weghorst and McTominay, the big lads in the box, almost yielded a leveller. But the FA Cup final could be framed as a victory for the extreme talent in Manchester City’s starting 11, given Ilkay Gundogan’s talismanic role and the reality that, for much of the season, he has been overshadowed by Erling Haaland and Kevin De Bruyne.

Yet it also highlighted a difference in strength in depth: City left two match-winners unused, in Julian Alvarez and Riyad Mahrez, and while the precocious Alejandro Garnacho threatened to be a game-changer for United, the reality is he has 11 senior starts to his name. There is a difference in pedigree and, even if United’s options were reduced by the injuries that sidelined Antony, Anthony Martial, Lisandro Martinez, Donny van de Beek and Marcel Sabitzer, the supporting cast felt weak.

A year into his reign, Ten Hag pronounced it a “fantastic season”. If the aim now is for evolution, not revolution, the FA Cup final offered a mandate for further change. For some, it represented the end. One of Saturday’s starters was first to admit it could be his farewell. “I have to talk with my family, I still have one year left in my contract here,” Fred told TNT Sports. “Now it’s holiday time and a good opportunity to rest. I’ll talk to my staff, to the club and see what’s everyone’s decision.” Fulham have expressed an interest. Ten Hag’s midfield upgrade, which should continue this summer, could mean his days are numbered.

But there was also the sense that this would be a smaller summer than last year, with fewer arrivals, without a mass clearout. In both the middle of midfield and defence, the idea was that one back-up could leave, but if both did, it could create problems. McTominay has admirers at Newcastle: younger and, as an academy product, with the proceeds of a sale counting as pure profit in the books, he could bring a bigger fee. Yet Newcastle may now be able to target higher-calibre players. And if Fred goes, it is likely McTominay stays.

McTominay and Fred are different players who may be on a par in other respects. Not their defensive counterparts. Victor Lindelof has proved a fine deputy to Raphael Varane and Martinez. Maguire has had two traumatic seasons, first with his form, then his falling status. He needs a move but the last two years offer precious few reasons for anyone to sign a player on £200,000 a week.

Ten Hag is likely to stick with his four main full-backs, with Diogo Dalot signing a new contract this week, Aaron Wan-Bissaka improving under his coaching and Luke Shaw and Tyrell Malacia the incumbents on the left. United hope to bring in funds from full-backs Brandon Williams and Alex Telles and centre-back Eric Bailly, but it is pertinent that they have struggled to sell in recent seasons; otherwise, each might already have left. Meanwhile, with Garnacho’s development and the potential return of Amad Diallo from a loan, they should try and cash in on Anthony Elanga.

Scott McTominay’s Man Utd future is up in the air (EPA)
Scott McTominay’s Man Utd future is up in the air (EPA)

Dean Henderson is a rarity, a player who looks sellable for a sizeable amount and who, in Nottingham Forest, has a potential buyer. David de Gea’s 545th United game is the last of his current contract; while he could go on a free transfer, he is likely to remain. But his season lends itself to different conclusions, with plenty of clean sheets and some terrific saves but too many errors, some costly; both Europa League and FA Cup defeats were attributable to him and United require competition.

Ten Hag has a balancing act. The mismanagement of the Glazers, failing to complete a takeover, could limit his budget. United overspent last summer – the cost of Antony is not just the £86m fee but the knock-on effect elsewhere – and Ten Hag has had to compromise, both in his idea of a goalkeeper and in January.

Weghorst’s loan ends with the ridiculous statistic that he scored two goals in 31 games; United’s infamous previous non-scoring strikers, whether Alan Brazil, Garry Birtles or Diego Forlan, were positively Haaland-esque in comparison. The summer targets now – a striker, a midfielder, a goalkeeper – may not come cheap but there is a clear need for another scorer to relieve the burden on Marcus Rashford and for someone to offer ballast alongside Casemiro, with United’s poor away record against the top nine, plus defeats at Wembley and in Seville showing that, for all Christian Eriksen’s class in possession, he lacks the physicality sometimes required.

The ever-injured Anthony Martial represents unfulfilled potential at Old Trafford (The FA via Getty Images)
The ever-injured Anthony Martial represents unfulfilled potential at Old Trafford (The FA via Getty Images)

Buying depends in part on selling. United are aware of their difficulties in offloading players in recent years. It is a reason why too many have lingered too long at Old Trafford. Now there are some, such as Jadon Sancho and the ever-injured Martial, who represent unfulfilled potential but who are unlikely to attract big offers and who could do with being consistently excellent and consistently fit.

There are others, such as Fred and McTominay, who can be useful squad players but might be sacrificed. There are those, like Maguire, Van de Beek, Williams, Telles and Bailly, who really have to go, for their sake as well as the club’s. And there is Weghorst, who will and who would represent an indictment if United bring him back next season.

Because if the first priority is to give Ten Hag a stronger starting 11 next year, it is evident he needs a better bench as well. And, as with every summer at Old Trafford in recent years, United must end it with less deadwood than they began it.