Manchester United transfers: Marko Arnautovic is a sign of even more short-term thinking at Old Trafford

Manchester United need a tip. Marko Arnautovic is a striker. Maybe that’s about enough for right now at Od Trafford. But for a club which at the turn of the century could field England’s most ferocious strike duo regardless of which of his star-studded quartet Sir Alex Ferguson chose, this is quite a letdown.

There was nothing like the smorgasbord of scorers that was Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjær available for Erik Ten Hag on the opening day. Even going into the season, his options were one player, Cristiano Ronaldo, who doesn’t want to be there, and one, Anthony Martial, who United haven’t wanted to be there for years now.

Christian Eriksen as the most advanced option in central areas — not really a false nine as he didn’t move deep from advanced positions to get the ball, but instead played more like a traditional number 10 — clearly didn’t work, but it was hardly as Ten Hag was overloaded with options when he concluded that Ronaldo was not yet fit enough to start given his late arrival to pre-season training. He could have asked Bruno Fernandes to do the same or maybe the cane Marcus Rashford infield from left, but neither has inspired much confidence lately when asked to lead the line.

The reality is that right now United need someone else who can actually play up front. In a context where what Ten Hag need is a player who is available now, knows his methods and can be trusted to settle quickly, Arnautovic is a perfectly serviceable option.

The Austrian worked with the United boss and his assistant Steve McClaren at FC Twente and has almost 200 Premier League appearances to his name. In each of his last two seasons in the division he hit double figures, and shone after David Moyes turned him into a striker. Since returning to Europe after a spell in China, he has continued to score, registering 15 for Bologna last season. They have rejected a bid of £7.6m, but that is not expected to be the end of the matter. United want him and his agent and brother Danijel has made clear his motivation for getting a deal done, telling Austrian media he is “in contact with Bologna to see if [offer] can be realised”.

Arnautovic could well come in and do a job for United this season, he can certainly be relied upon to get a few more goals than playing without any real striker at all. But what about at the start of 2023-24 when Ten Hag and company are back where they started this one, still looking for the striker of the future, but with another veteran taking his place in the squad and on the wage bill? All clubs have reason to fill gaps with what they can pick up in the late summer or January market, but few do so as often as United.

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Should Arnautovic arrive, he would be the sixth short-term addition United have made to their forward line in the past eight years. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Cristiano Ronaldo brought some of the brilliance to aging stars whose box office figures were largely in the rearview mirror, Edinson Cavani was a wise guide to Old Trafford’s youth movement before being unceremoniously knocked down the pecking order and stripped of the No.7 shirt to make way for Ronaldo. Odion Ighalo and Radamel Falcao played undisputed football for Manchester United.

It was hardly news to the Glazers, director of football John Murtogh or Ten Hag this summer that they might be light on striking options. After all, their plans at the start of the window didn’t even include Martial, who was free to move on before an impressive run of form in preseason. Whether it was this summer or next, Cristiano Ronaldo had to be replaced. And yet United did nothing, watching targets such as Darwin Nunez slip into the hands of more decisive clubs.

They could end the window with a known commodity, but it’s hard not to see settling for Arnautovic as something of a scouting error, another example of United getting a player Ten Hag knows rather than coming to him with comprehensively analyzed alternatives. The likes of Jonathan David, Patrik Schick and Victor Osimhen represent tantalizing unknowns at Premier League level; they may be more likely to flop, but the ceiling for these young forwards is far higher than that of a 33-year-old. If Arnautovic’s price could theoretically rise to £10m, one might reasonably ask whether it makes more sense to bring in someone like Taiwo Awoniyi, for whom Nottingham Forest paid £18 million. We haven’t even mentioned Tammy Abraham yet.

The best scenario is perhaps that in a year’s time some of these players will be on the market again. Because if recent history has taught us anything, it’s that United will find themselves in the same position next summer as they were last summer and have been this summer, no closer to finding their long-term goalscorer.

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