Manchester United Winter Transfer Window
It’s January 2020, Manchester United have just been comprehensively beaten at the hands of their oldest enemy, in a fixture that was the ultimate downfall of the previous man at the wheel, not to mention the humiliation of a first defeat in 62 years at home to Burnley. What then does Ole Gunnar Solskjaer have to do to prevent his fate going the same way? The obvious answer is pick up results and drag the club into the top 4 of the Premier League, but clearly that is going to be easier said than done. Even many fans, who hail Ole as a club legend are turning on Ole the manager more and more with each dismal display. It isn’t even the defeats, it’s the manner of the defeats, the performances so inconsistent that they befit the youngest squad in the league. Manchester United have always been about youth, the Busby Babes, the Class of ’92, the fact every match day squad since November 1938 has included at least one academy graduate – but all those teams had a blend of youth and experience, the leaders to allow the youngsters to grow into the team. This Manchester United doesn’t have that. Even the captain, and one of the most experienced players in the squad, Ashley Young, has bailed half way through the season. Genuinely then, Solskjaer needs to dip his toe in the transfer market and flex the financial might that Ed Woodward has gleamingly told the world about. But who do they go for?
Let’s start with one of many already linked to the club, with no link stronger to any player than Bruno Fernandes of Sporting Lisbon, of whom finally signed for the club in the last 24 hours. It’s easy to watch a YouTube compilation of a football player and immediately assume he is the perfect fit, a process most football fans go through when their club is linked to a player from around the continent. However, in this case, the numbers that Fernandes has produced for his club are nothing short of miraculous for a central midfielder. 2017/18 saw him score 11 goals in 33 league games, or a goal every 3 games – which for a midfielder is a cracking return. 2018/19 is Bruno’s most prolific to date, with 20 goals in 33 league games, including 13 assists – or 1 goal contribution in every single league game he played, while he has continued his form into the current season with 8 goals and 7 assists in 16 games. He’s even got 5 goals in 5 games in Europe this season. To put this into context, Paul Pogba’s most prolific season for Manchester United was 2018/19, where he scored 13 and assisted 9 goals in 35 games – and while those numbers are good in a much tougher league, they pale in comparison. The biggest issue that has faced Manchester United this season has been their inability to break down stubborn, low block defences. With Pogba only fit enough to have been involved in 7 league games this season, and an EFL cup tie with Rochdale, there has been an obvious lack of creativity in the midfield. While Scott Mctominay has been the combative influence lost when Ander Herrera left the club, he is not gifted with the vision and technique to pull off defence splitting passes, nor is Nemanja Matic, or Fred, or Andreas Pereira or Juan Mata, or the zero (yes, ZERO) league goal contributions in 2019 Jesse Lingard. Bruno is then the seemingly perfect player for Man Utd’s lack of creation.
Other players linked to Manchester United who would be seen as the midfield creator in this side are Jack Grealish of Aston Villa, a player who has shone in a badly struggling side this season and James Maddison of the much-envied Leicester City. Two players who would be the playmaker in a side looking to get the best from its inconsistent, yet wonderful in fits and starts attack. As unlikely as it is in the January transfer window, if United could recruit one or even two of these 3 aforementioned players, the second half of the season would be a much brighter proposition.
Another problem position for Man Utd has been the right-wing slot. Apart from one magical season back in the early 2010’s by Antonio Valencia, Cristiano Ronaldo was never replaced. A few have had their chance since, Memphis Depay, Angel Di Maria, Gabriel Obertan amongst others. This season has been the turn of Daniel James, a 21 year old left winger bought in from Championship side Swansea City who has shown a work horse like attitude and an electric pace only few can match. His early youth and exuberance was matched with a killer final ball and a finish that got him 3 goals in his first 4 games for the club. However, the links to Jadon Sancho, however unrealistic, continue to persist. As a fan, a front 3 of Rashford, Martial and Sancho is as dreamy as the old trifecta of Ronaldo, Rooney & Tevez, albeit not on their level yet! The famed counter attack that Ole has revived has the potential to be the best in the world with that level of attacking prowess, coupled with the finishing ability of Martial and Rashford, who prior to his long injury lay off has found a lethal touch this season. Not only that, this attack possesses the movement to trouble any defence and with a little creation behind, circa above, including Pogba, then this team could go places – and who is forgetting Mason Greenwood, the young prodigy who has all the potential to be a world beater?
What about in defence? Splashing £80m on new captain Harry Maguire, the most expensive defender of all time, and £50m on Aaron Wan Bissaka, certainly shows that Solskjaer means business in this rebuild. In at left back has seen some disruption this campaign, with Luke Shaw and youngster Brandon Williams being played in rotation for the most part, whilst Ashley Young had some more sporadic game time before his sale to Inter Milan. Fans who have watched the team perform for the last few years seem to agree that Brandon Williams should get the nod as first choice left back, despite being right footed he has put in some eye-catching displays, much more so than Shaw this season. Perhaps then left back isn’t particularly a problem for the foreseeable, especially with other youngsters such as Ethan Laird coming through, though predominantly a right back has the versatility to play both sides, like Diogo Dalot. A big talking point surrounds Harry Maguire’s central defensive partner. Victor Lindelöf takes the lions share of game time, though many feel it should be Axel Tuanzebe’s position when he is fit. I would tend to agree. Despite a few others who can slot in, i.e. Marcos Rojo, Eric Bailly etc, there have been rumours of a transfer tussle for Kalidou Koulibaly of Napoli. A player likely to cost upwards of £70m, in his prime years though nearing 30 years old and going against the transfer strategy being implemented by Ole. When some players become available, a club needs to break the mould to sign them, and surely Koulibaly and Maguire defensive partnership is worth doing that for? That remains to be seen.
More recent developments in terms of transfer news regarding the club include an apparent £30m bid for Birmingham City starlet Jude Bellingham. A 16-year-old central midfielder who has broken into the Blues first team, and broken records as their youngest ever player in doing so. Bellingham certainly fits into the pattern as a young Englishman with a bright future – widely regarded as one of the best under 17 players in world football. He has captained England at youth level and is learning his trade in a league notorious for its difficulty and unpredictability. The issue surrounding this transfer from a fans’ perspective is not going after the player himself, rather the willingness to part with £30m for essentially an unproven prospect at the same time as negotiations continue over a few million for a proven player in Bruno Fernandes. It just re-raises the same questions that football fans and pundits alike ask constantly surrounding the recruitment structure at Old Trafford. A final player worth talking about due to recent injuries is the availability of PSG forward Edinson Cavani. An elite level striker, albeit in his early 30’s. Ole has spoken about possible short-term fixes and loan deal would seem a viable way to bring in a Cavani type player whilst not jeopardising the futures of young strikers already at the club. It would be reminiscent of the transfer move to bring in Falcao under Louis Van Gaal – though it would be hoped it would work out somewhat better than that particular deal. It would appear this move has passed the club by, as he apparently favours a move to Atletico Madrid should anything materialise – but it poses food for thought for the hierarchy involved in transfer dealings.
Let’s be honest, Manchester United are probably 5 or 6 high quality players away from challenging in the league again and Ed Woodward and Matt Judge have an immense work load to win fans over. Can January be the time to start? Can the summer 2020 window bear fruit going into next season? Only time will tell, but in the meantime, we all have our own opinions on who the club should target, let’s hope Ole gets his wish list before it is too late!