With Thursday’s transfer deadline looming, and the necessary transfer activity most believe is required in order for Manchester United to match their noisy neighbours this season almost certain to not take place, is it possible that the club already has the talent in place that can help bridge the gap?
First of all let us consider that there are two areas which probably don’t need strengthening. It would be impossible to upgrade on David De Gea, while the club also had adequate backup in that department too.
And, while the jury may be out on how convincing it is, Jose Mourinho is hardly like to make a major investment in his central midfield. Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic and Fred seem likely to begin as a three, with Scott McTominay, Marouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera in reserve, and Andreas Pereira — arguably the most impressive player from pre-season — an emerging name to provide competition.
However, it is obvious that most other areas of the team could do with an upgrade.
Linked names: Alex Sandro, Danny Rose
Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young have both just turned 33; while both of these wingers-converted-to-full-backs did a decent job at certain points last season, there were many occasions where their lack of natural defensive ability came to United’s cost.
On any particular day against any particular opponent, (see Young against Mo Salah) either of these players is capable of a great performance, and still, the opposite is true. Manchester City spent over £100m strengthening this area of their own team last summer and the difference in quality is staggering; although, it should be said, Young’s increased defensive discipline clearly made him the choice of the makeshift left-backs, as it was he and not Fabien Delph who was selected to play for England at the World Cup.
Still, he is not the long term answer, and at this present time both of the full backs likely to start the season as first choice should really be back up at United.
Diogo Dalot has signed for £20m this summer and he is very highly rated. It is thought he has been signed as Valencia’s replacement, with United heavily linked with a move for Alex Sandro over the summer. But Dalot has played the majority of his first team games at left back and so it remains unclear just where he will play.
Do United have players already at the club who can make the difference?
The obvious name at left back, should Dalot play on the right, is Luke Shaw. For someone who appears to have stayed in last chance saloon for so long since they called last orders that they’re still there the next day — probably an apt description given the new season — Shaw knows (barring the same sort of anomaly that has kept Smalling and Jones at the club) that he will not get another chance to become a Manchester United left back after this campaign.
Shaw has not exactly set the world alight in pre-season and his comments about having a similar metabolism to Wayne Rooney do not inspire much confidence; still, there is the potential for him to have a decent run for a couple of years at left back if he dedicates himself in the way he has promised to. For all the criticism about Mourinho’s handling of Shaw, the player himself has not covered himself in glory when he has been given a chance. It has been difficult, that’s a given, but it could fairly be argued that he hasn’t given himself the best chance.
On the other side, if Dalot is given the left hand side, surely it is time to give Timothy Fosu-Mensah a place in the side. He was good when given the chance for Crystal Palace last season and it is no longer the case that he needs to be sent out on loan (as is rumoured once again this morning). Fosu-Mensah is his own player, very different to Valencia, but it is worth taking the risk; if the Dutch defender shows the sort of form he did when he broke into the side a couple of years ago, he could be a very important player for United.
Linked names: Toby Alderweireld, Harry Maguire
Mourinho’s pursuit of Toby Alderweireld has brought criticism considering the £60m he spent on Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof; but the Spurs player not only has greater life experience, he has greater Premier League experience. Should the transfer not occur, then do United have the players to be able to challenge for the title?
It is surely clear that the defence needs a complete overhaul and therefore it was a stunning decision taken by Mourinho to choose Smalling and Jones for the FA Cup Final. If United persist with that defence then they can kiss a title challenge goodbye and instead begin to have genuine concerns about their Champions League qualification.
Even if United finish third — as would surely be the best they could hope for if they field the FA Cup Final defence as first choice this campaign — then the regression will be enough to put Mourinho’s job on the line. In that case, isn’t it worth giving Bailly and Lindelof (in the event of Alderweireld not signing) the chance to develop an understanding together?
Linked names: Gareth Bale, Willian
Alexis Sanchez, like it or not (and Anthony Martial certainly doesn’t) will start the season from the left hand side. Romelu Lukaku will start the season as United’s main striker. Things can happen quickly in football and this does not necessarily mean the two are guaranteed to be first choice at the end of the season. Much will depend on Martial’s form and attitude if he is still at the club come Friday.
There is a space on that right hand side, and it is easy to see from the two names heavily linked with the club, which one is wanted by Mourinho and which is wanted by Woodward. The stand-off means neither is likely to come and so Mourinho will have to find a player from within.
Juan Mata is the obvious name, if Sanchez isn’t deployed from the right. Mata’s lack of pace handicaps Mourinho’s counter-attacking game plan and so, particularly with the announcement that he has been given the number 10 shirt, it would be no surprise to see Marcus Rashford start the season as first choice from this area. Rashford can cross a ball as well as anyone at the club but will need to adapt to Mourinho’s instruction to be more effective.
However, Jesse Lingard, who did so well last season and at the World Cup, might well feel that he should be the first name on the team-sheet in this area. If there is anyone at the club who ticks all the boxes for Mourinho in this area (aside from perhaps just that added level of quality and consistency that Willian would bring) then Lingard is surely the name. But here United have a number of players who might feel they can come in and make a statement; Tatith Chong, who is progressing rapidly, and Angel Gomes, who might feel his time has come, are two players to make a list of five who could make this right-hand side their own.
No matter where you look, there are question marks. But, certainly as far as defence goes, Jose Mourinho has a selection available to him that is already potentially an upgrade on the one that ended last season.
Some might argue that Mourinho isn’t a manager to invest in the risk of potential and they might have a fair point; so might he, though, considering the criticism he is taking. On that right hand side of attack, if United do not strengthen, then they do have, again, the potential to really provide an unknown quantity. If Lingard takes his game to the next level, if Rashford can adapt, or if another youngster can come in and make a splash, then there is the element of unpredictability which could be such a boost to United.
So, a potential XI for the new season could read:
Fosu-Mensah or Dalot, Bailly, Lindelof, Shaw
Fred, Matic, Pogba
Lingard or Rashford, Lukaku, Sanchez
Is that a team which could challenge Manchester City for the title?
To me, it still looks at least two or three players short, and even that is presuming that Dalot and Fred settle in, that Pogba can find a level of consistency to really take his own game up a notch, and that Sanchez is worth the both the investment and the blockage of Martial’s talent.
The good news is that it seems the manager is in agreement with the areas that obviously need to be strengthened. If he does not get the funds, the argument that he could surely do better with what he had is bound to be that which he will be judged upon in the forthcoming season.