Leighton Baines is unlikely to have topped many Manchester United supporters’ wish-lists in the summer transfer market. Not that the left-back’s qualities are few, with the Evertonian having deservedly secured the vote of his fellow professionals to make last season’s PFA team of the year. But with plenty of questions surrounding the club during the summer break, many fans argue that investing heavily in the 28-year-old is down the list of new manager David Moyes’ priorities.
Moyes is in the curious position of both sanctioning, and theoretically rejecting, United’s £10 million Baines bid given that he officially remains Everton’s manager until 30 June. Although in truth the 50-year-old coach has little do with ongoing negotiations on either side.
Still, with Moyes having jettisoned four senior United coaches since his appointment on 8 May there seems little doubt that the new manager also wants to stamp his mark on the first team. Baines is the Scot’s choice – and he is likely to get his man.
Everton’s official stance is that Baines is not for sale this summer, although an increase of around £5 million on the current bid is likely to force the Merseyside club’s hand, especially with the player entering the final two years of his contract.
Whether the player is prepared to push a transfer through remains to be seen. The Kirkby-born player has said that he is looking forward to working with new Everton manager Roberto Martinez, but the opportunity to play Champions League football ahead of next summer’s FIFA World Cup in Brazil is surely pivotal. United will also double Baines’ £40,000-per-week contract.
Yet, Patrice Evra’s hugely improved form last season raises the question of whether United truly requires a new left-back with such urgency. After all, Moyes is not short of numbers – Brazilian Fabio da Silva returns to the club this summer, while Alex Büttner is also on the books.
Evra was much criticised following a severe dip in form post the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. But the foraging runs, encouraged by Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to afford his full-backs plenty of freedom during the first half of last season, enabled Evra to contribute four goals and five assists in the Premier League. It was by far Evra’s best haul for the club. Add just three defensive errors all season and the Frenchman enjoyed his finest campaign in three years.
But the diminutive Frenchman may be on the way out seven years after he joined United from Monaco for £5.5 million. In 334 games for the club Evra scored seven and captained the side on more occasions than any other player last season.
Evra could rejoin the big-spending Ligue 1 outfit if the Reds complete a deal for Baines. Backed by Russian billionaire owner Dmitry Rybolovlev, Monaco has spent some £120 million this summer on the outstanding trio of Rademel Falcao, James Rodriguez and Joao Moutinho.
But with resources traditionally far more limited at Old Trafford it remains an open question whether Baines is the best use of what will be a substantial investment once both fee and wages are aggregated.
After all the club is still trying to seal the £20 million transfer of Barcelona midfielder Thiago Alcântara, while United’s new chief Edward Woodward appears prepared to push through a huge deal for Cristiano Ronaldo in the unlikely event that Real Madrid countenance the Portuguese’s departure.
The former is far more likely than the latter, with United having reportedly agreed personal terms with the Spanish under-21 star, who scored a hat-trick in the Euro Under-21 finals this month. Even if the club is genuinely interested in Ronaldo, Real Madrid appears a reluctant negotiator.
But it is in central midfield where United’s investment this summer must surely flow, with Michael Carrick the only Reds midfielder to come out of last season with any genuine credit. Tom Cleverley suffered a major dip in form during the second half of the campaign and Darren Fletcher remains sidelined with a long-term chronic illness. Meanwhile Anderson is perennially injured and Paul Scholes has retired for a second time.
If Moyes cannot seal Alcântara’s transfer before August ends – or that of another central midfielder – the negligent under-resourcing of that part of United’s squad will have continued into a sixth summer window. It is almost unthinkable.
Moyes has other questions to solve too. United’s paucity of in-form wingers is a concern despite Wilfried Zaha’s impending arrival from Crystal Palace. Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia and Nani each suffered injury and severe loss of confidence last year.
The Scot will also want to strengthen United’s striking options should Wayne Rooney fail to commit to the club after a second transfer request in three seasons.
It leaves Moyes with much to ponder ahead of his first official day in the job next Monday. The players, including vice-captain Evra, are due in for the first day of pre-season training on Wednesday before the squad heads off to Asia and Australia for this summer’s tour.
Still, if it is to be Baines then United will secure the league’s best performing left-back last season – a player who has continued to improve each season during six campaigns on Merseyside.
There is also plenty of supporting evidence in the data for those keen on Baines’ acquisition: the Englishman produced more tackles, more interceptions and less defensive errors than Evra last season. The Everton man also put in five times more crosses than Evra, and created more than 100 chances from open play – to lead the Premier League in that statistic ahead of David Silva, Santiago Carzola and Juan Mata.
In that, together with United’s fondness for Alcântara, there is hope that Moyes will support a breed of attacking and vibrant football that few witnessed during the Scot’s decade on Merseyside.