The season is not quite over yet, but the time is nigh for the Manchester United’s squad to be assessed in anticipation of the upcoming transfer window. After all, Louis Van Gaal must have seen enough of his men to draw up a list of summer additions – and the Dutchman has reportedly been handed a healthy transfer budget.
All eyes rest upon David De Gea as far as United’s goalkeepers go. Real Madrid holds much sway for the Spaniard, professionally and personally, but the deal, while very possible, is far from guaranteed this summer. De Gea’s contract runs to summer 2016.
It remains to be seen whether Victor Valdes can regain his Barcelona form but, on paper, the 33-year-old is well suited for Van Gaalian football. When push comes to shove, United may choose to see out the rest of De Gea’s contract while searching for a suitable replacement. Signing Valdes on a free transfer this winter has offered the club a safety net and there should be no post Edwin Van Der Sar-esque crisis should De Gea return home.
In defence a new centre back is essential and the noise surrounding Mats Hummels is gathering a sense of momentum. The market for centre backs offers more options than that for goalkeepers and the arrival of top player in that position is likely.
The situation on the right side of defence is dire though. Antonio Valencia has done a mediocre job this this season and Rafael, the only natural right-back in the squad, has fallen out of favour. United needs a top-class player in the position, especially with European football now likely next season, and a further back-up may also arrive in the summer. Nathaniel Clyne’s transfer has been frequently mooted, while Everton’s Seamus Coleman is also in the discussion. Neither will come cheap.
Surprisingly, given United’s recent history, central midfield looks relatively healthy. Daley Blind and Michael Carrick are dependable holding midfielders, while Juan Mata and Ander Herrera provide some stardust in the middle. Maroune Fellaini has earned begrudging respect and Angel Di Maria might eventually find a place in central midfield should Van Gaal finally settle on a 4-3-3 system. The Argentine excelled in the role at Benfica and Real Madrid.
United could do with a genuine driving force in the centre of the park, such as a pre-injury Kevin Strootman or Juventus’ Paul Pogba. The former is welcome, though might be a significant gamble, while the latter is probably far too costly. United can certainly compete with the current set of midfielders and may very well do so given the priorities in other areas of the pitch.
Van Gaal may well seek to bring in a wide player even if Di Maria stays at the club. Ashley Young has turned himself into a Ji-Sung Park-esque figure and the Dutch manager has an inherent fondness for such players. Mata may continue to be used as a “false winger” – one that uses movement rather than on-the-ball running to do damage – while the situation with Di Maria and Adnan Januzaj needs further observation.
Di Maria, high quality though he is, excels as the supporting cast rather than a bona-fide leading man. United’s squad is short of a genuinely destructive winger, such as Arjen Robben, Cristiano Ronaldo or Marco Reus. None of that trio is likely to arrive, however, and a potential transfer is complicated by United’s situation up front.
No matter how well the rest of season goes for Ramadel Falcao the Colombian’s permanent transfer to Old Trafford seems highly unlikely – if only because the £43 million fee can be better spent. Robin van Persie seems likely to linger around for at least another season, though probably with a less important squad role.
As ever, Wayne Rooney is the chief conundrum. The evidence of the season adds to the belief that Rooney can only be deployed as a number nine. Should Van Gaal persist with a 4-3-3 system then there really is no need for United to spend heavily on another striker, especially with James Wilson in the background.
It has been often said on these pages, but Rooney has neither the technique nor the physique to effectively hold up the ball as a lone striker. The Englishman needs other players to create space and United’s squad lacks the players to provide this ‘verticality.’ It is little surprise that Rooney has suffered a number of poor games up-front – the Liverpool fixture is a case in point.
Van Gaal could solve the problem by bringing in a more complete forward, but selling or benching Rooney may be too complicated both politically and financially. The alternative is to deploy a true box-to-box midfielder or more destructive winger to support Rooney. It would certainly improve United’s lot.
The summary is a wish list costing more than £100 million: a top centre back, right-back and back-up full-back, and a box-to-box midfielder or world-class winger. United will recoup some money by selling off fringe players such as Javier Hernandez. Even then, a transfer kitty of at least £90 million is needed to fill some obvious gaps in the squad.
Ed Woodward has certainly talked the talk in the past, but will he make good on all those promises once again? Perhaps so. Before the start of current season, this column argued that the Glazer family was likely to release funds for heavy spending – which happened to the tune of £125 million net.
That argument still holds true. Only the Glazers know how much they value Champions League football, but they profit as long as they don’t spend more than that valuation. Of course, the Americans might sanction as little possible to maximise profit, but the family has certainly been forced into recent spending. The logical action, then, is to spend a lot. This paradox minimises risk and the Glazers cannot take any chance when United is still swaying. Expect another busy summer.