The transfer business, it seems, holds as much intrigue as the game itself. Why else should columns of speculation fill the nation’s print media, rolling news file vacuous report after unsubstantiated rumour, and the blogsphere work itself into a new frenzy almost hourly. None more so than at times of great drama – and Manchester United’s £37 million bid for Juan Mata on Wednesday was just that.
There could be many more over the coming months, with perhaps a dozen changes in United’s squad between now and the start of next season. Given both the paucity of talent available to manager David Moyes, and the predilection among few of his squad to perform for the new man, change is indeed required.
United’s bid for the Chelsea midfielder is both a business transaction – should it conclude successfully – and a human story. After all, while Mata was named Chelsea’s Player of the Season in two full campaigns with the club, he has been largely ostracised in José Mournho’s high-tempo system. In a World Cup year Mata has fallen from Chelsea’s star turn, to a man likely to miss out on Spain’s squad for Brazil in the summer.
For Chelsea Mata is an expendable asset; for United, a desperately required injection of high-class into a limited squad, albeit in a role where manage David Moyes is already replete with options. Mata’s favoured role at ’10’ behind a principle striker is the one taken by Wayne Rooney this season, preferred by Shinji Kagawa, and likely to be Adnan Januzaj’s best.
Neither, given Kagawa’s experience at Old Trafford this season, is there significant confidence that Moyes truly knows how to get the best out of an impish creative talent of Mata’s ilk. Still, that analysis is churlish given the quality of player under negotiation.
The Spaniard’s likely capture is, depending on one’s outlook, born of United’s desperation, or the catalyst that will fire the Reds into next season’s Champions League. Europe is a goal that looks most unlikely without fresh impetus, and surely worth every penny of the substantial premium United will pay should the Champions League beckon next year.
But Mata’s capture is only one piece in a more complex puzzle of transfer activity that Moyes must undertake if he is to transform a squad that is patently not performing for the manager. Or perhaps good enough to do so. And if the club’s directors, as seems increasingly likely, trust the Scot to spend freely in the market the Moyes certainly needs to.
It is not just that this squad lacks the requisite quality to succeed both domestically and in the continent’s premier tournament, but that so many familiar faces are likely to leave the club in the coming months.
Indeed, there is likely to be substantial turnover in personnel – more than has ever been typical under Sir Alex Ferguson. After all, the average tenure of a United squad member is the second highest in Europe, behind only Barcelona, at more than five yeas.
Still, in Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidić, Patrice Evra, Federico Macheda and Fabio da Silva United face five contracts that come to a conclusion in the summer. None of the quintet has yet been offered a new deal, let alone accepted one. It seems almost certain that each will depart for a new destination come June.
Meanwhile, another clutch of players will be discarded by Moyes in the summer, or may well agitate for a fresh challenge having sat on United’s bench for much of the season. Anderson will be sold following a six-month loan spell at Fiorentina, while Alexander Büttner and Nani, despite the Portuguese winger’s new contract, will be sold if suitable bids come forth.
Then there’s a trio of perennial bench-dwellers for whom Old Trafford may no longer hold a fulfilling future: Kagawa, Anders Lindegaard and Javier Hernández.
Wilfried Zaha must perform on-loan over the next five months to retain his United status next season, while Wayne Rooney is certain to push for a move once again. It will take a significant change in strategy for United to countenance the Scouser’s sale.
But it is the big departures that fascinate the most. After a fine campaign in 2012/13, Ferdinand is approaching the final few weeks of his time as a United player. After more than a decade at Old Trafford, the Londoner can look back on the finest period of an outstanding career. The only decision that the former Leeds United defender must now take is whether to carry on elsewhere, possibly in the United States, or retire at the very top.
Vidić is a different scenario, with the 32-year-old still in demand across Europe. While the Serbian has long been below his peak, prudent continuity may dictate the club offers the giant a new deal. Yet, the noises from the Serbian’s camp strongly suggest a new dawn in the player’s career. After eight years in Manchester, the defender is likely to move to the continent.
Then there is Evra, who has enjoyed more than 350 games for the club, but in whom Moyes has such little faith that the Scot has made no secret of a strong desire to acquire a replacement.
In the stead of multiple departures Moyes will look for at least half-a-dozen new faces over the course of the next two transfer windows, starting with Mata.
Multiple changes are rarely ideal, nor the established United strategy over the past 25 years. Careful squad management had been a philosophy until the winter of Ferguson’s reign. Yet, for Moyes it is also an opportunity to shape a squad in his mould, perhaps to grow as a manager too. If ever the phrase ‘back him, or sack him’ was ever truly relevant this is it.
Moyes is certainly being backed in Mata’s acquisition, even if the Spaniard is an expense that might logically be better invested elsewhere. The 25-year-old will cost the club more than £66 million in fees and wages over the next four years – a transfer that once again exposes United’s lack of strategic planning in the market.
Still, Mata’s talent in not in doubt. The former Spanish under-21 international has grown from young high-quality attacking midfielder at Valencia, to world-class playmaker at Chelsea. He is the ’20/20′ player United has lacked this season – a man who can score 20 and create 20 in a single season.
In that there is a significant boost – perhaps the catalyst that will change the narrative of Moyes’ time at Old Trafford. After another horrendous result in Wednesday’s Capital One Cup semi-final, it is the very least Moyes needs.