Every year, summer’s arrival can be pinpointed by a series of natural occurrences. Birds migrate north, the Arctic Circle enjoys 24 hours of light and the tabloids link Man United to every footballer under the sun. Ed Woodward’s fondness for adding zero’s to a cheque, reminiscent of a fourth grader adding x’s to a Valentines card has forced Fred the Red into overtime, welcoming a plethora of talented (and untalented) new signings through the Old Trafford gates. Jose Mourinho must use the summer transfer window to turn last season’s 6th placers into worthy title contenders. This article outlines what the Portuguese manager needs to do to ensure he’s making the back pages for all the right reasons come May 2018.
The faulty fax machine that sabotaged David De Gea’s move to Real Madrid has taken pride of place in United’s trophy cabinet while the intern operating it has presumably been given a job for life at the club (maybe that explains Jesse Lingard’s salary?). One thing is certain, the club cannot rely on bizarre strokes of good fortune this summer to keep the Spaniard at the club.
With Real Madrid in need of an upgrade between the sticks, a terrible haircut isn’t the only reason De Gea is all over the Spanish papers. If Ed Woodward is serious about bringing the glory days back to Old Trafford, he should be moving heaven and earth to hold on to the shot-stopper.
United kept the most clean sheets in the league last season and looked generally solid regardless of who played. Numbers, however, were an issue at the back end of the season and Mourinho will want to avoid becoming over reliant on Eric Bailly again. The Ivorian enjoyed a stellar debut season and his position in the back four is under no threat. Daley Blind and Marcos Rojo both proved capable partners beside him but the latter’s injury means Mourinho has 2 choices; rely on the chuckle brothers’ Smalling and Jones whose injury records suggest they have a thing for the physios at Old Trafford, or try his hand in the transfer window.
Smalling had appeared to grow into the player he always threatened to be under van Gaal, who transformed his mentality, and had the England defender producing performances Rio Ferdinand would’ve been proud of. However, no sooner did the Dutch man leave Old Trafford, did Smalling return to his frustrating, unconfident self. Smalling’s inability to trap a bag of cement and his incapacity to pass anything bar the buck has seen him incur Jose Mourinho’s wrath on a number of occasions. One thing Smalling does have going for him, is that he’s not Phil Jones, who is well, Phil Jones. Despite both players proving they are capable performers, Jose Mourinho simply can’t rely on them for either form or fitness. While the mistakes of the van Gaal period should not be repeated, with talented players being sold for a pack of Oreo’s and a diet Coke, the likelihood is there will be enough demand to yield an acceptable offer for at least one of the pair.
A reliable figure at centre half will be high on Mourinho’s shopping list. The 3 names most touted in the media are Virgil van Dijk, Victor Lindelof and Michael Keane. Van Dijk would be an astute addition who ticks all the boxes but signing him would require re-mortgaging Old Trafford such are Southampton’s demands.
Benfica’s outright refusal to budge on the asking price for Lindelof mean the Swede would need to take to the Premier League like a duck to water to represent good business. While he may someday develop into a top defender, Lindelof’s lack of agility and inexperience may be exposed in a tougher league. The cost of the Benfica man represents too much risk in a position, which could do with, but is not in desperate need of an upgrade in quality. The main focus for Mourinho should be signing someone he can rely on to be fit and in form all season long, with minimal adaptation needed.
This leaves Michael Keane. The main question mark over Keane is his ability to perform when he isn’t protected by a team of navy seals, which is a fair argument, but isn’t particularly fatal given Mourinho’s tendency to park the bus. Keane comes with Premier League experience and United DNA and while the Englishman is no superstar, he is a coachable and reliable performer, with a solid fitness record. The Burnley man provides as much a guarantee as anyone of what can be expected from a new signing and with United only having to pay 75% of any fee, Keane represents a relatively low-risk option.
Luke Shaw’s timely injury looks to have postponed his somewhat inevitable departure, prolonging the Englishman’s pitiful United career even further. Other left back options include Marcos Rojo, Daley Blind and Matteo Darmian who are all defensively sound but have the combined attacking threat of a thief armed with a water pistol. Mourinho compensated for this by giving Antonio Valencia the freedom of Old Trafford’s right flank, keeping the left back narrow. The system was reminiscent of Barca under Guardiola, where Alves was effectively a right winger and Abidal a third centre back. Valencia, however, suffered fitness issues towards the end of the season with Mourinho saying the Ecuadorian was simply too tired to play every game, highlighting the need for a capable back up. Mourinho should be looking to sign a low-priced right back capable of competing with, and eventually replacing Valencia in the back 4. Unfortunately bringing back Rafael is not an option so step forward Serge Aurier. The PSG man has openly expressed his desire to leave the French club and with his contract running down, he should be available at a reasonable price. If Mourinho can get on top of his alpha persona, Aurier would be a serious addition to next season’s squad.
They say the greatest gift you can give someone is the space to be themselves. Jose Mourinho will be well aware of the need for midfield reinforcements to allow Paul Pogba spread his wings and fly. Michael Carrick’s lack of legs and Marouane Fellaini’s lack of talent meant the Frenchman was forced into a more defensive role, much to the delight of stat-whores who dwell in documenting that their clubs cheap summer signing has scored more goals than Pogba.
The profile of the centre mid is unclear. Ander Herrera’s renaissance as a number 6 means Mourinho can either trust Herrera in the position and sign a box to box midfielder, or use Herrera as the number 8 and sign a natural holder. Herrera’s limited passing ability suggests United would be better off signing a natural holder, however options are few and far between. Marcos Llorente would be a dream, but will probably only ever be a dream. Nemanja Matic is a very good defensive midfielder but playing him alongside Herrera would be nothing short of an on-the-ball catastrophe. Monaco’s Fabinho is a worthy candidate, who could also solve the issue at right back, but given last season’s personnel shortages, it’s unlikely Mourinho kills two birds with one stone. Adrien Rabiot has shown he is proficient as both a 6 and an 8 and on top form would solve Mourinho’s midfield dilemma. Nailing the midfield signing is crucial to United’s chances next season and doing so is Mourinho’s toughest task this summer. From a squad perspective, an extra option off the bench is not an absolute necessity. Fellaini proved he can do a job to a certain extent while Andreas Pereira showed enough promise playing as a number 8 for Granada to be given a proper go next season.
Recent media speculation has linked United with moves for James, Willian and Ivan Perisic. Willian is a massive Mourinho favourite but another player who is all fart and no poo in an attacking position is the last thing United need. This means James would be an ideal signing, right? Wrong. Signing the Colombian would pile even more defensive duties on Pogba and restrict his attacking influence even further. £60 million for a player who doesn’t fit into United’s system may have happened under van Gaal, but Mourinho won’t make the same mistake. Perisic, on the other hand is a more realistic signing. The Croat is very much a Mourinho type player and signing an industrious, natural left winger gives Mourinho the flexibility to play two strikers or one striker at any one time. Furthermore, it increases the likelihood of Anthony Martial playing up front next season which is a massive bonus. Building a squad that enable both Rashford and Martial to flourish in their best positions should be high on Mourinho’s list of priorities. Any potential Perisic deal hinges on Inter lowering their asking price with their current demands being totally unrealistic.
The objective here needs little explanation; sign Antoine Griezmann. The Atletico forward ticks every box and the summer’s success depends on him signing on the dotted line. Assuming Wayne Rooney is finally given his marching orders, United would be left with just 3 recognized strikers, with Ibrahimovic probably joining from January. Mourinho may choose to dip into the market once more. Andrea Belotti is a typical Mourinho centre forward, however it’s unlikely the United hierarchy spend upwards of £60 million on an as yet unproven player. Mourinho has spoken of a “good surprise” on his shopping list which could well come in the shape of Javier Hernandez. The Mexican has obvious limitations but guarantees goals and with Leverkusen enduring such a poor season, he would likely jump at the chance to return to Old Trafford. Mourinho has to sign as many goal-scorers as he can to avoid a repeat of last season’s shortcomings in front of goal.
William Shakespeare famously bemoaned “summer’s lease hath all too short a date” but he clearly did not live through the relentless rumour mill of the summer transfer window. While no transfer is certain, I can guarantee that between now and the end of August, hundreds of players will be linked with a move to the Theatre of Dreams.
Very Likely – Keane, Perisic, CM, Griezmann
Possible – Hernandez, Aurier, Rabiot
No chance – James, Willian, Llorente
Out – Smalling/Jones, Rooney, Young, Januzaj