A Summer of Realism or Papering over cracks at Old Trafford?
It has all started rather swimmingly in the transfer market at Old Trafford.
Memphis Depay arrived almost as the season ended and links to top names continue to flood in, with the promise of a side capable of winning the title being ready come August. However, Van Gaal’s transfer record from his first season was underwhelming to say the least and there are still signs that obvious problems are being ignored within the squad.
Obviously still able to attract the top names, Manchester United could become a superpower on the pitch again very quickly but there needs to be some intelligence in the market that we haven’t seen in a long time.
A ruthlessness to players who are sub-standard who not appropriate needs to be shown, not more and more opportunities for Jones (who still hasn’t matured) or Cleverley (who seemed to have been given half a career based on one decent loan spell).
The squad that took fourth place doesn’t sound like one that needs to be dissected, but those at Manchester United who are expecting major trophies year on year will still be worried at the gap from the title. Van Gaal did exceptionally well in the second half of the season to utilise the players at his disposal and secure Champions League football.
Although that will not be enough in the coming campaign and there are still such significant issues within the squad that must be addressed rather than the continued arrogance/ignorance of recent years. Unlike the new-found precision of Chelsea in the market – largely down to the increasing influence of Michael Emenalo – there seems an inability from Old Trafford to think more strategically about what is required and who would be best to target.
With significant investment certain from the sides around them, it is time for United to put right the mistakes of previous windows.
The price to be paid for these failings will be the premium any club will ask when Manchester United are chasing their players and particularly when trying to address their perennial defensive problems.
Nicolas Otamendi is one of the more popular targets currently after a stellar season with Valencia. Even in defence, a pragmatism must be adopted to the transfer policy rather than chasing Hummels or Varane, inspiration should be taken from the respective signings of Gary Cahill and Laurent Koscielny to rival Chelsea and Arsenal.
Central defence is going to need at least one addition and despite some impressive performances, Van Gaal needs to decide whether he has faith during next season to fully trust McNair and Blackett as full squad members.
The right-back slot, other than suggestions of Clyne and Carvajal, seems most likely to be neglected. The versatility of Jones and Smalling has distracted from right-back additions and the bizarre relationship between Van Gaal and Rafael suggests that a new full-back is a necessity.
Again, leaving the signing to being at a point of desperation (Antonio Valencia as a full-back must be the definition of such) is going to reflect in the prices that are demanded. There is a natural shortage of top quality full-backs in world football currently, but this does not provide an adequate excuse for neglected a clear problem area for Van Gaal.
The inevitable troubles of the midfield will continue and a suitable replacement for Carrick seems the easiest of their problems to solve with Gundogan, Strootman and others linked.
Their current predicament is entirely down to their own previous failings. Ferguson may have won a title in his final season but it had been known for years that United were living off of borrowed time both in midfield and defence, demonstrated most clearly by the need to bring an elderly Paul Scholes out of retirement.
The Luke Shaw signing was obviously with long-term aims, but his lack of availability last year caused more problems than it solved and his fitness needs to be watched with such a sharp eye to make sure he can get anywhere near the potential he was showing in his brilliant final season at Southampton.
Shaw’s transfer is one that is hard to criticise yet, but when you couple this with their lack of natural right-back they are looking weak in the wide defensive channels largely down to a lack of planning in succeeding Patrice Evra.
Meanwhile, Rafael’s unpopularity with Van Gaal was not possible to predict, but the signing of Buttner was another shocking piece of business that put a huge amount of pressure for someone (happening to be an inexperienced Shaw) to immediately step up and fill in for the vastly experienced Evra.
Whilst signings were made to gradually replace Vidic and Ferdinand, Evans has rarely established himself as the quality to be a long-term first choice solution whilst Jones and Smalling’s inconsistencies are hard to put down to inexperience for much longer.
The centre-back positions are always to integral to a team’s stability there have been significant errors in not bringing in a more reliable central defender at an earlier stage or to have brought someone of more experience in as cover before Ferdinand and Vidic left.
Marcos Rojo has now arrived and looked, in general, assured and many fans will be hoping he or Smalling (who found form that it was hard to believe he had) can form a partnership with whoever the new central defender is to arrive at Old Trafford.
Fortunately, the anticipation of a shortcoming in the goalkeeping position was far better than the forward planning of defence or midfield. Victor Valdes’ shrewd recruitment at least allows some slack in the replacement of David De Gea, this needs to be a sign of the future approach to Manchester United transfer planning.
A goalkeeper of such talent could command a considerable transfer fee and this provides a further chance for a more pragmatic approach to transfers than was seen in the last summer window.
Trying to build a squad up from the dark days of Moyes so quickly is risky and a challenge, but if any side in the Premier League can do it then Manchester United have the financial clout and pull to do so. However, the signings of last summer had a feeling of slight panic.
Angel Di Maria is a wonderful player who should not be turned down if available, but then following signing of Falcao and failure to address defensive issues left a window that had won them headlines but left glaring areas of weakness in the squad.
Similarly, with the additions of Depay, Mata and Di Maria recently the pressure on Januzaj has risen questions about his future at the club and must be addressed before another player with enormous potential fades into the shadows.
Alex Ferguson masterfully papered over cracks in his final few seasons and signings, particularly Van Persie, were focused on a selfish desire for his own last title victory. The difference now comes in the form of the opposition, with three rivals who will be investing significantly and start from a stronger position there must be sensible approach that is as ruthless as Chelsea were last summer.
Massive investment is needed for Van Gaal to challenge for the title, although unless this is coupled with an improved approach to transfers and a realistic approach to the abilities of the current squad it could be another season of 1-0 victories thanks to Fellaini down the inside left channel (which isn’t necessarily bad, but that’s a topic for another day…).
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