Striking A Balance: Conflicting Interests at Manchester United
For every club that shops in the luxury aisle of the transfer supermarket, a fundamental problem persists. They have far more cash to spend than the supermarket has desired goods to sell. This can either lead to long periods of inactivity before the shelves are replenished with some fresh stock, or for those clubs who are desperately hungry, an acceptance that they will have to make do with what is available to them. The big clubs then, must balance their desire to buy with the danger of filling the trolley with those who are sub-standard.
This situation is especially precarious at Manchester United. Their transfer activity, or lack thereof, has received more scrutiny than any other club’s so far this summer. Firstly, this is down to the size of the club, but secondly because there is widespread recognition that United’s need for players is greater than that of their rivals.
Chelsea, as defending champions, are in the comfortable position of cherry picking a few acquisitions to make themselves even stronger and improve on their Champions League performance. Like United, Manchester City and Arsenal have got much work to do to overhaul Chelsea, but their squads are far more complete. In shorthand, those two clubs are looking for upgrades in their starting XI rather than numbers in the squad; Petr Cech for David Ospina, Paul Pogba for Yaya Toure etc. United are looking for numbers but they’ve also got to be good enough to push them from 4th to 1st. It’s a very different task.
Should David De Gea depart to Real Madrid they will need a replacement; even if they promote Victor Valdes they would need a No.2. United are in search of a right back, having coped with Antonio Valencia there for most of last season and though he performed admirably, Louis Van Gaal will want a specialist. Chris Smalling was much improved in the second half of last season, but there is still a desire among fans and pundits for a polished centre back to join Smalling, Phil Jones and Marcus Rojo. Van Gaal was explicit in his comments that United required another ‘no. 6’, meaning competition for Michael Carrick at the base of midfield.
United supporters will hope that the signing of Memphis Depay and a rejuvenated Angel Di Maria will serve them well in wide areas, along with Ashley Young. There are adequate levels of creativity in the team by virtue of Ander Herrera and Juan Mata. However, an addition looks needed in the centre forward position following the departure of Danny Welbeck and the club’s decision not to keep Radamel Falcao. The pedigree of Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie is self-evident, but watching United last season many concluded that they would benefit from a striker with more pace who could run in behind defences. It seems premature to ask James Wilson to perform this task.
So that amounts to five new players; and that assessment only included the positions which appear in obvious need of strengthening. Clubs know that United are looking for this volume of arrivals and they also know that United’s revenue gives them vast amounts of money to spend in an effort to buy them. It places United in a weak bargaining position, but that’s the reality of the situation they face and they will have to swallow it.
If I were a Manchester United fan, I’d have been a little concerned a few weeks ago about the profile of player that the club seemed to be targeting. Sergio Ramos and Bastian Schweinsteiger are two good examples. Both have been top class footballers, winning World Cups and Champions Leagues. But if you were to plot the trajectory of both players’ careers as a parabola, then they would both, at best, be plateauing at their peak with a descent shortly around the corner.
This is a very different strategy from the one pursued during the successful years of late Ferguson. It will be impossible to recreate that era, and fans and pundits will have to cease trotting out tired old lines about what things were like under Ferguson in their analysis. The club has changed, the game has changed and Manchester United have to cope with their status as being like many other big clubs rather than being the law unto themselves that they frequently were under Fergie.
That being said, United were always very successful at buying players whose peak was still ahead of them. Ruud Van Nistelrooy was singed at 25, Rio Ferdinand at 23, Michael Carrick at 25, Wayne Rooney at 18, Cristiano Ronaldo at 18, Nemanja Vidic at 24 and Patrice Evra at the same age during the same transfer window.
That is why the reported interest in Seamus Coleman and Morgan Schneiderlin represents something close to the recruitment philosophy that you would associate with United. It would be hasty to compare either to names listed above but they are players who have scope for improvement.
There is however, an elephant in the room when it comes to recruitment and that is the fact that Louis Van Gaal appears unlikely to stay beyond the two years remaining on his contract. He has already stated that he intends this job to be his last in football. Such circumstances are not conducive to a recruitment policy focused on the medium to long term. It will be no consolation to Van Gaal if his successor inherits a great squad and wins the title. He will want the Premier League title at the foot of his trophy laden CV.
So Van Gaal and Manchester United are faced with a delicate balancing act that will require all of his experience and all of the board’s nous to negotiate. It is a squad in need of padding out with bodies, especially with Champions League football next year, but they all have to be of a certain calibre to improve what is already there. It is in the fabric of the club’s recent history to try and catch the best young players on the market, yet Louis Van Gaal will be impatient to secure a league title within his two remaining seasons at the club. Somehow these conflicting motivations have to intersect and result in a successful outcome. As we speak, it is unclear who will emerge the victor out of quantity and quality or youth and experience.
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