Manchester United are still in rebuild mode according to manager Jose Mourinho.
After spending in excess of £250 million since joining the club for the 2016-17 season, “The Special One” has cut a frustrated figure over the busy holiday period, with his side having come away with just one win from its five games between Dec. 20 and Jan. 1.
“One thing is a big club and another thing is a big football team,” Mourinho said after United were held to a draw by Burnley. “They are two different things. We are in the second year of trying to rebuild a football team that is not one of the best teams in the world.”
The name Manchester United has become synonymous with a world class standard and is one of the most recognizable brands on an international scale. It’s football, though, has failed to inspire for a few years now.
If one were to look at those previous season finishes without prior knowledge of the team in question, the Red Devils wouldn’t come to mind. As they labour through their first slump of 2017-18, drifting further away from Manchester City after an excellent start of the season, it’s easy to get caught up in where their name should be, rather than where their still developing game is.
They are currently second in the league, trailing only a team on course for the greatest Premier League season ever and narrowly ahead of the defending champions. United also face a favourable Round of 16 clash against Sevilla after finishing first in the Champions League group stage, so it’s hard to argue that noteworthy progress hasn’t been made.
One of the biggest challenges Mourinho faced in coming to Old Trafford was making it the fortress it once was. Prior to David Moyes’ arrival in 2013-14, United had won five of the previous seven league titles, and finished second on the other two occasions. During that period, they won an average of 16 of their 19 home league fixtures.
That number has dropped to 11 over the past four seasons, including just eight in Louis van Gaal’s final campaign. Mourinho’s first season was no better, with United stringing together one abject performance after the other on their way to 10 home draws. The intimidation factor had been long gone. Sides were coming to Old Trafford believing there were points to be had, and getting them.
This season, they won their first eight games at home, before losing to City without Paul Pogba and drawing with Burnley and Southampton during the busiest time of the year. Which brings us to United’s next stage of development.
That their most difficult period has come at a time when they’ve played five matches in 13 days tells a tale of its own. Unlike in years past where there were three or four very good teams in the league, there are now six. Add to that the European and domestic cup fixtures, and United’s depth falls well short of the very best in the world.
The leap City have made this season is a testament to not only the importance of a deep squad, but the fact that it can’t be built overnight.
|Kevin De Bruyne
Eight of those players are central figures expected to have a weekly impact on results, while Bernardo Silva, Ilkay Gundogan, and Danilo have had their moments as well. Contrast that with United’s activity over the same period, and it’s easy to see the gulf between the two sides.
United have eight players presently at the club to show for City’s 13, and when healthy, Pogba, Lukaku, Matic and Bailly are the only sure fire starters. So, when injuries strike – like they have to Valencia, Bailly, Ibrahimovic and Fellaini – the options only become that much more limited.
That’s what should make this particular January window all the more important for this team. With only one of the 21 players noted above acquired during a January window, this is an opportunity for the red side of Manchester to play catch up when teams generally less active than in the summer.
Duncan Castles of Yahoo! Sports reported last month that approximately £80 million in funds would be made available in January. The report also indicated that the Portuguese coach has identified left-back, winger and central midfield as the three areas which require an upgrade.
It would be highly improbable to have all three of those areas addressed in this January window with £80 million, especially after Liverpool paid £75 million for a 26-year-old central defender in Virgil van Dijk. However, that transfer does show that there is value in getting ahead of the game before the competition really heats up in the summer.
Here are some of the players that United have been rumoured to be interested in, and why a January deal may or may not make sense:
Sergej Milinkovic-Savic – Lazio
Position: Central midfield
Rumoured fee: £90 million
Milinkovic-Savic is exactly the type of signing that can minimize Mourinho having to play square pegs in round holes. His six-foot-four frame alongside fellow Serbian Nemanja Matic would be a welcome addition and he has his own attacking prowess about him as well. A significant upgrade over Fellaini or Herrera.
Lazio are currently fifth in Serie A, have an expiring contract in Stephan de Vrij, and so could be tempted into cashing in big. Whether they feel their chances at a larger sum can be aided through more of a bidding war in the summer remains to be seen, but this is the type of signing that United should be willing to shell out for.
The fee is in excess of United’s reported budget, but perhaps another player in return could help sweeten the deal.
Julian Draxler – Paris Saint-Germain
Position: Left wing
Rumoured fee: £50 million
PSG must sell during this window if they are to have any hope of evading punishment for not complying with Financial Fair Play. Anthony Martial gives the team something different when he plays up front, and shoring up the wing position with Draxler would give Martial the opportunity to make the striker position his.
Lukaku has 10 league goals this season, but none of them have come against sides currently in the top eight. After scoring seven goals in his first matches, it’s possible that he has exhausted himself playing 90 minutes over and over again in the absence of Ibrahimovic. Competition at every position is something the best sides in the world strive for, and this move could help get more out of both the wing and forward positions.
Javier Pastore – Paris Saint-Germain
Position: Attacking midfielder (wing/centre)
Rumoured fee: £45 million
Highly skillful and can certainly pick a pass, Pastore would be a great creative addition to the squad. His strength and pace levels may hinder him in England, but he has the technique to overcome it. Pastore is quick with his feet and always has his head on a swivel, allowing him to unlock defences without a moment’s notice.
As with Draxler, PSG have to sell someone, and now would be a good time to take advantage of their vulnerable position.
Danny Rose – Tottenham
Rumoured fee: £40 million
Danny Rose has fallen out of favour at Tottenham with Ben Davies cementing his place, and Daley Blind likewise at Old Trafford. Luke Shaw put in a strong performance against Everton but has otherwise struggled when given the opportunity. Ashley Young has done exceedingly well at the left-back/left-wingback position, but isn’t a natural defender and is currently suspended.
With Matteo Darmian also now a forgotten man, a move for Rose appears beneficial. The price tag seems lofty considering the sour grapes between him and his current club, but it’s hard to get a proper read with the current inflation rate.
Steven N’Zonzi – Sevilla
Position: Central defensive midfield
Rumoured price: £35 million (release clause amount)
Rumoured as an Arsenal and Everton target, but it wouldn’t be the first time United swooped in to collect a player targeted by those clubs. This would be a squad rotation move, and perhaps in some ways a like-for-like replacement for Maroune Fellaini who looks to be on the way out.
Another option that gives Mourinho the size on the pitch he likes to have at six-foot-five, and for Sevilla, he wouldn’t be able to hurt them in their Champions League fixture against United as he’d be cup-tied.
Mesut Ozil – Arsenal
Position: Central attacking midfield
Rumoured fee: £15 million
An expiring contract, Arsenal would be wise to cash in on one of Alexis Sanchez or Ozil before they possibly lose both for nothing. If Arsenal does indeed sell the Chilean to City, a deal for the German would become highly unlikely.
While he would certainly add more creativity to United’s final third, one of the problems Mourinho currently faces is that he is unable to provide Pogba the full freedom he needs to make a consistent difference in and around the box. Their most recent game against Everton was clear evidence of this, with Pogba putting in an immense performance with both Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic behind him.
This move would only demand more of Pogba defensively, but also take some of the pressure off on the other end.
The options will expand in the summer when new faces set the world’s biggest sporting event alight, but bolstering the current squad to make a deeper European run would only strengthen the club’s appeal to those players in the summer.
The January clock is ticking. Now is the time for United to cut into City’s significant lead on the pitch by making the right moves off it.