New Year, New Me arrived a little early at Old Trafford. Replacing Jose Mourinho with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in the dugout seems to have given Manchester United a boost. The January transfer window could give another few.
United’s squad is not the most balanced, and there are areas across the pitch where additions are needed, in the short-term and in the long-term.
Here’s where we think Ed Woodward and co should be looking this winter.
The position is arguably the most underrated spot on the field in the modern game. As wingers have more or less vanished, it’s the full-backs’ job to control the flank. Having to be a presence in the attacking and defensive third means that they need to be incredibly fit… which means that it’s not ideal that Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia, both in their 30s, are primary choices.
It’s also notable that this is one of the few areas of the pitch that United need to lower the age in. The attack is incredibly well-stocked with young talent and, at the back, Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly could both be around for another five years (if their performances are good enough).
At full-back, the options aren’t so good. On the right, it’s either Young, Valencia, or Diogo Dalot. While talented, it wouldn’t harm Dalot if he had someone to share the load with and play (a fairly regular, hopefully) back-up to.
It’s been one of the big problem areas this season, exacerbated by the fact that, truth be told, Paul Pogba isn’t really a central midfielder.
The things he’s best at are all hallmarks of an attacking midfielder, even if his late runs give the impression of an old-school box-to-box man. He’s not.
While the World Cup showed that he clearly can do a job in a more restrained role, his wasn’t the only attacking talent that France blunted on their way to triumph in Russia. The entire team was more defensively-minded than any neutral expected, or wanted, them to be, which may have helped Pogba play in a midfield two.
Defensive solidity is desperately needed if United are to fully rejoin the top table and challenge for Champions League football.
It might be odd to have central midfield in both the long- and short-term categories but it’s a position that needs that much work.
While the current crop of Nemanja Matic, Marouane Fellaini, Ander Herrera, and Fred (as well as Pogba, of course) can get by, their ages make for worrying reading. Fred is the only one in his prime years, the rest are clustered around 30.
To put it another way, if you thought that the central midfield looks bad now, just wait until half of them have fallen off the cliff of their natural age curve.
If the rest of the team is good enough defensively, and the team is firing in attack, then United’s current centre-backs will be fine. See: Leicester City in 2015/16, Wes Morgan and Robert Huth.
At some point, David de Gea’s contract situation at United is going to go through the big fax machine in the sky and he will move on to another club. It would, at the very least, be prudent to keep an eye on promising teenagers.
De Gea recently turned 28 and, although goalkeepers can stay top-notch well into their 30s (or 40s, if you’re Gianluigi Buffon) things can go very wrong very fast when players reach 30 (as United have seen with Alexis Sanchez). Some serious scouting for a young keeper could make for a seamless transition if and when De Gea finally moves on.
A plan about the right wing
The United squad is blessed with so much attacking talent that to buy an out-of-the-box right-winger would feel unfair to whoever lost their place. Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Romelu Lukaku, and Pogba are all good enough to play regularly at Old Trafford, and together form a very strong selection of wares going forward.
However, United’s right-side of attacking midfield has felt disjointed in the past couple of years. Juan Mata or Jesse Lingard on the right side of an attacking three seems to help bring out the best in surrounding players, but it leaves a gaping hole on the right flank.
There should be a better option, and there probably is, but it’s as much tactical as it is a matter of personnel.
*odds subject to change
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by Tom Bodell