Manchester United are fourth in the Premier League, with the division’s third-best defensive record conceding only 21 goals. They are still standing in the FA Cup following a gruesome weekend for most of their immediate rivals. According to Deloitte, they are due to have the biggest income in world football by 2017. Crisis, what crisis?
Well, there is no crisis, especially if you are a club that can spend 60 million pounds on a single player, as it did on Angel Di Maria in the summer. But there are severe cracks in this facade.
Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool, who linger just behind Manchester United in the league table, have finally begun to show glimpses of the form that has made them regular contenders for UEFA Champions League places over the past few seasons.
Meanwhile, Manchester United have not yet managed a defining performance against any of the other top teams in the league. It is arguable that even their 3-0 victory over Liverpool was built largely upon the brilliance of goalkeeper David De Gea. Louis van Gaal has spoken of his desire that his team control games, yet their progress this season has been far from masterful.
So, what should be done? For one thing, if there is any complacency that Manchester United will find themselves in the top four come the end of the season, then there should not be. At one point, near the turn of the year, Van Gaal and a couple of his players talked vaguely of a title challenge, but that seemed somewhat premature then, wildly improbable now.
If UEFA Champions League qualification is indeed one of Van Gaal’s goals for the end of this season, then with 16 games to go there are three practical steps that the Dutchman could take.
1. Restore Rafael, or replace him
Rafael has played only six matches this season, which is partly because of his injuries but mostly because Van Gaal prefers Antonio Valencia as a defensive option.
Yet Valencia, for all his industry, has managed only two assists and no goals in 17 league games. Given that Van Gaal has put so much emphasis on width, to the extent that he regularly starts games with a five-man midfield or backline, one would expect him to start players who are more productive from the flanks.
In particularly tight matches Van Gaal should probably seek a more creative option, at least from the bench, and that is why links with Southampton’s Nathaniel Clyne are so reassuring. The only problem, of course, is that Southampton are currently third in the league and there is no immediate incentive for Clyne to leave.
Van Gaal will also be aware of the availability of Fiorentina’s Juan Cuadrado, but his reluctance may not be so much Cuadrado’s price tag — his release clause is around 27 million pounds — but his defensive capabilities. The Colombian is many things, but a reliable defender is currently not one of them.
The challenge for Van Gaal will be to get as much out of Rafael as he has from Marouane Fellaini and Ashley Young, which in theory should not be as hard, since Rafael is the most talented of the three. If Van Gaal is not going to bring in new talent in this area, then he should harness Rafael’s gifts as best he can. The Brazilian, after all, was arguably the best right-back in the Premier League just two seasons ago. It is time to get him back toward that level.
2. Buy a ball-playing centre-back this window
Van Gaal wishes to build up play from the back, whether that is in a back three or a back four. The problem with that is he is currently giving the lion’s share of possession to centre-back Phil Jones, for whom playmaking is not a strong point.
What’s more, the backline has been remarkably error-prone, and it is instructive to think how much lower in the league the club might be if someone worse than De Gea was in goal for them. The recruitment of a centre-half must be a priority this window.
3. Sign another centre midfielder this window
There was a time when the recruitment of Yohan Cabaye from Newcastle United was mocked, but it is precisely this type of player who Manchester United now need.
They already have Ander Herrera, whom Van Gaal is curiously reluctant to use at present, but the problem is broader than just giving the Spaniard more games. Manchester United need strength in depth in this area. Even if they were to acquire Kevin Strootman from Roma, this would not satisfy their needs here.
The very best teams have a range of options in midfield, and beyond Michael Carrick, who has been in somewhat diffident form of late, the choices are not reliable. What Manchester United may need is an excellent mid-market option such as, say, Porto’s Mexican international Hector Herrera — someone who can tackle, assist and organise too, but who is available relatively cheaply. A strong squad will be essential to this year’s run-in for the Champions League places.
It has been only a few months since the summer, but many may have forgotten the long period during which Manchester United went without making a signing, eventually landing a cluster of fine players just before the window closed.
Those arrivals were greeted with relief, but the suspicion may have been that the club’s transfer strategy was, at some level, a little haphazard. The three areas highlighted above have been the subject of some concern for a couple of months now, and so it is somewhat surprising that the club has not acted sooner to address them.
By the time summer comes, Manchester United could lose valuable momentum in their journey to establish themselves as continual title challengers. It would be a shame if their reluctance in this transfer window was partly responsible for that.