As the final whistle sounded last night, Man United manager David Moyes looked understandably relieved. And I’m talking really, really relieved; like a man that has just been told he's not firing blanks rather than a football manager who saw his team avoid the ignominy of three home defeats on the bounce.
Such has been the doom and gloom encircling Old Trafford after consecutive losses to Newcastle and Everton, the first time United had lost at home twice in a row for over a decade, it was vital to arrest such a worrying trend. Not in any immediate competitive sense (United would have topped the group even if they’d lost 9-0 last night), but more to provide some temporary respite for the embattled Moyes before a hectic end to December including a trip to Stoke in the League Cup quarter final, as well as four Premier League games against Aston Villa, West Ham, Hull and Norwich.
United should realistically be aiming to win all five.
Twelve points gained will put United, after 19 games played and thus halfway through the season, on 34 points. At the end of December in United’s title-winning campaign last year, the Red Devils had amassed a whopping 49 points, admittedly after 20 games played. This is a stark reminder of how much United have struggled without the intimidating efficacy of Sir Alex Ferguson at the heart of everything.
On the subject of Fergie, what was made startlingly obvious once again during another nervous United performance last night was just how many Ferguson recruits are woefully unable to perform to the standard required. Some of Fergie’s purchases over the last decade or so have proven to be vastly successful – just look at (the now aging) Rio Ferdinand, the reinvigorated Wayne Rooney and the increasingly confident David De Gea, not to mention Nemanja Vidic and the omnipotent CR7 – but for every Robin Van Persie signed there has been a Kleberson, Djemba-Djemba, Anderson, Nani, Ashley Young or Shinji Kagawa.
Kagawa will be given more opportunities to demonstrate that he is a top-class playmaker but for Anderson, Nani and Young, who cost a combined £55m and have nine Premier League winners’ medals between them, the game is up.
Young was invariably woeful against the dangerous Ukrainian opposition, squandering two decent opportunities to score and trudging off to a chorus of jeers echoing around Old Trafford. It’s almost painful to see but after a succession of diving fiascos and a Fernando Torres-esque kamikaze dip in form. Roy Keane put it pretty succinctly in the ITV studio: ‘I think it sums up his time at Man United – just not good enough’.
One almost feels sorry for the task at hand for David Moyes. Yes, he’s managing one of the most desirable clubs in the world, finally awarded his big break after eleven impressive years at Everton; yes, he’ll be backed financially to the hilt as the Glazers finally wake up to the reality that United need to channel some of the ‘spend spend spend’ attitude of their noisy neighbours. But weathering the storm of an exceptionally competitive Premier League season, with a squad which on paper struggles to look Champions League quality (current European form being an anomaly), whilst trying to succeed arguably the finest club manager of all time, is a terribly difficult prospect.
Frankly, United will have to embark on their most extensive (as well as expensive) squad overhaul of all time next summer and to a lesser extent in January if they wish to keep atop their perch at the summit of the Premier League, in addition to rivalling the current European big guns such as Bayern Munich and Barcelona.
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The question is: who do they sign?
There is no magic formula and the solution isn’t always to go out and spend £100m. There are times when lesser known, cheaper alternatives slot into a system more effectively; look at how Mario Mandzukic, at under £12m, was able to supplant Mario Gomez at Bayern Munich, who cost more than double his fee at £30m.
However, in United’s case, this is a squad which needs a huge level of investment. We’re not talking one or two players here; it could be four or five.
A new central defender is a must; Johnny Evans is an able deputy at most, Vidic is injury prone and Rio’s dire performance last night demonstrated he has to be phased out. Real Madrid’s classy French centre-back Raphael Varane, at 21 but already with Champions League experience, would be a dream signing but with a contract running until 2017 any deal looks difficult. Mats Hummels, Borussia Dortmund’s 24 year old, also has a contract running until 2017; but after winning two Bundesliga titles it would be interesting to see how he would react to a big money offer from United.
Provided with an opportunity to be at the heart of a new era at England’s most successful club on a big money contracgt, perhaps the German, who has been compared to Franz Beckenbauer, could be tempted. A bid in the region of £30-£35m wouldn’t be unreasonable for one of the best centre-backs in the game today and the fee would be nearly identical to what United paid in 2002 to bring a 23 year old Rio Ferdinand to the club.
Midfield is the other major difficulty for United and I’ve written previously of my high regard for Juventus’ Claudio Marchisio, a player who himself has spoken of his admiration for the Red Devils. But it’s rare for the best Italian internationals to move abroad; just look at how Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi of Roma have both fended off lucrative offers from abroad, season on season.
If I was Moyes and Ed Woodward, I would opt for a double swoop in the summer for Ilkay Gundogan and the aforementioned Mats Hummels. Dortmund lost the jewel in their crown of Mario Gotze to bitter rivals Bayern Munich in the summer and a similar situation is predicted to occur with Robert Lewandowski at the end of this season. Therefore, the logistics of a double purchase for United are rendered more difficult – Dortmund would require replacements for three players – yet after signing Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the summer just gone, Dortmund have demonstrated that they’re ready and willing to sanction big deals both in and out of the club.
A deal for Gundogan and Hummels will be complicated and it will be very expensive. But spending £60, even £70m on two top class international footballers, already schooled in an attractive, tactically proficient style by the brilliant Jurgen Klopp, is the type of deal United need to seal if they want to remain at the top of the pile and not slip down into two decades of domestic disappointment (Liverpool, anyone?)...
On a positive note, United have qualified first from their Champions League group with a goal difference of plus nine and, as mentioned, have some very winnable fixtures in the league coming up. As 2014 starts, David Moyes will be 50% through his maiden season at the club. As a United fan, I just hope that the second half is an improvement on the first.
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