Andy Mitten reveals just what under-pressure Manchester United’s next move might be in the January transfer window.
Given the poor form, poor football and Champions League elimination, Manchester United fans are wondering what comes next, with the injury hit club allowed to buy players in the transfer window.
When United did a recent bi-annual briefing with journalists, the position of left-back was cited as a priority for the transfer window, with the acknowledgement that it’s a big ask.
United have serious money to spend but the top European clubs, plus almost every Premier League team, are under no financial pressure to sell.
Clubs like Everton, who’d once buckle when United came for one of their best players, will happily say no. They’re building a decent young team and don’t want it plundered.
Of course a player could leave if he forced his way out by asking for a transfer, which players are reluctant to do, as Seamus Coleman will testify.
Teams naturally don’t want to lose their best players mid-season, especially one in such a specialised position as left-back. The replacement left-back is also not what United planned for, but then they nobody planned for Luke Shaw to be injured.
After a mediocre first term, a far fitter Luke Shaw started this season well and looked every bit the player Gary Neville described as “the man who can be United’s left-back for 15 years”. Then he was cruelly injured in Eindhoven. He’ll return, but not until next year.
With word out that United want a left-back, agents busied themselves. It was a slight surprise as Daley Blind, Matteo Darmain and Marcos Rojo can play there. Blind has been needed in the middle, Rojo has had injuries and issues with an unimpressed boss and Darmian is better on the right. The person has to be good enough, yet also understand that he’ll likely to play second fiddle when Shaw returns.
Despite the restrictions, some exceptional full-backs have offered their services to United, yet now Louis van Gaal appears keener on a central defender.
There’s no truth in stories linking Nemanja Vidic to a return as a player. A United legend and former captain, the 34-year-old has been injured and hasn’t played this season. He’s doing his coaching badges and, while settled in Italy, misses life in England where he loved his nine years at United – as did his family.
United spent two months last summer thinking Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos would join the club. Instead, another central defender, Jonny Evans was let go. United did manage to keep David de Gea and, shielded by two new signings starting with Sch, the defence has been the most positive part of the team this season, the meanest at Old Trafford for 21 years, with Chris Smalling the best perfomer.
It’s at the other end where there are problems, but injuries have accelerated the need for a defender and last week, in the biggest game of the Van Gaal reign, two full-backs with only a game each between them played in a key Champions League match. It was far from ideal.
United know of the febrile mood among supporters after a run of five games without a win and elimination from the Champions League.
The club have backed van Gaal – and not to do so is a process which leads to his departure - but he’s under enormous pressure, not just to get the team winning again, but to get them scoring and playing well. He faces internal discontent from players and staff who, while they respect his record and the fact that he’s boss, are not convinced by the methods.
Some players feel that their creativity is stifled, that they’re not being the players they can be, that training can be so hard it leaves them exhausted and that some tactical decisions are baffling.
Van Gaal’s been a great coach, but is he still that? Has he moved with the times to be able to get the best from men 45 years his junior? The term ‘losing the dressing room’ is disingenuous because no manager ever has support of every single player, nor loses support from every player.
Players also only think about themselves, managers have to take on all manner of problems from their players, both personal and professional.
Not for the first time under Van Gaal, United have been hit by a serious injury crisis which hasn’t helped matters, but the mood has turned sharply against the manager since the defeat in Germany.
Only days before, United’s boss opined that the fans who came up to him in the street were happy with him and happy with Manchester United. He misread the mood, for fans in wealthy south Manchester suburbs are hardly likely to have a go at him, but he’s under no illusions that fans are now deeply concerned.
He’s also focused only on preparing his team, ostensibly with the support of the board who were indicating in the days before the Wolfsburg defeat that they would back the Dutchman to the tune of another £200million. Not that such an amount would go too far given the type of superstar players in their prime which United are trying – and struggling – to land.
And if you were one of those superstars, would you join a faltering side and follow in the footsteps of world-class names like Angel di Maria who saw their reputations shot to pieces in Manchester? He’s now rebuilding it in France.
Failure to beat a Norwich City side with one win in 11 at home on Saturday will see the mood worsen even more, the jeers become more audible - though fans will still support him at Old Trafford and Van Gaal alsom has the habit of his team getting a result just when they need it.
Not recently though - and the Champions League borefest damaged United’s stock further. Diehard fans paid a fortune to watch United in Holland, Russia and Germany. They saw their expensively assembled team pick up one point.
That said, the Europa League will be taken seriously, as it should for a club that is approaching three years without a trophy. The draw against Midtylland – Midget Land to those fans booking flights to chilly Denmark in February, some of whom are staying at Legoland – saw fans googling the name of United’s next European opponents, but there are some great teams left in the competition, some great cities which the travelling support would love to visit, from Seville to Naples.
Van Gaal needs a trophy this season. His position will be hugely weakened without one, especially given the money he’s spent and that the future of any managerial replacements is becoming a little clearer. He’s at the halfway point in his three-year contract. There needs to be a significant improvement for him to see it out.