Things look bleak for Manchester United at present but the upcoming summer transfer window offers yet another chance to finally start moving in a positive direction.
It can be difficult to imagine that United will ever actually get anything right again, considering the dreadful way the club has been run for the past decade and true change may never come until the Glazer family are no longer owners. Yet, to look at things optimistically, it only takes a few smart signings to completely change a side’s fortunes.
While on a smaller scale, Crystal Palace are a club that United should look to as an example. The Eagles hired a new manager in the summer in Patrick Vieira and, after making a handful of acquisitions that fit the style the Frenchman wants to play, they have seen a marked improvement in results, league position and quality of football. Considering the significant increase in resources at United’s disposal, there’s no reason why they can’t do the same or better.
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Hiring a new manager — which looks likely to be Ajax’s Erik ten Hag — is the first step and then the second is to back him in the transfer market and sign players suited to how the Dutchman wants to play football. Not just on name value.
The biggest problem position any incoming manager must address is midfield. United have been desperately lacking adequate protection of their back-line and a player capable of dictating the play with an accurate range of passing for years, yet the club has always chosen to lavishly spend elsewhere instead.
It has proven costly as the maligned duo of Scott McTominay and Fred have proven to be the best options despite their shortcomings. With Paul Pogba almost certain to leave when his contract expires and Nemanja Matic getting a year older, reinforcements in the middle of the park have never been more needed.
But as much as midfield has been a problem for United, it gives the new boss a perfect opportunity to instantly transform the team’s options without having to have a clear-out first. As a result, just a couple of signings in the area could immediately make United’s midfield look more technical, solid and well-stocked.
Declan Rice would be a brilliant solution to many of United’s problems but the exorbitant asking price West Ham will demand would leave little budget for United to strengthen elsewhere and, although Rice’s quality is undoubted, it would be foolish for United to once again think one big -money signing would solve all their problems.
Ignoring the fact Rice would likely turn down any move to Old Trafford due to a lack of Champions League football anyway, it would be much better for the club to bring in multiple players in the position.
Rather than spending £150million on Rice, a much lower fee on Leeds United’s Kalvin Phillips would be much more cautious. MEN Sport understands the club are working on a deal to sign the 26-year-old, whose contract expires in 2024 so may be available for a decent fee. Phillips has proven since arriving in the Premier League with his hometown club — and during Euro 2020 with England — that he has the tactical discipline, awareness, tackling technique and cool distribution to fulfill the much-needed role of a defensive-midfielder for United.
Then with plenty of money still left to play with, United could explore a more exciting midfield option, a player with a bit more flair, technique and attacking ability to add creativity to a midfield that is severely lacking it. Either Ruben Neves or Youri Tielemans would be really smart signings.
Both have proven quality, are in their mid-20s, have contracts expiring within two years, have several Premier League campaigns under their belts and would add a quality range of passing and a calm composure on the ball that no one else in the side possesses . Not to mention an increase in goals from midfield as well.
Couple those two signings with the returning Donny van de Beek, who enjoyed great success under Ten Hag and would surely get another chance under his former manager, and the promising James Garner and suddenly United’s midfield options look a whole lot healthier. In fact, they would look really good.
Like many at Ajax before him, Ten Hag favors a 4-3-3 and it will almost certainly be the formation he will deploy if he takes the hot seat. If he was to take charge tomorrow, though, his first choice midfield would probably be: Pogba-Fred-McTominay, which leaves the Brazilian playing out of position and only Nemanja Matic as a backup. It wouldn’t work the way Ten Hag would want.
Yet, if United manage to pull off two quality midfield signings in the summer it could look something more like this: Fred-Phillips-Neves/Tielemans with a second-choice line-up of Van de Beek-Matic-McTominay. Then you can add Garner, whose impressive 18-month spell at Nottingham Forest has certainly earned himself a proper shot at the first team, to the mix as well.
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That doesn’t even include Bruno Fernandes, who may have moved back into a midfield role under Ten Hag or played further forward in the attacking trifecta.
Just like that, United have gone from having an embarrassing midfield to an embarrassment of riches instead. Even when losing their record signing for nothing. With just two quality but not ridiculously expensive signings, United could begin their renewal by finally fixing their midfield problem and adding real technical quality and defensive solidity to the position. With that finally sorted their spending elsewhere may finally start to bear fruit.
Now all United need to do is make it happen but, if previous years are anything to go by, they won’t make it as simple as it sounds.
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