Mourinho’s summer strategy takes shape
The 22-year-old Benfica defender has been the subject of transfer speculation for some time, of course, with United attempting to bring Lindelöf to Old Trafford last winter. The transfer fell through, with Benfica reluctant to lose a key player in the middle of the campaign. That is no longer the case, and in a market that is certain to get very hot this summer, United has secured an international player for what could later be seen as a very good price. That depends on the player’s performances, of course, although there are plenty who rate the former Västerås player very highly.
"One down, how many more to go? José Mourinho hopes to make at least four summer signings, addressing United’s most prominent challenges last season."
Lindelöf signed for the Águias as a 17-year-old, spending almost two years with Benfica B before making his first team debut in October 2013. It wasn’t until the 2015/16 campaign that Lindelöf established himself in an injury-hit first team, impressing enough to make it into the Sweden squad for Euro 2016, just a year after helping the Swede’s under-21 side to a European Championship win. Comfortable and strong in the tackle, the Swede should be able to build a naturally balanced partnership with Eric Bailly.
Lindelöf is required because, Bailly aside, there are plenty of questions about United’s central defensive options. The Ivorian enjoyed an outstanding first campaign at Old Trafford, broken only by the African Cup of Nations and intermittent injury.
Elsewhere, Marcos Rojo enjoyed his best season at United to date, with the Argentine a solid presence in the back four for much of the campaign. Rojo will remain an option next season, but the severe knee injury that he suffered in March means that he is unlikely to be available for the first team until 2018.
Mourinho’s other central defensive options are neither in-form, nor consistently fit, nor consistency up to standard. Chris Smalling suffered perhaps is his worst season at United, with the progress made under Louis van Gaal now all but forgotten. Phil Jones performed well during the middle third of the season before all-too-predictable injury struck. The former Blackburn Rovers player still has the talent to make it at United, but after six seasons of injury-plagued presence at Old Trafford, nobody should based a defensive strategy on the 25-year-old. Similarly, Mourinho is unlikely to build a Champions League campaign around Daley Blind, a versatile and talented player whose propensity for defensive howlers is still strong.
While Lindelöf is the only player for whom United has openly admitted a bid, the club is also said to be interested in Monaco defensive midfielder Fábio Henrique Tavares, better known simply as Fabinho. It would be a transfer both significant in its expense and difficult to pull off given that the Monégasques have already lost fellow midfielder Bernardo Silva to Manchester City this summer. Silva’s up-front fee was more than £40 million, with another £20 million to be paid dependent on certain performance related targets.
Whether a bid for Fabinho is truly imminent, or the figment of Fleet Street imagination, enquiries are widely thought to have been made. It signals Mourinho’s desire to strengthen in midfield. After all, while Ander Herrera’s Player of the Year winning performances were one of the highlights of the season just passed, the Spaniard’s more defensive positioning in the campaign does not mean that he is a specialist holding midfielder.
Moreover, the amount of games that used both 35-year-old Michael Carrick and dismissal-in-waiting Marouane Fellaini in a defensive role last season highlights the room to strengthen. Carrick made 38 appearances in the 2016/17 campaign and Fellaini 47 – albeit many from the bench – indicating plenty of time on offer for whomever the club brings to Old Trafford this summer.
Similarly, it should surprise nobody if Mourinho brings in a wide attacking player this summer. Last season the role on the left flank was largely shared by Marcus Rashford and Antony Martial – it is far from a natural position for either youngster. The Frenchman is a little more comfortable than Rashford coming off the left, with the England international often looking out-of-sorts last season, resulting in a significant mid-campaign dip. Rashford is guaranteed a long-term position at United; Mourinho’s public criticism of Martial means that many supporters of the former Monaco forward remain concerned about his future.
"It should surprise nobody if Mourinho brings in a wide attacking player this summer. The role on the left flank was largely shared by Marcus Rashford and Antony Martial – it is far from a natural position for either youngster."
United’s reported interest in Inter Milan’s Ivan Perišić fits that analysis, albeit the Croatian might represent an underwhelming acquisition for many supporters. Perišić has enjoyed a nomadic career to date, having played for Sochaux, Roeselare, Club Brugge, Borussia Dortmund and Wolfsburg, before joining Inter for €16 million in 2015. The fee represents both the promise and limitations of Perišić’s career to date. He is a fine, sometimes old-fashioned, attacking player, who scores at a decent if unspectacular rate. Yet, as far as benchmarks of quality go, summer 2015 was also when Wolfsburg sold another winger – Kevin de Bruyne – for more than €50 million.
Still, if it is not Perišić, then Mourinho is likely to strengthen his attacking options in wide areas this summer. Ashley Young – who is heading into the final year of a largely unproductive six years at Old Trafford – is the only other player in the United squad who is naturally comfortable on the left. Henrikh Mkhitaryan started the Europa Cup final in that role, although he is probably more attuned to central areas or coming in off the right.
Finally, United will buy at least one forward this summer, with United making the obvious choice not to renew Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s contract after the Swede suffered a serious and long-term knee injury late in the season. The aforementioned Rashford and Martial would both like to lay claim to a permanent spot at number nine, and the Englishman did little wrong filling in for Ibrahimovic late in the campaign. Yet, Mourinho is unlikely to risk a shot at the Premier League title and Champions League progress on the form of two players barely out of their teens.
After all, the club was already prepared to activate Antoine Griezmann’s €100 million release clause this summer. The Frenchman is not coming to Old Trafford, but a proposed £60 million acquisition of Real Madrid’s Alvaro Morata would also limit Rashford’s chance in the role he covets most. There will be sympathy for the youngster on the terrace, but is also a sound strategy for a club that has not challenged for the Premier League since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013. That long dry spell is one Mourinho is desperate to end.
There may well be more acquisitions this summer, although it is more likely that United will seek players ready to play a role in the first team, than fill out a thin squad. Then, of course, there will be departures too – some in roles already identified to strengthen. Indeed, one of Smalling or Jones may well find that the end of the road has been reached, while none of Luke Shaw, Daley Blind, or the aforementioned Young or Fellaini hold guaranteed futures at Old Trafford. Wayne Rooney will surely leave after 13 seasons with the club.
It promises to be an intriguing summer – as ever, one that the club must get right if four years of frustration is to come to an end.