As if the season wasn’t chaotic enough for those at Old Trafford, Liverpool is set to win the Premier League for the first time, while Manchester United is in a desperate fight for Europa League qualification. Little wonder that United’s 2-0 defeat to Everton proved to be the final straw, ending David Moyes’ disastrous 10 month tenure at Old Trafford. Moyes, however, has inflicted damage far greater than United’s lowly league position and whomever the new man proves to be – he will face much headache in getting the Reds back into Europe.
Moyes’ seemingly fruitless transfer activity over two windows has nonetheless complicated the upcoming summer market. United will have to build from a position of little strength.
In David de Gea the Reds boast one of the finest goalkeepers in the world. Ben Amos and Sam Johnstone will provide solid backup if Anders Lindegaard leaves in search of games. The back four, however, is in need of a complete overhaul. Nemanja Vidić is leaving for Internazionale and Rio Ferdinand will be squad filler at best even if the veteran lands an unlikely contract extension.
There are question marks about each of United’s younger defenders. Phil Jones has played himself into first team picture in his preferred central position, although Jonny Evans has failed to grow into a top class defender – or one who is consistently fit. Chris Smalling lacks the distribution and composure needed to start every match. It leaves United in need of star recruits, especially with Ferdinand’s unclear future and Evans’ tendency for injuries.
Despite suspicions that Moyes doesn’t trust United’s right-back Rafael da Silva has kept his first choice status when fit. Yet, the Brazilian’s poor injury record necessitates new cover at right back, although – depending on the manager – Antonio Valencia might be converted into a full time defender.
On the other flank Alexander Büttner certainly needs to be replaced – the Dutchman having failed to convinced anybody he has the quality to make it at United.
Meanwhile, long-serving Patrice Evra is nearing his ‘Gary Neville against West Bromwich Albion moment’ and could find himself on the bench next season even if the Frenchman is awarded a new deal. Quality left-backs are a rarity and United United might have to settle for Fábio Coentrão depending on the market climate this summer.
As it has been the case for almost a decade United’s major problem area is in midfield. The Reds have far too many ‘number 10s’ and too few ‘number eights’. Without new recruits in wide areas United’s new manager will be forced to field only playmakers behind the principal striker and rely on full-backs for width. Ashley Young, Luis Nani and Valencia’s mediocrity is now long established.
Whatever the method of providing width United can provide little protection in the engine room, with Michael Carrick and Maroune Fellaini both poor this season. Marauding full-backs require cover, although United’s surfeit of playmakers relieves the central pair of any attacking requirements. Theoretically United could get away with a functional midfield next season, although Tom Cleverley, Anderson and, sadly, Darren Fletcher are simply not of the required class.
Carrick is as good a deep lying playmaker, but lacks mobility and drive. The link to Toni Kroos is interesting as the Bayern Munich midfielder is mobile enough to carry the ball on his own. Although Kroos is ponderous in possession that isn’t a concern with three fleet-footed playmakers deployed ahead of him.
In the likely event that Kroos is a fantasy United’s biggest problem is finding Carrick a partner. Fellaini is far too ill-disciplined to be trusted in key games regardless of his physical qualities. And should the new manager rely of his full-backs for width he will need a central midfielder tactically savvy enough to fill in gaps as they appear.
Indeed, there is a scenario in which United’s defensive structure could be sacrificed to indulge Adnan Januzaj, Shinji Kagawa and Juan Mata. United will need a defensively capable midfielder – Fletcher in prime would do nicely.
In fact Carrick and Fellaini are far better suited to a midfield trio – supported by a genuine box-to-box player who can move with the ball at his feet. How United could do with Yaya Touré. It is a role Anderson often played, although to little effect, while Thiago Alcântara was supposedly lined up before Moyes decided against signing the Spanish midfielder.
Yet, United face multiple conflicting transfer requirements. Remodeling the defence will be costly – and central midfield might just have to wait. Again.
In addition, there is little option to provide direct running from the flanks. Welbeck lacks the finesse to be truly effective out wide, and despite the youngster’s introduction this season the experiment with Januzaj in such role has failed to date. It is mooted that Marco Reus has a transfer release clause in the region of £30 million.
Up front Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney are aging and lack the mobility needed in most modern football philosophies, while the team’s requirements elsewhere limits the amount of money that can be invested. Danny Welbeck’s presence and the rise of James Wilson from the academy ought to be enough to maintain a decent strike force – even if Javier Hernández chooses to leave.
Then there is the problem of Rooney’s fitness, which has again been questionable this season, and the player’s first touch that has long deserted United’s number 10. However, Rooney has been effective up-front – his poor tactical discipline tending to unsettle the opposition. In a season when van Persie has turned into a relatively immobile poacher, the Dutchman might benefit from a more energetic partner in close proximity. Kagawa lacks forcefulness, while Mata was ostracised by José Mourinho as the Spaniard tends to slow down tempo.
At Goodison Park, United conspicuously exploited the middle as if Moyes was responding to criticisms of his over-reliance on the flanks. Everton, however, remained confident that Büttner and Smalling would pose little threat – packed central areas to prevent the Reds from playing through the middle, and then hit United on the counter. Both goals came by Everton attacking Evans and Jones from angles.
Everton exposed in one game both Moyes’ failings and United’s weaknesses.
Still, whatever United’s transfer activity there is something to work from next season even if there are many gaps. United may still be able to provide genuine attacking options from full-backs, while Jones, Evans and Smalling can at least maintain a higher line than Vidić and Ferdinand.
Up front each of United’s strikers have the technical skills to double as number 10s, while Mata and Kagawa are proven goalscorers. At least at other clubs. There is plenty of potential creativity there.
United certainly cannot afford any further upheaval next season. The league table is justification enough for dismissing Moyes. Not only has the former Everton manager failed to take the reigning champions of England into the Champions League, Moyes has left behind a squad that prohibitively limits his successor’s chances. This is a mess that now calls for a top class manager.