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The curious case of Ilkay Gündoğan

July 18, 2015 Tags: , Opinion 25 comments
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A few months ago it looked certain that Ilkay Gündoğan would be heading through the exit door at Signal Iduna Park and into the arms of the red half of Manchester. At one stage Sky Germany even reported a transfer done – pending a medical that never materialised. Soon the rash of media reports went cold and the story was dismissed as another agent pushing for a move and not a deal actually completed.

Reports soon emerged linking Gündoğan to other European heavyweights: Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Manchester City and Arsenal. It became clear that, after a disastrous season at Borussia Dortmund, Gündoğan was looking for a new challenge – along with a club that could match his hefty wage demands. This led to a flurry of stories about the player’s excessive wage demands, along with ‘medicals’ reported at more than one club across the continent. It took a statement by the player, denying an imminent move, to quash the column inches.

The statement itself was not surprising to those who have followed the German born to Turkish parents. From humble beginnings, Gündoğan fought his way from the reserve team at VFL Bochum to FC Nurnberg, where he made 50 appearances over three years. The highlight was a performance against Bayern Munich where Gündoğan was the best player on the pitch despite being a month shy of his 19th birthday.

Gündoğan’s performances for the lower Bundesliga club earned a move to Dortmund for €4 million in 2011 and, throughout his career, he has let his performances on the pitch do the talking. It makes the apparent receptiveness to his agent’s whim this summer all the more surprising.

Still, the Gelsenkirchen native is no modern-day ‘mercenary’. According to Bild, Gündoğan rejected a contract offer from PSG worth about €12 million a season. The German is desperate to prove himself at a higher level, but will only leave Dortmund for one of Europe’s elite clubs.

This summer’s saga still had one final twist though. According to credible German reports Gündoğan rejected both Barcelona and Bayern Munich due to the inadequate contracts offered. The clubs were reportedly “shocked” at the player’s demands and ended negotiations. Then, with all roads out of Dortmund seemingly closed, Gündoğan renewed his deal at Dortmund for a further two years.

Inadvertently, perhaps, Gündoğan made the most sensible decision. After a long injury layoff the 24-year-old is gradually getting back to the scintillating level of 2013, which brought the attention of Europe’s biggest clubs. The way Gündoğan dominated the Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid is remembered well across the continent.

At his best, Gündoğan was a marauding force who could dictate a game, with the opposition rarely able to stifle his influence. The German won’t grab attacking headlines, like team-mate Marco Reus, but his impact on the game for both club and country could once again be crucial.

Ask Pep Guardiola, whose Bayern team had to face Gündoğan at his peak in the 2013 DFL Supercup. Despite losing the talismanic Mario Gotze that summer Dortmund arguably retained the most crucial player on the pitch. Every significant Dortmund attack flowed through Gündoğan. Indeed, Gündoğan looked in prime position to step into the spotlight left by Gotze – only for a back injury to keep him out for most of the season.

Recent links to United made sense, of course. Gündoğan’s blend of energy and intelligence is a perfect fit for a club of United stature. Or would have been before Louis van Gaal spent more than £40 million on Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin. At his peak Gündoğan might have made the perfect replacement for Paul Scholes. The ability to control the build up, coupled with an eye for a pass, bares a strong resemblance to the ginger-haired United legend.

And while Gündoğan isn’t the physical behemoth of, say, Chelsea’s Nemanja Matic, he has the awareness to know just when to step in and gain possession for his team. His underrated ability to win the ball is similar to the way Michael Carrick operates for United.

Still, it is understandable that Van Gaal has gone for known qualities this summer. Since Gündoğan’s breakout season in 2013 the German suffered a serious spinal compression injury, which kept him out of action for major periods of the past two campaigns. He has shown glimpses of those explosive performances of old, but they have been all too rare. It would have been a major gamble for Van Gaal, who is in desperate need of midfield control, to acquire an injury-prone player who is only now moving past his troubles. Considering Carrick’s fragility – with the Englishman approaching the latter years of a fine career – Gündoğan would have posed a risk too far.

Instead, the saga has been put to bed for this summer at least. If Gündoğan is able to recapture the form of 2013 on a more consistent basis then United could do worse than to pursue a deal for the German once Carrick hangs up his boots – albeit an unlikely scenario given Schweinsteiger and Schneiderlin’s arrival.

In 2013 Gündoğan fit United’s needs like a glove. It is a transfer that seemed a certainty at one point this summer. Fast forward two years and the player will probably be just one more star who seemed destined to don the famous red strip, but ended up spending his career elsewhere. Both parties might wonder what could have been.

Schweinsteiger adds new dimension to Van Gaal’s burgeoning squad

July 11, 2015 Tags: , Opinion 14 comments
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Three transfers concluded, how many more to come this summer? Manchester United’s confirmation that Germany captain Bastian Schweinsteiger is to join from Bayern Munich adds to a growing sense of momentum at Old Trafford. The player may be creeping towards his 30s, but Schweinsteiger is legitimately one of the world’s finest central midfielders – and his capture no less than a significant coup for Louis van Gaal. The acquisition is one more piece in what could be a very profitable summer for the club.

Indeed, if any doubts remain about Schweinsteiger’s suitability for United, then apprehension should be quelled by Jamie Carragher’s assertion that the 30-year-old is now “past his best.” There is nothing quite like the stench of Scouse desperation to validate United’s trajectory, even if the former Liverpool defender later claimed his comment was made in jest.

Schweinsteiger, who joins on a three-year deal worth more than £140,000-per-week, will add vast experience and big-game nous to Van Gaal’s team. And while the midfielder’s injury record is patchy since Pep Guardiola join the Bavarians in 2013, Schweinsteiger has played more than 70 games for club and country over the past two season. United’s latest acquisition is a short-term move, perhaps, but one for a player who should ensure Van Gaal’s midfield is competitive with almost any on the continent.

While the predictable partisan debate raged in social media in England, over in the Motherland the player’s colleagues were quick to praise the man who will lead his nation at Euro 2016. After making more than 500 appearances for the club, Bayern was seemingly willing to let the player dictate his own future.

“Bastian wants to do something new at the end of his career,” said Bayern Munich chief executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. “He asked that we meet his wishes. My colleagues at Manchester United have been in touch. We’ve reached an agreement over a transfer. It’s regrettable because Bastian meant a great deal to the club. He achieved great things.”

Meanwhile, Germany manager Joachim Löw, described United’s new acquisition as “an absolute leader and world class player who can put his stamp on any team.”

Schweinsteiger will be the first German to play for United’s first team when he makes his Old Trafford debut in August and will add genuine leadership and tactical nous to a team that has lacked both in recent campaigns. It is for good reason that Schweinsteiger was described as “the brain” of the national side by as Löw as Germany won the World Cup in Brazil last summer.

Indeed, the player was outstanding in the final against Argentina, moving former United midfielder Paul Scholes to label Schweinsteiger the outstanding contributor in the calendar year 2014.

“If I was to pick my standout it would have to be, in a World Cup year, a World Cup winner,” said Scholes last December. “If I had to pick my player of the year it would be Schweinsteiger.”

The World Cup proved to be the pinnacle of a career that began in Bayern’s youth team before a rapid ascent to Ottmar Hitzfeld’s squad. Hitzfeld granted the player a first team debut at the age of 18 in 2002. Schweinsteiger made early appearances for Der FCB in defence and on the wing before switching to central midfield where his range of effective passing found a good marriage with a high-energy game.

More than 20 club honours later and Schweinsteiger will add much to Van Gaal’s search for balance at United. Over the past year the Dutchman has weighed a career-long natural attacking tendency with what Van Gaal believes are serious weaknesses in his squad. If Schweinsteiger adds anything it may be to eradicated Van Gaal’s incessant tinkering, particularly with the shape of his side.

Van Gaal’s team is likely to be more settled in the coming months not least because the Dutchman is keen to address the club’s defensive weaknesses first; the Reds also having confirmed the addition of defender Matteo Darmian to the squad. Southampton’s Morgan Schneiderlin is still likely to join, with a top-class central defender also on the cards.

Beyond the initial intrigue Schweinsteiger’s impending arrival also poses questions. First, of how the player will to fit into United’s shape, and then of whom will make way for the German. While a more defensive-minded central midfield role might suit a player who will turn 31 in August, Van Gaal is also likely to be wary about rapidly losing Michael Carrick’s influence in the United side. Only a cursory glance at the data is required to understand Carrick’s value to United: the Reds picked up more than 2.3 points-per-game in the Premier League last season with the Geordie in the team, against just 1.5 without.
Manchester United 2015/16
With Ander Herrera’s energy, quick-tempo passing and goals impressing towards the end of last season, it might well be Marouane Fellaini who is most at risk from the German’s arrival. Van Gaal’s desire to field, if not two defensive players in midfield then at least one and an all-rounder, points to a trio in the centre of the park comprising Carrick, Schweinsteiger and Herrera when Tottenham Hotspur visits Old Trafford on 8 August.

This requirement for balance, together with Carrick’s age and Schweinsteiger’s injury-record last season, means that a deal for Schneiderlin remains likely despite the German’s capture.

In fact additional defensive resources probably hold to key to unlocking United’s attacking freedom, with Van Gaal keen to resurrect a 4-3-3 shape that was commonly used towards the back-end of last season. Wayne Rooney, Angel Di Maria, Juan Mata, Ashley Young, Adnan Januzaj and new signing Memphis Depay offer Van Gaal abundant attacking options even if the Dutchman is currently light senior on strikers.

That challenge may well be resolved in the market, while United remains on the hunt for an experienced central defender and – probably – a goalkeeper to replace David de Gea. Either way, Van Gaal’s squad is rapidly nearing completion (above, right).

For the moment, however, the focus remains on Schweinsteiger – a player who could well provide the kind of high-quality if short-term spark that Robin van Persie once offered. The Dutch striker leaves United this summer having proven dubious value for a £24 million fee, but an outstanding capture nonetheless.

The smart money is on Schweinsteiger following a similar pattern.

Schweinsteiger’s honours:

World Cup (Germany) – 2014
Club World Cup – 2013
Champions League – 2013
Bundesliga – 2003, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2013, 2014, 2015
DFB Cup – 2003, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2013, 2014
DFB League Cup – 2004, 2007
DFL Supercup – 2010, 2012
German Player of the Year – 2013

Van Gaal builds from the back but cannot neglect United’s attacking front

July 8, 2015 Tags: , Opinion 15 comments
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Manchester United’s impending capture of Torino right-back Matteo Darmian is the first in what could be three defensive acquisitions this summer; the Italian international may even join before Louis van Gaal’s squad leaves, next Monday, for a short tour of the United States. It is a sound purchase in a window that promises a more pragmatic approach than last summer’s glitz. After all, defensive-minded reinforcements are much-needed after a campaign of inconsistency at the back. And yet Van Gaal’s apparent focus on defensive solidity could also mask a real gap in United’s attacking arsenal with just a month to go before the Premier League begins.

Reports emanating from Italy on Wednesday suggest that the club has struck a £12.5 million deal for the 25-year-old who featured for the Italian national side on 13 occasions in 2014. Darmian started all of the Azzurri’s matches in Brazil last summer and was awarded Pallone Azzurro for the best player in the national team over the past year. High praise indeed.

Darmian has built a reputation for defensive solidity in a Torino side that was otherwise largely mediocre last season. The former Milan defender contributed a modest five goals and four assists in 47 games for the club in the past year, but consistently scores highly in a number of key defensive metrics. The Legnano-born player made not a single defensive error last season and averages highly in the number of tackles and interceptions made.

With Rafael da Silva likely to move on this summer, and Antonio Valencia no closer to becoming a natural full-back, Darmian’s acquisition should add much to United’s cause. So too will the player’s genuine turn of pace, solid tactical awareness and impressive stamina, if not the inconsistent passing.

Elsewhere the club’s apparently genuine move for Sergio Ramos remains on hold while Real Madrid negotiates both a potential new contract with the player and David de Gea’s transfer to the Spanish capital. It is a triumvirate of complicated deals that may take a summer to resolve. If, indeed, Ramos’ interest in United remains genuine.

Should Ramos remain at the Santiago Bernabéu then United’s perfunctory interest in Argentinian Nicolas Otamendi may be solidified. Either way it is almost inconceivable that the Reds will start the new campaign at home to Tottenham Hotspur with Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo and Jonny Evans as central defensive options – even if the English pair now enjoy lucrative new contracts.

At left-back Luke Shaw’s summer fitness regime has already yielded impressive results, with the former Southampton youngster having lost some three kilos before pre-season training began. No longer should Van Gaal’s rather public dismissal of Shaw’s fitness resonate; Shaw is a player ready to provide a return on the club’s £30 million investment.

Indeed, should Ed Woodward complete a deal for Darmian this week, and land a top class central defender before the window closes on 2 September, then United will enter the new campaign in better defensive shape than over the past two years.

Add the probable acquisition of Morgan Schneiderlin from Southampton – should United match the £25 million fee reportedly demanded – and the Dutchman could even resist tinkering with United’s defensive shape. The veteran coach repeatedly switched between a back three and back four last season – to mixed effect.

Schneiderlin may not be an acquisition twinkling with stardust, nor – in an honest assessment – in the top five players in his position in Europe, but the Frenchman will add discipline, some steel and defensive nous to United’s midfield. After all, Michael Carrick’s ageing body managed to complete just half of United’s fixtures last season.

If United’s defensive weaknesses are being addressed then the club’s paucity of goals remains a stark concern. Van Gaal’s team scored just 62 Premier League goals last year; 11 adrift of the champions, Chelsea, and 21 fewer than rivals Manchester City.

The concern is only partly abated by Memphis Depay’s arrival. The Dutch youngster scored 25 and made another five for PSV Eindhoven in the past year, although there are few examples where players have immediately transferred goalscoring feats in the Eredivisie to the Premier League. Memphis’ talent is genuine, but one that his manager is likely to nurture over the coming season.

Elsewhere, Nani’s sale and likely departure of Robin van Persie has removed, if not numbers over the past year, then at least some attacking talent. The Portuguese winger was always unlikely to stay beyond this summer after United effectively put the 27-year-old in the international shop window by loaning him to Sporting last season. Nani scored 11 for the Lisbon club in his most productive ever campaign as a professional.

Meanwhile, Van Persie’s huge wage had begun to look like a burden rather than the sound investment it once was; the Dutchman has suffered two mediocre injury-plagued seasons in succession. Still, the striker’s impending sale to Fenerbahçe, for just £5 million, removes attacking experience from United’s squad.

It also leaves Van Gaal with a quartet of forwards about whom there are plenty of concerns. Javier Hernández will be sold if an adequate buyer fronts up the sub-£10 million fee demanded, while Will Keane is set to spend the season on loan at Preston North End. In truth the young forward is unlikely to ever feature for United’s first team again.

Retained in the Dutchman’s squad, just a week before United departs for the States, is captain Wayne Rooney – who suffered his worst ever goalscoring campaign last year – and the callow James Wilson. It is no kind of attacking unit to take into domestic and European competition. Rooney’s numbers last season were effected by a lengthy spell in central midfield, but the paucity of goals over the final three months or, indeed, of shots and chances created, says much for the Scousers’ waning attacking threat.

United’s goalscoring weakness, on paper at least, is less obvious in midfield, but still in need of assessment. Juan Mata, Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini scored 25 goals between them last season, but managed just eight assists. The supply line to United’s, albeit static, forward line too often ran dry, with Angel di Maria starting on the bench for much of the campaign. It is an observation that may well fast-track Andreas Pereira into the United side during the opening weeks of the campaign – especially with Fellaini suspended.

The real challenge, of course, is no longer United’s Glazer-inspired parsimony in the transfer market, but the intense competition for attacking talent across the continent. United will need to spend, possibly in the tens of millions, to secure the standard of forward now required at Old Trafford.

This ensures that the focus returns to Woodward in the weeks leading up to 2 September. He is a much maligned executive who may well have secured a very reasonable priced new defender. Supporters will look for a similar effect up front.

United must heed Cesc education

July 1, 2015 Tags: , , Opinion 9 comments
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July 15, 2013. The ides, it turned out, of Cesc. Ed Woodward, freshly appointed as Manchester United’s new executive vice chairman, made his first big move in the transfer market that day: a £25 million bid for Barcelona’s Cesc Fàbregas that was swiftly rejected. Woodward’s was a pursuit that ended in failure; just one in a summer of incompetence that still resonates at Old Trafford.

Indeed, it is hard to recall a more calamitous window than that of 2013. Not, at least, since Peter Kenyon graced Old Trafford’s boardroom by offering Juventus just £8 million for Zinedine Zidane in the late 1990s. Kenyon topped it by refusing to raise United’s bid for Ronaldinho a penny above £18 million in 2003.

While Fàbregas cannot match Zidane for class, Woodward’s virgin market was far worse than anything under Kenyon. After all, Woodward failed not only with Cesc, but Brazilian-Spanish midfielder Thiago Alcântara, Ander Herrera, Francesco Totti, Sami Khadeira and perhaps half a dozen others in a scattergun transfer policy that brought little more than embarrassment – and the lumbering Marouane Fellaini.

Having failed to heed the lesson from Thiago’s move United faxed over the club’s first official bid for Fàbregas a mere 24 hours after his colleague’s departure for Germany. As timing goes, Woodward is no Tommy Cooper, although the farce still ran deep. Deterred not by the predictably swift rejection of a £25 million opening bid, Woodward oversaw two further offers in £5 million increments, each rebuffed by the Catalan giants with increasing chagrin.

The ruse, as it turned out, was all Cesc’s; the Spaniard had not quite admitted defeat in pursuit of a more prominent role at Camp Nou and used United’s interest to bolster his position under incoming manager Gerardo Martino. It was a ruthlessly efficient strategy too – one that leaves a stark lesson from United’s failed pursuit of the now Chelsea midfielder. Like many a jilted lover, not all interest is requited.

That futile exercise remains in the memory amid the club’s reported £28 million bid for Real Madrid central defender Sergio Ramos this week. It is a bid that comes with a large measure of caution given the 29-year-old’s protracted and seemingly bitter contract negotiations with the 10-times European champions.

Ramos was signed from Sevilla as a teenager in 2005 and has played almost 450 games for the club in addition to earning 128 caps for the Spanish national side. Yet, with Madrid’s policy of signing world superstars unabating under President Florentino Pérez, the defender has slipped down Real’s wage table and now earns just over £5 million per season – about the same as Phil Jones’ new deal at Old Trafford.

In fact, once the most expensive teenage acquisition in Spanish football – at a touch under £20 million – Ramos now earns less than a quarter of Cristiano Ronaldo’s annual pay packet. And while the comparative wage has apparently sparked an ongoing pursuit of a better deal from the Ramos camp, it is the perception of Pérez’ dirty-tricks campaign that has unearthed seemingly genuine resentment. After all, Ramos has been painted as a mercenary in some sections of the Madrid-leaning Spanish press in recent weeks.

Yet, it is also a story that feels depressingly familiar: a player accused of greed and a club keen to play up to supporters’ perception of disloyalty. This is an equation so frequently solved when the wages demanded meets an equilibrium with a pay packet finally offered. It is a balance that few of the more cynical bent doubt will be found at the Bernabéu this summer.

Still, amid that now hackneyed analysis, some believe that Ramos’ exit strategy is actually genuine and that the player’s relationship with Madrid has come to a final end. Not least because of United’s need for an experienced defender this summer and the club’s new found muscle in the transfer market.

“I know Sergio has told the general manager to listen to offers they get from Manchester United,” former Real President Ramón Calderón told the BBC this week.

“He only wants to go to United. Things are in a very bad situation. As time has gone on, things have not only not improved, they have got worse. Now it is not a question of money. It is a lack of affection the player is feeling from Real Madrid.”

It is a situation all the more perplexing for Ramos’ increasing status and maturity at Real. Once a rash and petulant player, whose penchant for a tackle means he is the most red-carded in Madrid’s history, Ramos is now a cultured leader. The last of those 19 dismissals came against Barcelona in a 4-3 el Classico defeat 18 months ago, while the defender’s record remained clean throughout Real’s ultimately disappointing campaign under Carlo Anchelotti last season. Indeed, Ramos conceded just over 40 fouls in the La Liga campaign – the lowest number in any season spent at Madrid.

Meanwhile, United’s strong need for experience matches up to Louis van Gaal’s reported £150 million transfer budget. Last season none of Jones, Chris Smalling, Marcus Rojo or Johny Evans completed more than 30 games for the club. Form, and more often fitness, proved the quartet’s undoing, although Smalling emerged from the season in a stronger position than at any time over the past five years. Jones’ new contract reflects positive performances when the Englishman remained fit and Rojo impressed despite a series of frustrating injuries. It leaves Evans as the most likely to depart should United secure Ramos’ signature.

Still, that is a scenario that remains some way off, with both United, Real and potentially Ramos engaged in a classic summer game of brinkmanship. Throw Real’s pursuit of United’s goalkeeper David de Gea into the mix and this is a saga that may not come to a resolution before the Reds depart for a short tour of the United States in just over a week.

It remains to be seen whether Ramos’ interest is genuine, of course, despite Calderon’s assessment. After all, this week the player’s mother dismissed any chance of seeing her son in Red: “He loves Spain. Madrid has everything,” Paqui Garcia told local reporters.

Meanwhile, Woodward might do well to heed a lesson of two summers’ past. In the market not all truths are equal.

Poll: who tops your summer transfer wishlist?

June 15, 2015 Tags: , Polls 13 comments
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Transfer season is in full swing, with Louis van Gaal having already signed £30 million Memphis Depay from PSV Eindhoven this summer. The Dutch winger is likely to be the first of four or perhaps five top quality signings in a busy summer that could stretch to another £150 million spree. At least if Van Gaal’s determination to mount a Premier League title challenge next summer matches the Glazer family’s new found willingness to release club cash for transfers.

Certainly, Van Gaal would like to bring in a central defender, right-back, central midfielder and striker this summer. If David de Gea moves to Real Madrid as expected then a replacement goalkeeper will also join the club in the coming months.

With the wishlist already lengthy it is little wonder that media gossip has run deep, with the fourth estate speculating Manchester United bids for more than 20 players. Topping the list are superstar names such as Gareth Bale, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Edison Cavani, together with youngster talents including Harry Kane, Felipe Anderson and Roberto Firmino. But given the choice where would, you, Rant’s readers spend the money?

Who tops your summer transfer wishlist?

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Deadwood

May 20, 2015 Tags: Opinion 15 comments
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“When you purchase other players you get another stimulus in the group and you need that. Our selection is out of balance and we have managed to be fourth in the league but we have to manage to be the champions. So it shall be a rough summer I think for a lot of players.”
Louis van Gaal

With the season drawing rapidly to a close thoughts turn to the summer transfer market; the nation’s back-pages are filled with little but speculation about just where Van Gaal will spend a reported £150 million summer transfer budget. However, much as was the case last summer, when United sold, released or loaned 15 players, a significant proportion of United’s business will involve the Old Trafford exit. It’ll be a lonely walk for some, including a clutch of big-name players. Rant assesses just who might be having a “rough summer” among Van Gaal’s squad. David de Gea not included.

Radamel Falcao

Radamel FalcaoThe Colombian joined with much fanfare on deadline-day last summer, with United paying a £6 million loan fee to Monaco and picking up the tab on Falcao’s £265,000-per-week wages. It has proven to be a huge investment for very little return, with the striker scoring just four goals in 29 appearances across all competitions this season, while spending much of the campaign on the bench. There is no doubting Falcao’s commitment or workrate, but that extra explosive sharpness has, sadly, gone. The cruciate knee injury suffered in January 2014 has fundamentally changed the player for the worse. It is has, in truth, been hard to watch Falcao’s descent from one of the world’s truly élite strikers to a man struggling to make any impact at all. There is no chance United will commit a further £46 million investment on the 29-year-old this summer. Chance of departure: 10/10. Fee if sold: n/a.

Anders Lindegaard

Anders LindegaardThe Dane has oft said that he didn’t come to United to ‘pick his nose’, although he might as well since there is little chance that Lindegaard will play for the club again. Signed in January 2011, Lindegaard once challenged a callow David de Gea for the number one jersey at Old Trafford. It was a short-lived spell as Sir Alex Ferguson’s preferred stopper. In the end de Gea’s class told and Lindegaard has spent the entire season in the reserves. Even de Gea’s departure will do little for the Dane’s prospects at Old Trafford. A free transfer awaits. Chance of departure: 10/10. Fee is sold: £ free.

Rafael da Silva

Rafael da SilvaWhat went wrong for Rafael? A United player since 2008, the diminutive Brazilian was supposed to have matured into an international class full-back by now. There has always been much to admire: pace, natural attacking instincts and genuine tenacity in the tackle. On paper the 24-year-old should offer much in an attacking Van Gaal system. Yet, two factors precipitate Rafael’s probable departure this summer. First, the player’s slow burning path to maturity; Rafael is still liable to defensive mistakes that should now be eradicated from his game. More importantly, he is a player who is so rarely fit. Rafael has only once played more than 30 games in a season. It is simply not enough return to be considered a safe bet in Van Gaal’s evolution. Chance of departure: 9/10. Fee if sold: £5-8 million.

Javier Hernandez

Javier HernandezIt has not been an easy season for Chichario in Madrid, although a burst of goals towards the end of the campaign has brought the Mexican some cheer. Yet, Hernandez has spent much of the campaign on the bench, just as he did under Moyes last year. Strange that the Scot reportedly refused to use Hernandez as bait to lure Gareth Bale from Tottenham Hotspur in the summer of 2013. Back at Old Trafford Chicho will be granted few opportunities by Van Gaal – a manager who routinely seeks out more rounded strikers. Chance of departure: 9/10. Fee if sold: £8-10 million.

Nani

NaniThese are strange times indeed if Nani, who has spent the season on loan at Sporting, holds some chance of being recalled to Van Gaal’s squad, albeit a slim one and only because few clubs can afford the player’s extravagant wages. Nani has rarely achieved any consistency through a career that has so often promised much, but delivered only sporadically. Once again the winger has put up good numbers this season at Sporting: 10 goals and two assists. There were also times at United when he was highly productive. Yet, there was never a period when he was reliable. Inexplicably David Moyes pushed for the player to be granted a new five-year, £100,000-per-week, contract last season. He played just 13 times for the Scot. Chance of departure: 8/10. Fee if sold: £8-10 million.

Jonny Evans

Jonny EvansThere was a time when one Rant Cast co-host claimed Evans to be “among the top five central defenders in the world.” No, we couldn’t understand it either. Still, everybody is allowed the odd mistake! The trouble with Evans is that it’s almost every game and, at 27, the Northern Irishman is no longer the inexperienced kid returning from a loan spell at Sunderland full of hope. Evans is an ‘honest’ player, in that ridiculous parlance of English football, and there’s no brook with the player’s effort or attitude. Yet, there has always been the nagging feeling that he was never quite good enough to represent United. After a season in which injury, poor form and an unfortunate suspension have hit the player hard a move might well revitalise his career. Chance of departure: 7/10. Fee if sold: £8-10 million.

Robin van Persie

Wayne Rooney, Radamel Falcao, Robin van PersieOh Robin, it was so good. Remember that volley against Aston Villa? How we laughed and cried together. Then something turned sour. You didn’t like Moyes. None of us did. Neither did your hamstring. Or ankle. Or hip. We’ll always have 2013. Van Persie’s £24 million fee may not turn out to be great value – United will recoup only a fraction of the fee should Van Gaal push out his countryman this summer. Yet, it feels like the right time to let him go. The striker has spent too few minutes on the pitch this season and too many in the treatment room. When Van Persie has played a touch of pace and movement has ebbed away; the cruel passage of time. In truth United needs to reinvigorate the attack next season and the Dutchman’s sale makes much sense. Rumours of a move to Italy this summer might extend the player’s career too. Chance of departure: 7/10. Fee if sold: £10-12 million.

Angel di Maria

Angel Di MariaRemember the excitement? Nearly £60 million spent on a truly world-class star; Europe’s leading assist-maker in 2013/14 and the Man of the Match in Real Madrid’s La Decima Champions League final victory. The season started well for Di Maria too – there were stunning performances to go with that magical goal against Leicester City. It lasted not long enough. The Argentinian’s form wavered and a house break-in seemingly robbed the player of his spirit as well as his possessions. The challenge isn’t physical so much as mental – a level of adaptation to Van Gaal’s ‘philosophy’ as well as English football and culture is required. Noises coming out of Old Trafford in recent weeks point to a second season at United and a renewed sense of effort to extract performances from a player of truly wonderful talent. Chance of departure: 4/10. Fee if sold: £45-50. million.

… and the notable kids

Nick Powell
Powell has struggled to adapt to United’s standards despite enjoying a fine loan spell at Wigan Athletic in 2013/14. Deployed as a forward at Crewe Alexandra, Powell’s natural position might be in an attacking midfield role, although the youngster’s use of the ball is not always up to scratch. He is likely to be offered a chance to rebuild elsewhere this summer. Chance of departure: 7/10. Fee if sold: £1-2 million.

Adnan Januzaj
There is so much talent in the Belgian’s dancing feet that United has lost a significant attacking force this season in Januzaj’s absence. In part, Van Gaal simply doesn’t trust the youngster yet; in part the player has failed to adapt. Mostly the Januzaj simply didn’t fit in his manager’s system. In the 4-3-3 formation Van Gaal is planning for next season Januzaj might flourish, but with confidence shot a move away on loan may be a sensible path forward for all. Chance of departure: 7/10. Fee if sold: loan.

Tyler Blackett
Blackett enjoyed an unexpected rise to the first team before Christmas, although has rarely featured in the subsequent months. United’s probable purchase of an international-standard experienced central defender in the summer is likely to cut Blackett’s chances further. Another for whom a loan may well be a beneficial move. Chance of departure: 6/10. Fee if sold: loan.

Patrick McNair
The Irishman’s composure in central defence and determination at full-back may well mean that Van Gaal is reluctant to let McNair leave on loan during the summer, although his chances may be infrequent unless injury continues to strike United’s senior defenders. Chance of departure: 4/10. Fee if sold: loan.

James Wilson
The striker has featured in 16 games – 12 as sub – scoring two goals for Van Gaal’s side this season. It has not quite been the breakthrough campaign many expected for the lightening quick forward. Wilson’s United future depends on whether either of Van Persie of Falcao remains at the club, and where the club chooses to spend on a new forward this summer. A loan away is possible even if Van Gaal was reluctant to sanction it this season. Chance of departure: 4/10. Fee if sold: loan.

Europe awaits – now United must prepare

May 10, 2015 Tags: , Opinion 21 comments
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Short of a 15 goal swing to Liverpool over the final two games of the campaign Manchester United’s return to Europe’s élite is all but confirmed, with Louis van Gaal’s side set to enter the Champions League at the play-off stage next August. After more than a year away from Europe’s premier competition it is a welcome return, although there is much to improve in the Dutchman’s squad if the Reds are to be competitive against the continent’s best.

Indeed, with a clutch of potentially difficult ties ahead there is still some work to do before Van Gaal’s side is in the Champions League group stage once again. Not least because United’s potential play-off opponents will be drawn from a list that – as it stands – includes Ajax, CSKA Moscow, Valencia, Bayer Leverkusen, Lazio, Besiktas and Sporting Lisbon, among others. No gimmes there, with Champions League format changes potentially making qualification more difficult.

Nor will Van Gaal enjoy significant “preparation time” ahead of the play-off, with the Premier League scheduled to start on 8 August and the European qualifiers set to be completed over two legs in the weeks of 18/19 and 25/26 August. United return from a short summer tour of the USA on 30 July.

The main concern lies elsewhere though: not in the play-off opponent nor the rapid-fire preparation for the new season, but whether Van Gaal will end the summer with a balanced squad ahead of the new campaign. Or whether, as in the past two summers, United’s hierarchy will engage in a desperate last-minute rush for players.

After all, the summer of 2013 left David Moyes’ cupboard barren before the new campaign had even started – in part due to the Scot’s dithering and in part because of Ed Woodward’s transfer market naïvety. It was a summer in which many words were written about United’s transfer market strategy; few of them positive, not least on these pages. The club’s propensity for generating farce bordered on amateurish tomfoolery and the summer ended with the capture of Belgian international Marouane Fellaini as its only prize.

Summer 2013 left United embarrassed by Thiago Alcântara’s inevitable decision to join Bayern Munch and humiliated by Cesc Fabregas’ manipulation of the club’s interest. Woodward’s dash home from Australia in mid-July brought little but ridicule, especially on transfer deadline day where United submitted bids for around half-a-dozen players. It was, in the end, six weeks of maladroit bumbling and not the triumphant return Woodward had sought.

Summer began, laughably, with Pep Guardiola’s brother negotiating the €20 million transfer of Thiago to Bayern Munich. How could it have ended any other way? It continued with United submitting a barely credible bid for Fabregas just 24 hours after his under-study’s arrival in southern Germany. United’s offer for the now Chelsea player amounted to just €26 million.

United followed a similarly bizarre strategy in pursuit of Leighton Baines, with Everton rejecting a £12 million offer in June and a follow-up bid of the same figure a month later. Shakespearean farce ensued with the failed pursuit of Ander Herrera, which eventually involved an army of lawyers, agents, middlemen and “impostors.” The tsunami of ridicule only increased with deadline day bids for Daniele De Rossi, Fábio Coentrão and Sami Khedira, among others.

By contrast last summer is largely remembered for United’s success in spending heavily – Woodward doing the sensible thing and farming out much of the work to preferred agents, including Jorge Mendes. And yet the window still concluded with another last-minute dash around the continent. Herrera was eventually signed on 26 June 2014, Luke Shaw on 27 June and Marcos Rojo signed with 12 days of the summer to go; three players joined in the final week of the window – some two weeks after season had begun. Angel di Maria arrived on 26 August 2014, Daley Blind on 30 August, and Radamel Falcao on 1 September

Not that United’s acquisition of Herrera and Shaw passed without scrutiny, the club having paid a significant premium on each to conclude the deals. Or, to paraphrase former United right-back Gary Neville’s critique of the time, Chelsea secured seasoned internationals Fabregas and Luis Fillipe for around £18 million less than the United pair. In retrospect neither di Maria nor Falcao’s acquisition has proven to be value-for-money.

Still, there were significant mitigating circumstances in United’s scattergun approach over the two summers past. Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, David Gill’s departure and the hiring-and-firing of Moyes, followed by Van Gaal’s arrival, each added to a sense of, if not chaos, then a lack of foresight. It is, of course, an excuse that no longer stacks up.

It is with a touch of surprise, therefore, that United supporters welcomed the signing of Dutch forward Memphis Depay for £25 million last week. The 21-year-old’s capture is an early sign that United’s summer activity may be more tightly planned than in the past. Or at least a touch accelerated.

“I had to handle it otherwise he would have signed for PSG,” admitted Van Gaal on Friday. “When you sign a player you disturb the focus of your present group of players. I don’t want to speak with players before the season has ended – I have also a feeling to my players. But now, because of the close relationship I have with PSV, I could handle it.”

United’s focus will next turn to the weaknesses in the Dutchman’s squad  that have left the Reds some 16 points behind Champions Chelsea with two games to go. Whatever David de Gea’s future at the club beyond this summer, Van Gaal will certainly want to build from the back. The Dutchman has little confidence in his options at right-back and an experienced addition in the centre of defence is almost certain. If reports ring true then the club is already in the advanced stages of planning deals for Southampton’s Nathaniel Clyne and Borussia Dortmund captain Mats Hummels.

There are also legitimate questions to be asked of Van Gaal’s options in central midfield, in wide areas and up-front. Indeed, the Dutchman spoke at length last week of the need to draft in a replacement for Michael Carrick, with the Englishman now 34 and injured as often as he has been available this season. In Carrick’s absence neither Blind nor Herrera have excelled in a defensive midfield role.

On the wing di Maria’s failure in his first season in Manchester, together with Adnan Januzaj’s long absence from the team, leaves Van Gaal short on numbers if not quality. Di Maria may yet leave the club in the summer, while the Belgian appears likely to spend next season on loan. Their future will factor into United’s summer spending. And while Ashley Young’s positive campaign earned the England international a new contract, his manager will surely be loathe to enter the new season with the callow Memphis as his only alternative.

Then in forward positions there is little for Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie or Falcao to celebrate as the season draws to a close. Rooney is heading for his worst season, in terms of total goals, since joining the club 11 years ago, while van Persie has scored just 10 in all competitions. Falcao’s four strikes have come at an estimated cost in wages and loan fees of more than £4 million per goal.

It is a strikeforce that on paper at should excel in European competition. The reality of form, age and injury, respectively, point to a very different story.

If that is another substantial summer shopping list then it is probably required if Van Gaal’s team is to make it out of the Champions League group stage next season. It is the minimum requirement.

The summer is likely to feature a complicated series of, ultimately, very expensive negotiations. That is the price to be paid if United is to return to both domestic and European preeminence. With the club seemingly prepared to spend the money the question remains as to how astutely it will be done.

Transfer potshot

April 3, 2015 Tags: Opinion 9 comments
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The season is not quite over yet, but the time is nigh for the Manchester United’s squad to be assessed in anticipation of the upcoming transfer window. After all, Louis Van Gaal must have seen enough of his men to draw up a list of summer additions – and the Dutchman has reportedly been handed a healthy transfer budget.

All eyes rest upon David De Gea as far as United’s goalkeepers go. Real Madrid holds much sway for the Spaniard, professionally and personally, but the deal, while very possible, is far from guaranteed this summer. De Gea’s contract runs to summer 2016.

It remains to be seen whether Victor Valdes can regain his Barcelona form but, on paper, the 33-year-old is well suited for Van Gaalian football. When push comes to shove, United may choose to see out the rest of De Gea’s contract while searching for a suitable replacement. Signing Valdes on a free transfer this winter has offered the club a safety net and there should be no post Edwin Van Der Sar-esque crisis should De Gea return home.

In defence a new centre back is essential and the noise surrounding Mats Hummels is gathering a sense of momentum. The market for centre backs offers more options than that for goalkeepers and the arrival of top player in that position is likely.

The situation on the right side of defence is dire though. Antonio Valencia has done a mediocre job this this season and Rafael, the only natural right-back in the squad, has fallen out of favour. United needs a top-class player in the position, especially with European football now likely next season, and a further back-up may also arrive in the summer. Nathaniel Clyne’s transfer has been frequently mooted, while Everton’s Seamus Coleman is also in the discussion. Neither will come cheap.

Surprisingly, given United’s recent history, central midfield looks relatively healthy. Daley Blind and Michael Carrick are dependable holding midfielders, while Juan Mata and Ander Herrera provide some stardust in the middle. Maroune Fellaini has earned begrudging respect and Angel Di Maria might eventually find a place in central midfield should Van Gaal finally settle on a 4-3-3 system. The Argentine excelled in the role at Benfica and Real Madrid.

United could do with a genuine driving force in the centre of the park, such as a pre-injury Kevin Strootman or Juventus’ Paul Pogba. The former is welcome, though might be a significant gamble, while the latter is probably far too costly. United can certainly compete with the current set of midfielders and may very well do so given the priorities in other areas of the pitch.

Van Gaal may well seek to bring in a wide player even if Di Maria stays at the club. Ashley Young has turned himself into a Ji-Sung Park-esque figure and the Dutch manager has an inherent fondness for such players. Mata may continue to be used as a “false winger” – one that uses movement rather than on-the-ball running to do damage – while the situation with Di Maria and Adnan Januzaj needs further observation.

Di Maria, high quality though he is, excels as the supporting cast rather than a bona-fide leading man. United’s squad is short of a genuinely destructive winger, such as Arjen Robben, Cristiano Ronaldo or Marco Reus. None of that trio is likely to arrive, however, and a potential transfer is complicated by United’s situation up front.

No matter how well the rest of season goes for Ramadel Falcao the Colombian’s permanent transfer to Old Trafford seems highly unlikely – if only because the £43 million fee can be better spent. Robin van Persie seems likely to linger around for at least another season, though probably with a less important squad role.

As ever, Wayne Rooney is the chief conundrum. The evidence of the season adds to the belief that Rooney can only be deployed as a number nine. Should Van Gaal persist with a 4-3-3 system then there really is no need for United to spend heavily on another striker, especially with James Wilson in the background.

It has been often said on these pages, but Rooney has neither the technique nor the physique to effectively hold up the ball as a lone striker. The Englishman needs other players to create space and United’s squad lacks the players to provide this ‘verticality.’ It is little surprise that Rooney has suffered a number of poor games up-front – the Liverpool fixture is a case in point.

Van Gaal could solve the problem by bringing in a more complete forward, but selling or benching Rooney may be too complicated both politically and financially. The alternative is to deploy a true box-to-box midfielder or more destructive winger to support Rooney. It would certainly improve United’s lot.

The summary is a wish list costing more than £100 million: a top centre back, right-back and back-up full-back, and a box-to-box midfielder or world-class winger. United will recoup some money by selling off fringe players such as Javier Hernandez. Even then, a transfer kitty of at least £90 million is needed to fill some obvious gaps in the squad.

Ed Woodward has certainly talked the talk in the past, but will he make good on all those promises once again? Perhaps so. Before the start of current season, this column argued that the Glazer family was likely to release funds for heavy spending – which happened to the tune of £125 million net.

That argument still holds true. Only the Glazers know how much they value Champions League football, but they profit as long as they don’t spend more than that valuation. Of course, the Americans might sanction as little possible to maximise profit, but the family has certainly been forced into recent spending. The logical action, then, is to spend a lot. This paradox minimises risk and the Glazers cannot take any chance when United is still swaying. Expect another busy summer.

United’s identity under scrutiny – twas ever thus

September 8, 2014 Tags: , , Opinion 25 comments
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Identity. It is a topic on many lips in the wake of Manchester United’s spending spree this summer. United unloaded around £150 million on six high-class imports during the window, and yet the deal that generated most copy was Danny Welbeck’s departure to Arsenal. The end of more than 130 years of youthful tradition or the reaffirmation that United remains among the world’s élite?

On the face of it the answer is simple. In a global game United simply swapped Welbeck, an inconsistent academy graduate with 29 goals in 142 games, for a proven class in Radamel Falcao. The price differential says as much: Welbeck cost Arsenal £16 million, Falcao north of £45 million when he signs permanently next summer. There is, after all, no room for sentimentality in the hunt for success.

Yet, United’s is a history replete with the fruits of youth development and Welbeck the leading player in a contemporary academy cohort that is symbolic of more than simply ‘who is best on the pitch.’ Youth, some say, is United’s essence, its soul, the raison d’être. This was consistently Sir Alex Ferguson’s line during his 27-year tenure at Old Trafford.

The player’s sale, amidst United’s conversion to the world’s leading sports marketing platform in a globalised brand economy, says much for the club’s priorities – the maintenance of commercial interests remains just as paramount as success on the pitch.  Or in other words, while Falcao represents an upgrade for Louis van Gaal’s team, the Colombian’s profile also serves to feed a commercial entity more voracious for star names than ever.

It is this economic evolution of the club, the game and those that follow it that feels uneasy for many. Perhaps, even, this observation is at the root of criticism from within, even if naked resentment is the fuel from without. Not everybody is comfortable with United’s quickfire conversion for parsimony to plunder.

“Is it better to look at the instant rather than the future?” said former assistant manager Mike Phelan last week. “It is a difficult one because youth is always the future. Maybe this is the start of a new way of doing things at Manchester United and maybe that is the way football is going.”

United reacted strongly to the accusation that youth has taken a back stage, briefing media that 12 academy players are registered in the club’s wider Premier League group. More, indeed, than any other club in England. In James Wilson, Tyler Blackett, Reece James, and Jesse Lingaard, Van Gaal has already demonstrated faith in youngsters this season.

It is a familiar line. The difference between United and the club’s competitors? “Not spending fortunes on proven goods,” said Sir Alex in 2012. “That’s the difference between United and the rest – we can play 18-year-olds because it’s part of our history. It’s like a destiny for us. No other clubs can do that.”

Yet, there are also powerful forces driving the club to a future that is tied not to the academy but global recognition. Indeed, the club’s recent sponsorship deals with Chevrolet and adidas will push United’s annual revenue beyond £500 million in the coming years. Add more than 30 further global and regional sponsors to the roster and the hunger for success may now only be part of United’s culture. Stardom drives United’s commercial needs and, perhaps, future player recruitment too.

It is an observation that has led to the conclusion in some quarters that United will now seek out the most expensive players on the planet. Far cry from the austerity of the first eight years of Glazer ownership when debt bit deep into United’s investment and Ferguson ran his team on a comparative shoestring.

But with commercial revenues on the uptick, and debt interest at circa £20 million per year, executive vice chairman Ed Woodward has many reasons to feel emboldened in the market.

Further cash is seemingly available in January too, with potential recruits said to include Kevin Strootman that will take the club’s annual spend beyond £200 million for the year, including Juan Mata last winter. No longer a burden, so goes the spin, player recruitment is now an investment in United’s brand equity.

In the midst of this discussion it is easy to forget that Welbeck is also a very fine player, not just a local recruit. The Longsight-born striker has never been one to lead the goalscoring charts, perhaps, but those who champion the 23-year-old’s cause point to other qualities beyond goalscoring. Indeed, six goals in as many games last Christmas point to a player capable of scoring more frequent if given the opportunity in a more central role.

“He’s a real threat to defenders and, if Arsenal use him right, he will be very dangerous for them,” said former United defender Rio Ferdinand.

“I cannot believe United let him go, especially to Arsenal. That seems mad to me. Danny has everything to be a top player. English football has yet to see what he can really do because he hasn’t been getting a run of games. At Arsenal, he will be the main man and I have no doubt he will flourish.”

Welbeck’s departure, together with a dozen other players, including Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Ryan Giggs, has come amid the most rapid evolution in United’s playing squad for two decades.

Indeed, Van Gaal’s challenge – to knit together what is effectively a new team – is one that no United manager has faced since Ferguson sold Mark Hughes, Andrei Kanchelskis and Paul Ince in 1995. The following season Ferguson integrated Nicky Butt, David Beckham, Gary Neville and Paul Scholes into the United side to much success.

Yet, in the years before 2005 Ferguson also broke the British transfer record eight times, just has Sir Matt Busby had done for Dennis Law in the wake of the ‘Babes’ destruction at Munich in 1958. Youth and investment – hasn’t the club always played both games? Scrutiny, too, has always followed.

Yet, as the Glazer family’s parsimony cut into the United’s competitiveness from 2005-2013 it was also Ferguson who left a squad in far from “the strongest possible shape.”  The Scot stood back in retirement and watched Rome burn. The club, it seems, is now trying to rebuild in a day.

“It is a change of direction for United letting one of their own go,” adds Ferdinand. “Traditionally, this was not their way, adding so many players in a short period of time and having such a radical overhaul. Normally, as with me when I joined in 2002, it was about adding one piece to the jigsaw.

“Some fans still romanticise about their success and the way they brought through so many home-grown players. Unfortunately, you can’t always have that fairytale. Radamel Falcao and Angel Di Maria are world-class players and they have added quality in Anders Herrera, Luke Shaw and Daley Blind, but I do wonder if they will live to regret not keeping Danny.”

That story will play out in the year to come; Welbeck’s performance at Arsenal and Van Gaal’s ability to get the best out of £150 million worth of new talent.

As ever it will not only be United’s success on the line, but the club’s ‘identity’ too. Twas ever thus.