December football is a highlight of the British football calendar, with a seemingly infinite stream of games on which to feast over the festive period. In addition to being an excuse to binge on the beautiful game, and copious amounts of food and drink, it is often a pivotal juncture in Manchester United’s season.
Sir Alex Ferguson often reiterated the need to capture form during the final month of the year. Those were simpler times, and the cloud of uncertainty that looms heavy over Old Trafford ensures that much of the excitement present in previous years is decidedly absent.
There is little to stir any festive optimism in a side whose insipid displays continue – an early Champions League exit in Wolfsburg, followed by an embarrassing defeat at Bournemouth, and then at home to Norwich City, are unwelcome variations on the mundane goalless draws that have become the norm.
There is a growing anxiety among United’s support, especially with little certainty about the future. The evidence suggests there is justification in supporters’ fears.
“Boring, boring United”
At the top of fans’ Christmas list of woes is the dismal nature of football on display from Louis Van Gaal’s side. The pragmatic Dutchman has been cast as Scrooge in recent weeks, and his overtly regimented approach to the game has almost completely nullified the entertainment traditionally associated with United.
One of the most concerning factors is that despite weeks of criticism Van Gaal appears completely unshaken in his belief in the “philosophy” – a concept that seems to have less meaning with every passing week. His ethos is centred on defensive solidity and ball retention, but the important passages detailing the action in the final has been torn from Van Gaal’s coaching manual.
In addition to a indistinguishable team identity, Van Gaal’s choice of formation and substitutions have also raised eyebrows. United’s travelling support was horrified when injury to Ander Herrera at Watford prompted Van Gaal to revert to the much maligned 3-5-2 system. It removed much of United’s attacking impetus in the process.
Even with a wealth of options at his disposal the Dutch manager’s selections have continued to provoke ire. Deploying two holding midfielders against less decorated opposition, who rarely bring much ambition at Old Trafford, is simultaneously mystifying and typical of Van Gaal’s tenure.
Not only does the tactic often result in the aforementioned Herrera being left out, but it is an exasperatingly cautious approach. Bastian Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneiderlin and Michael Carrick are excellent footballers, but there is no need for two-thirds of this trio to start in home games against lesser sides.
Almost as frustrating as Plan A is Van Gaal’s persistence in using the lumbering Marouane Fellaini as a route one alternative. Despite his apparent “genius” there is little ingenuity in a contingency plan that involves diagonal balls launched in the Belgian’s general direction – incredulous, even, that an expensively assembled squad should resort to low percentage tactics.
Regardless of the squad’s many deficiencies Van Gaal has once again suffered for a side decimated by injury. Luke Shaw’s horrific leg break in Eindhoven is still fresh in the memory. While the left-back should make a full recovery Shaw’s injury has set the tone for another season of ill luck. Wayne Rooney, Ander Herrera and the indispensable Chris Smalling have all been ruled out in recent weeks, along with the perpetually afflicted Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo.
Once again some question Van Gaal’s rigorous training regimen and its propensity to increase United’s injury list. Pending a thorough scientific analysis the truth will remain unclear, but the skeleton squad that took to the field at Wolfsburg and Bournemouth raises questions about how wisely United invested last summer.
The doomed pursuit of Sergio Ramos was exciting, but amid the frenzy there remained a sense of deja-vu about the episode. Ed Woodward has spent the past two summers flaunting the club’s wealth in a manner akin to Floyd Mayweather – the result is a rash of big name players using United as leverage in contract discussions.
And it is this blind pursuit of marquee names that has left United threadbare in defence, forcing Van Gaal to use his most inexperienced players in significant games. United’s sense of faith in youth is positive, but a monumentally important Champions League tie against a top German outfit is not the optimal time to break in new blood.
In this the board and Van Gaal share blame for the squad’s shortages – and for failing to learn from the painful lessons of last season.
United’s recent spate of injuries, coupled with the impending January window, has raised speculation that the club may once again delve into the market. Acquiring top talent is no easy task, as is often made clear by managers nationwide – and Van Gaal has already moved to temper expectations.
“Goals are the most important thing, we have to always look for solutions to make goals”, the manager opined. “We have to look for the solutions in our selection, that’s important. Maybe we have solutions elsewhere but that’s more difficult, because in January clubs shall not let go of players who score”.
Hardly encouraging words for supporters who long for an extra striker to ease United’s goal famine. Indeed, the squad would benefit from at least two additions, in attack and defence. Yet, the chances of luring élite talent to M16 in January are small.
In truth an internal solution will have to be found – and United must also factor in a rest for Anthony Martial, who cannot be relied upon for an entire season. The challenge becomes greater still if Rooney returns from an injury lay-off the same player who has defiled pitches up and down the country this season.
Commendably, Van Gaal has largely arrested his side’s defensive troubles this season, albeit a record that came to a halt against Bournemouth and Norwich with injuries taking hold. Defensive solidity is dependent on retaining key personnel such as Chris Smalling. The Londoner has developed wonderfully in the past year, but his record suggests doubts about his ability to stay fit for extended periods.
Then there is the question of United’s manager who has indisputably suffered a bad month. The Reds’ mundane football is grudgingly tolerated while results remain acceptable. Ignominious exit from the Champions League, coupled with humiliation against Bournemouth and Norwich, has turned opinion against the Dutchman.
Indeed, United’s slump in form could not have come at a worse time for Van Gaal, with a plethora of world-class coaches suddenly in the shop window. United’s board has lavished praise on the manager, but with José Mourinho out of a job and Pep Guardiola planning a change of scenery, Old Trafford’s suits will surely have noticed a persistent itch in their collective trigger finger.
Should Guardiola decant from Bavaria the clamour for his services will be at its most fervent in Manchester’s blue half. Yet, when Guardiola officially announces his future, United’s board will be left in a precarious situation. Aside from the increasingly unlikely chances of capturing a trophy this season, there is little Van Gaal can do to dissuade fans that the club should ditch him for the enigmatic Spaniard should the opportunity arise.
It is, of course, conjecture at the moment, but losing Guardiola to City would be a watershed moment in Manchester football history, remembered fondly only by those of a blue persuasion. In fact, there is growing consensus that United must mount a pursuit of the former Barcelona boss, lest the club miss out on yet another an élite manager since Ferguson’s retirement.
In that there is recognition the club is in a period of worrying uncertainty – one with an end that may shape the club for the foreseeable future. For the moment Van Gaal is under considerable scrutiny. The only thing the Dutchman can do is to start winning matches.
“Ridículo” ran the headline in two of Spain’s leading sports dailies last week. No translation needed there. Except that the farce surrounding David de Gea’s aborted transfer to Real Madrid extends beyond the Spanish capital to include a little too much of Manchester United’s approach to the transfer window. It is the third summer in which the club’s executive judgement must be called into question.
The window began with Memphis Depay’s acquisition in May and ended amid bickering about the intricacies of FIFA’s transfer matching system. From the hope of progress to come, to the relative embarrassment of a summer that offered a glimpse into a world of planned squad improvement, but concluded with too many questions for real comfort. It is a window that has left Louis van Gaal better off than 12 months ago, but still short of the resources needed to mount a truly effective title challenge
The club’s critics, including Real Madrid chief Florentino Perez, crudely frame the narrative of United’s summer as one of expensive incompetence where the truth encompasses a far broader story. There is a path forward to a future in which United returns to preeminence, albeit one there are few guarantees the club will take.
El Presidente was moved to labeled United’s vice chairman, Ed Woodward, “inexperienced’ following Madrid’s failed de Gea chase. The Spaniard, like many, missed the nuance in the considerable farce – one that defies the basest evaluation. After all, subtly is a quality that rarely fares well amid all the media noise that accompanies each summer’s extended haggling.
“It’s the inexperience of the new people in charge,” concluded Pérez last week. “This is exactly the same as what happened before with Coentrão and Herrera and we thought they would have learned from what happened in the past.”
Base, perhaps, but Perez’ accusation does cut to the heart of supporter concerns about Woodward’s ability to land the biggest deals. The former banker has brought in more than £250 million in new talent since taking over from David Gill, but the impression remains that more astute executives have too often outmaneuvered Woodward.
The charge from Madrid is perhaps darker still – that Woodward’s bumbling cost the Spanish giants a player, De Gea the move he so obviously desires, and United a £29 million fee.
Still, while the success of United’s transfer strategy this summer will be judged in May, a window that began with the club having planned ahead, ended with more questions laid at Woodward’s door. It is an uncomfortable position for the 43-year-old executive, who has enjoyed success on the commercial front, while being widely ridiculed for his exploits in the transfer market. Not all of it is fair.
In fact United’s riposte to Perez’ rant was sharp and, it is worth noting, credible. Briefing on the QT, United accused the Spanish giants of, essentially, bringing failure upon themselves with a bid at the 11th hour. Moreover, Van Gaal has privately expressed his delight at United’s summer business, including retaining De Gea.
“The facts speak for themselves. The documents were in on time. Real seem intent to move the focus away from their own clumsiness this summer,” a United spokesman told the Press Association. “We all like to blame others but if you let one slip through your fingers then ultimately the culpability is yours.”
Quite. Others view Perez’ agenda as less opaque than the childish sequence of claim and its rejoinder that filled the back pages last week. Some believe that the Real president was happy to leave De Gea in Manchester for another year, allowing the popular Keylor Navas to stay in Madrid, and the club to pick up a free transfer next summer.
Whatever the truth, Perez’ narrative strikes a chord with some precisely because it hints at that wider perceived truth about Woodward. It is a view that may remain the dominant assessment of the Englishman until United lands the Premier League or the executive the ‘worldie’ he seemingly craves.
Outwith De Gea, United’s summer appeared predominantly logical though. Signatures filled significant holes: Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin add class and defensive cover in midfield; Memphis Depay pace and a goal threat in the attack. Matteo Darmian has already proven an inspired signing at a bargain price to cover the hole left by the departing Rafael da Silva.
Elsewhere, United’s window has been more curious. And once again a little haphazard.
The discussion surrounding Anthony Martial has largely focused on the French teenager’s price, which could potentially top £60 million if all bonuses are paid. Even in an inflated market, fueled by an upcoming 70 per cent increase in television revenues, the figure is eye watering. But the decision to complete the deal – with Chelsea seemingly closing in – was made at the very last moment, suggesting that opportunism and not long-term planning was very much to the fore. It is not the first time that observation has been made about United’s transfer strategy under Woodward.
Van Gaal has stronger options now. No question about that. Yet, a transfer strategy is also one of balance. United’s acquisition of six players this summer – two midfielders, two young forwards, a defender and a goalkeeper – is balanced, but counter-acted by Van Gaal’s decision to let 13 players leave permanently. More still on loan.
Some departures were inevitable: the aforementioned Rafael, Jonny Evans and Nani. Tom Cleverley has long since accepted a future away from Old Trafford, while Anders Lindegaard has spent much of the past two years “picking his nose” on the bench. Angel Di María’s unhappiness in Manchester was no secret. The Argentine’s performances, if not his talent, are unlikely to be missed.
Other departures were more questionable in the context of Van Gaal’s squad. The decision to let Robin van Persie leave for Fenerbache made sense only in the event United secured a replacement striker. The club did not. That decision was later compounded by Javier Hernández’ sale to Bayer Leverkusen, which leaves Van Gaal with Wayne Rooney as the squad’s only number nine. It is an imbalance that could well come back to haunt the Dutchman if Rooney’s stark slump in form is not resolved in the coming months.
Meanwhile, United’s failure to land an experience centre-back exposed the ‘Sergio Ramos or bust’ policy this summer. With Daley Blind still occupying a central defensive berth – and brutally exposed against Swansea City last weekend – the decision not to pursue Nicolas Otamendi, or another high-class option, could well become a source of regret. Not least because Van Gaal has fallen out with yet another player, Marcos Rojo, over the Argentine’s failure to renew his passport, while Phil Jones is injured once again. Nobody should trust the Englishman’s fitness.
The most oddball departure of the summer came with Adnan Januzaj’s loan to Borussia Dortmund. The Belgian’s technical excellence, pace and potential goal threat are all qualities Van Gaal has publicly identified as missing from his squad.
More broadly, Van Gaal’s open-door policy has a led to a rapid transition in the nature of United’s squad. Just seven first team players remain from Ferguson’s time at the club: De Gea, Jones, Rooney, Michael Carrick, Chris Smalling, Ashley Young, and Antonia Valencia.
Moreover, of the youngsters offered an opportunity last season – Tyler Blackett, Patrick McNair, Reece James, James Wilson – few, if any, are likely to feature in the months ahead. Blackett and James have left the club; McNair and Wilson will enjoy only intermittent spells on the bench. The club’s proud record of having at least one player from the academy in the match-day squad for more than 3,500 games in succession is likely to be broken this season.
The changes paint a picture of a squad development strategy that does not always sit well with supporters or everyone connected with the club.
“It was always about creating players. Now it is the opposite,” said former assistant manager Carlos Quieroz last week. “There is panic buying. You have to prepare and then make the decisions together. You can still make wrong decisions but we never made panic decisions when buying players.”
And yet, with so many millions spent, the focus also returns to United’s balance, or lack thereof. Woodward’s failure to land a world superstar may haunt the executive; his inability to fill all of the holes in Van Gaal’s squad is likely to limit the team’s competitiveness. Now that’s an assessment worthy of the ridículo moniker.
“If Pedro was Brazilian, he’d be called Pedrinho and we wouldn’t have enough money to afford him.”
Former Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola had little but positivity for Pedro – full name Pedro Eliezer Rodriguez Ledesma – in 2011. It aptly sums up the Catalan winger’s career. Despite the Spanish international winning every trophy attainable before his 23rd birthday, Pedro has been under-appreciated in everywhere outside Catalonia. It is unsurprising considering that a certain diminutive Argentinian also plies his trade at the Spanish club.
Born in Tenerife, Pedro joined La Masia, the prestigious youth academy of Barcelona, at the age of seventeen in 2005 – a late bloomer seeing that the majority of youth joins the academy before school-leaving age. If it seemed that Pedro would be unable to pick up the Barcelona way at such a stage in his development, then this was just the first hurdle in a career filled with challenges.
Indeed, the Spaniard wasn’t fazed by the challenge and became a mainstay in the Barcelona B team – making 37 appearances and scoring seven goals in his first season. Pedro’s efforts earned a first team debut in 2008, although the step up in class meant that he played just seven minutes over the next two campaigns.
When Guardiola was appointed Barcelona coach in May 2008 Pedro was one of the first players, along with Sergio Busquets, to be thrown into the spotlight by the former youth team manager. Despite receiving discouraging advice about Pedro from the academy staff, Guardiola’s immense faith in the player’s abilities and a distinct plans for the young winger prevailed.
Pedro repaid his manager’s trust and sparkled during Barcelona’s treble winning season of 2009/10, enjoying the best conversation rate of any player in La Liga. The Spaniard also became the first player to score a goal in six different competitions that season, justifying Guardiola’s risk. Pedro thrived during his mentor’s trophy–laden years – a remarkable period in Blaugrana history. The player scored 45 goals during a golden spell between 2009 and 2011.
Guardiola’s departure precipitated regression among several Barcelona players, notably Pedro. Tata Martino had little trust in the winger and then the Luis Enrique era brought a series of particularly poor performances. High-quality additions, such as Neymar and Luis Suarez, certainly improved Barcelona, but further limited the Spanish World Cup winner’s chances. Arda Turan reinforces Pedro’s second-choice status at Camp Nou.
With a point to prove, there is no doubt that Pedro is in dire need of a fresh start.
Throughout the summer Pedro has been linked with a host of clubs – nearly all of them in the English Premier League. The Liverpool Echo reported Pedro as Brendan Rodger’s ideal replacement for Raheem Sterling back in June, while earlier this summer the Telegraph noted Jose Mourinho’s fondness for the player. The flurry of speculation has left a sense of collective confusion about where the Spaniard will actually land.
It was little surprise that reports soon surfaced of Manchester United entering the race for Pedro, with the Mirror first noting Louis Van Gaal’s apparent interest in the winger as a replacement for PSG-bound Angel Di Maria. In recent days United’s interest has ramped up, with talks reportedly held between the Spaniard’s entourage and the United hierarchy.
United’s interest in the player might disappoint some fans looking for a marquee signing in the wake of Di Maria’s impending departure. Nevertheless, the Spanish treble winner should prove to be a strong addition to the United squad. Not least because, after dropping to a squad position at Barcelona, Pedro would be greatly satisfied with the integral role on offer to him in Manchester.
Despite a dip in form the La Masia graduate has the qualities associated with a typical United winger. A return of 11 goals and 6 assists last season isn’t impressive, but given that Pedro started only 16 games, his numbers come with some context.
Similar to recent United signing, Memphis Depay, Pedro is blessed with pace and his acquisition would provide Ashley Young with strong competition down the left. Pedro’s movement on the pitch is particularly intelligent, which normally means a strong flow of chances for his teammates. Wayne Rooney would certainly relish this aspect of Pedro’s game.
The Spanish international’s key strength is his ability to pop up with decisive goals when needed most. For example, Pedro’s performance in the 2009 Domestic Supercup against Athletic Bilbao and a winner scored against Shakthar Donetsk in Uefa Supercup of that year.
The winger’s mercurial nature, combined with an ability to be effective in any position across the forward line, explains Van Gaal’s interest. Indeed, there is a strong resemblance to the style of Van Gaal’s German protégé, Thomas Muller.
The presence of fellow Spaniards, Ander Herrera and Juan Mata means that the bedding in period usually required for foreign signings could be minimised. A few days past his 28th birthday, Pedro has just entered his theoretical peak years and brings vast experience due to his presence in Barcelona’s remarkable period of dominance.
There are, of course, certain facets of Pedro’s game that need to be fine-tuned for the Premier League, with his lack of strength an area that needs to be worked on if he is to succeed in the physically imposing English game.
Pedro will never be the player who sells out a stadium, but his worth to United negates that observation. He is the type of player who offers much in a collective and should have no problem fitting into Van Gaal’s system. Those at Barcelona have never doubted his talents, but Pedro has perennially remained in the shadows of more storied players. A move to the bright lights of Old Trafford could allow the boy from Tenerife to finally step out of the shadows.
In the end it was just four words that ended Angel di Maria’s time at Manchester United: Louis van Gaal’s curt assertion that he “does not know why” the Argentinian failed to board a plane to the United States on Saturday. Four words that will hasten Di Maria’s transfer to Paris Saint-Germain in the coming week and bring the player’s spell at Old Trafford to a close in something approaching ignominy.
Already on a short clock – with a deal almost agreed between United and Qatari-backed PSG – United’s record purchase is unlikely to play for the club again. It is just 11 months since the player joined in British-record deal. Indeed, with the saga approaching a close the narrative will turn to who is at fault for Di Maria’s exit. After all, United paid some £59 million for the talented forward who should have accelerated the club’s return to the sport’s élite.
In the United camp there is little doubt about Di Maria’s motivation for missing a routine flight: the impending move to Parc de Princes. While the ink is not yet dry on a deal, with the clubs reportedly negotiating a fee in the region of £45 million, the widely held assumption is that Di Maria will line up in the Blue of Les Parisiens in the coming season
Whether Di Maria was encouraged to stay home by the club, or agent Jorge Mendes, on Saturday PSG manager Laurent Blanc did little to pour cold water on an inflammatory situation.
“There is an anticipation he is going to come to the US but as to which jersey he is going to wear, we don’t know yet,” said former United defender Blanc. “If he does make a change hopefully it will be for Paris Saint-Germain. Of course a coach would like to see somebody like him.”
The fallout from Di Maria’s transfer brought supporters to the sharp end of the debate about the player’s failure at United, although the truth is rarely as stark as often presented in the polarised world of social media.
Di Maria’s fall has been steep though – from those heady first few games at Old Trafford, to a place on the bench for much of the spring. When it mattered most Van Gaal turned to lesser players than Di Maria to drag the Reds through patchy form to fourth place in the Premier League. It is a damning indictment of a player who boasts all the tools to be a success at United.
There is no solitary cause of Di Maria’s failure though. Certainly, the player’s attitude comes under renewed scrutiny after he failed to join his team-mates in Santa Clara. The belief that Di Maria, somehow, rarely felt at one with United is catalysed when considering how rapidly the early energy of standout autumn displays dissipated into what appeared to many as indifference as the season wore on.
Much of the player’s change in attitude is laid at the door of a January break-in, where burglars used scaffolding and ladders to rob the Cheshire family home. With wife and daughter present during the break-in the Di Marias retrenched to the safety of a Manchester hotel. The family never returned home; the player’s performances could not recover either.
That form was aided little by a succession of minor injuries to thigh, hamstring and a variety of muscles, although the player missed just four games in total for United through injury alone. Another three passed the winger by after a bizarre FA Cup dismissal against Arsenal in March. It precipitated Di Maria’s exclusion from Van Gaal’s side; a player that could not be relied on, nor one who could be trusted.
Nor was Van Gaal’s perpetual insistence on changing the team’s shape helpful – or Di Maria’s role within it. In total the player featured in nine different positions across midfield and attack for United last season from just 32 appearances. Di Maria started the campaign as one of three in central midfield. It is the role many believe is the former Real Madrid player’s best. He shifted to a role in a diamond and also featured on both wings. For a time the player was deployed as an auxiliary forward ‘in the hole’ and, most oddly of all, as an outright striker in three matches during the spring.
Yet, this combination of factors – form, attitude, fitness and tactics – means that Di Maria completed just 16 games in total for United last season. It is scant reward for the riches paid to both player and former club.
Still, the failure will be glossed over at United. The club once described as “cynical” by Gary Neville has already moved on, with Barcelona winger Pedro Rodríguez the proposed £23 million replacement. The Spaniard will offer competition in wide areas to Ashley Young, Juan Mata, Memphis Depay, and – after a star turn against Barcelona on Saturday afternoon – Adnan Januzaj.
Pedro scored 45 goals between 2009 and 2011 for Barça from a wide left role, yet could not always find a place in Luis Enrique’s side last season. The 27-year-old was a regular substitute – and regularly substituted – to such an extent that he played the full 90 minutes on just 19 occasions from 50 appearances in all competitions.
Still, it is that relative lack of importance that is driving Pedro away from Barcelona – a club the player has been associated with for more than a decade. He will bring pace, goals – there have been at least 10 a season for the last six campaigns – and a genuine team ethic to United. Indeed, what Pedro lacks in technical brilliance compared to Di Maria might be compensated, in part at least, by a work-rate that is likely to please his new manager.
Meanwhile, over in Paris the welcoming party for Di Maria will begin once United has, with a little irony, faced his new club in Chicago on Thursday. The proposed £45 million fee will leave the Reds with a paper loss on the player in the region of £15 million, although much of that is attributable to forex movements over the past 12 months. The club will recoup €63 million of the €75 million paid to Madrid, with no bonuses due, and has amortised any loss in value over the past year.
PSG will be Di Maria’s fifth club in a decade as a professional. And it was left to another wandering maverick to roll out the Parisian red carpet.
“If you get a chance to play with Di María it is a fantastic thing,” said Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is now at his seventh European club.
“He is a fantastic player who plays for the team. He brings pace. He brings big quality and for sure he will make our team even better than it is today. We will receive him with open arms.”
So too will Blanc, who is charged with finding more from a player presumably less comfortable in Manchester than he will be in Paris. And if the Di Maria once past returns in the French capital then more questions will be asked – both of the player and his former manager.
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.
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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.
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.
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
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.
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.