Back & At It

As previously said, few will have likely noticed my absence here and this one was much longer than the previous month long disappearance. I was away for work and several thousand kilometers from home. Time was always a premium while away and what free time which could be had might have been considered “wasted” on such endeavors such as this. Now back and settled at home, my interest in United remains as devout as ever with a desire to get back online in this capacity.

Much has happened since my last post three quarters of a year ago; but I will abstain from discussing such at any length. Given the form of late and the transfer window opening in less than a day (as of writing this anyway), let’s go into the New Year with what’s new.

Jose Mourinho has made it explicitly clear he doesn’t intend to sell any players and has the support of the club, and its board, in that decision. That said, he went on to say that if a player not receiving a substantive number of minutes wished to leave, he would not stand in their way. Immediately, Memphis Depay and Morgan Schneiderlin come to the forefront of such discussion. In Depay’s case, Mourinho has acknowledged the Depay situation and, for me, he will be sold this month when the right offer comes in. Given Schneiderlin’s similar situation and regular omissions from the team selection for matches, it’s a safe bet he’ll be on his way to another club this month. Both players are quality and, in Depay’s case, yet to truly realize their potential. Perhaps the curse of the seven kit?

My gut tells me the “right offers” will materialize. Rumours abound that several clubs have expressed interest in both players. In Schneiderlin’s case, West Brom have had their offer rejected with Ronald Koeman eager to work with him again from their Southampton days at Saint Mary’s. Koeman has also spoken highly of Depay, believing (correctly) he has much to offer and Everton could mutually be a landing spot. Story last heard was £40M was offered for the duo. My opinion is that won’t be enough and Mourinho was quoted to say, to date, no offer has come through which would be acceptable. Expect that to hot up in the days or weeks to come.

Meanwhile Fellaini continues to get opportunities and, as was last year, he just isn’t fitting into the system. A stupid foul against Everton cost United two precious points that, as of today, would see them just a point behind City. There have been rumours of interest in him, particularly out of Italy; however, their reliability is suspect and, given his regular appearances coupled with Mourinho’s lack of interest in selling first team players, I don’t see him leaving.  I make it no secret my lack of faith in him on a day to day basis.

Meanwhile, as is the case every window, United and their deep pockets get linked to a number of players. A week ago, I would have been one of many people to tell you that Victor Jörgen Nilsson Lindelöf of Benfica was good as done. More recently, stories emerged with the BBC that Mourinho did a 180 on any deal citing his sudden change of mind in Rojo and Jones’ form and ability to cover while Bailly was away for the Africa Cup of Nations.  I never believed such to be the case and, unsurprisingly, the deal is back on most recently according to the Sun, among many other sources.

I expect it to go through and shortly too. Benfica manager, Rui Vitoria, has gone on record to say his club has five quality centre backs and left Lindelof out of their most recent match. While he will train with the club until a deal is agreed upon, United seems set to invest the young Swedish centre half who possesses the qualities needed to recreate the pairing dominance of Rio and Vidic of yesteryear.

Also from Benfica, United were linked with Nelson Semedo. A mid-season double swoop from the same club probably isn’t as realistic and, given comments from Semedo, I’m not sure anything will materialize. With Valencia and Darmian settled on the right and Shaw, not far from match fitness, covered by Blind on the left; one would have to assume a full back departure would have to precede any acquisition of the like. There’s been talk of Patrice Evra being allowed to leave Juve on loan with the Premier League an option. United inevitably have been linked with their former player. Does Evra make sense and, given his age, does he have the ability to present United with an upgrade? Time shall tell.

We’ll visit some more linked players tomorrow and I’ll even offer my opinion on who I’d target long term if Mourinho handed me the keys to the transfer coffer. Until then, have a happy and safe New Year.

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Roller Coaster

It’s been a month and then some since the last post here… But I suspect few will have noticed. It doesn’t matter really. Nothing has changed in that time. The league wide conspiracy to see the Foxes through to a most unlikely Premier League triumph has persisted. Leicester continue to win and the big four or five in their wake continue to falter. United and, more recently, City are in shambles. Chelsea dropped too many games in the first half. And Arsenal and Tottenham seem reluctant to capitalize on their chances to go level with Leicester atop the table. There were chances, squandered largely in games they should have won.

The conspiracy to keep van Gaal employed persists too. I’ve come to call the van Gaal roller coaster given the illness inducing up-and-down nature of the ride of sorts this season has been. It looked appealing at first and, at times, it was fun. But you inevitably want off before the ride is over as you’ve become sick of it all. It’s a trend where United would drop two or three games in a row to see the mob calling for van Gaal’s head. This would be followed by a few games of positive results which calm the masses. Quite often it’s Martial that has rescued United from disaster. Perhaps he exists as our metaphorical Gravol tablet.

Later today, United host a Liverpool club who haven’t played since their decisive win over United at Anfield a week prior. It was a game few wish to remember. If not for De Gea, it could be a game without any real purpose. For a team which struggled as it did until the second half in their home tie to West Ham in the FA Cup, it doesn’t instill confidence in United’s faithful. To respond from arguably the worst game of the season with their unconvincing performance on the weekend, overcoming a 0-2 aggregate score will be a tall order. It’s ridiculous.

But who should be surprised? They’ve struggled all season to get forward and attack with intent. An invisible wall exists between the midfield and the attacking three when into the final third. Fellaini continues to get starts as a central midfielder despite his complete ineffectiveness, made all the more annoying when Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger are sitting on the bench. For me, he should reserve his ticket out of town next to van Gaal come July. Carrick, love him to death, hasn’t fared much better of late. He’s on this terrible run of games where his ability to complete forward passes into the final third is ‘Fellainish’, so to speak. It’ll be interesting to see the starting lineup, but suspect United will find scoring three quite difficult, if not impossible. But should the decision be mine, my starting XI as follows:

De Gea

Varela    Smalling     Rojo     Blind

Schneiderlin    Schweinsteiger

Mata    Herrera   Memphis

Martial

I think Rashford and Martial showed better form when  they swapped positions in a previous match, so I’ve put Martial back up top. But with Mata back from suspension, he needs to get back in and get back to form. So he comes in ahead of a young Rashford who is now goalless in four matches.

Whatever the case, United’s best chance for hardware this season has fallen to the FA Cup where they’ve earned a replay at Upton Park. Should they be able to pull off an away victory, Everton await in the semi-final and presents itself as a difficult tie, which is not to overlook a Hammers side which, at present, it above United in the table. Should they pull their socks up and play to their real potential, a number of players could be back to see them into the final (such as Rooney), where they’ll play either Watford or Palace.

I have low expectations for tomorrow, but it’s not all lost. 2-0 isn’t impossible to force added time and, should it go to spot kicks… Dave saves and Liverpool might be feeling the sting of the League Cup final still. Who knows? And with City now without Otamendi and Kompany for the derby, it’s a chance for United to pull back points. They remain one back for West Ham and a victory at the Etihad could bee them mutually one back of their noisy neighbours.

Enjoy the match.

Embarrassment

It was touted by the media as a weekend in which, at the very least, Manchester United would claw back some points from the top four clubs they’re chasing. City host Spurs and the Gunners host the improbable Leicester side a week removed from stunning City. Points would be dropped and United, in their alleged good form, would have no trouble beating a Sunderland side that have failed to beat a top ten side in some time.

But it wasn’t to be. United conceded early off a free kick that saw a poorly hit ball find its way through a maelstrom of legs and sneak by a helpless De Gea. Given the defensive setup of their starting XI, I fully expected Allardyce to park the bus with his debut signings and play United on the break for the remainder of the match. Despite over 70% possession in the first half, only Martial could find the back of the next after collecting a rebound with a cool finish from in tight. Other than that, it was frustrating to watch. United were sloppy with the ball and committed a number of giveaways, predominantly in the build up or attacking third.

Moving into the second half, United’s play left much to be desired. They continued to be sloppy on the ball and Sunderland were the better side consistently. Though United had a few chances, they were unconvincing and hardly challenged Mannone where he was called to act. Beyond that, United did very little to break down the Sunderland defense and were far too often implicit in their own undoing as build up after build up stalled. For their part, Sunderland forced De Gea into several quality saves as they asked questions of United’s piecemeal back line. And their persistence was rewarded again as a corner was directed at goal by Kone, only to see De Gea stop it long enough to push it back into his goal off his elbow.

Luck was on Sunderland’s side today with their two tallies and, despite what van Gaal will tell you about luck in football, I’ve said it – and I’ll say it again: You make your own luck. Sunderland got the win because they were the better side overall. I’m like a broken record. Here I go again: Possession in football only matters if the benefits of its advantage is applied in the attacking third. United failed here today and it’s why they lost.

The result is United remain six back of fourth place City with their noisy neighbours still to play. The hurdle back into the Champions League placed looms larger and the sentiment among fans is seeing such as insurmountable. Also appearing less likely is van Gaal’s appointment as manager come season’s end. While it was only United’s second loss in their last ten in all competitions, what isn’t lost on me is they have only three wins to their credit in their last Premier League matches. It isn’t good enough if a top four position is your goal.

I can’t help but remind myself of fact that since his appointment van Gaal has spent £250M, has a worse record than Moyes, did nothing in January after all the injuries, and mysteriously sold world-class players BEFORE changing his system where they could have flourished. All in all, irrespective of van Gaal’s qualities, he’s done nothing to progress this club and his tenure as United’s manager has been a resounding failure.

While Woodward hasn’t always been a stalwart in the transfer department for his part, his acumen in the ‘money-making’ department is unquestionable with United poised to overtake both Real and Barca as the highest earners in the world of football. So his job is safe. The thing is, consequences for failing to qualify for Europe is staggering, both in United’s ability to lure world-class talent and in financial terms.

Woodward can’t allow that nor will the club’s upper hierarchy approve. Nor will the fans. They demand more and deserve more than the putrid display observed today. It’s why I maintain my belief that van Gaal needs to be replaced sooner than later. Too much is at stake and failure to act could see United fall behind the likes of City for many years to come if action isn’t taken.

While I don’t think Mourinho’s appointment would magically save this season, what I do believe is things can’t get much worse and Jose’s pedigree as a manager is, in positive terms, well regarded. His influence could attract big names where they otherwise might be put off by a lack of European football and by a side struggling with a manager in his last year – with a reputation for having an iron fist. This is why, despite my dislike for him on a personal level, I feel Mourinho’s appointment is absolutely necessary.

Crunch Time

With now less than ten days until the winter window slams shut, United have been exceptionally quiet on the transfer front with very little surfacing in the legit realm of rumours. For the few of you that follow me, you’ll know of my long list of transfer do’s United need to make the system work – be it my targets or not. The fact is, United cannot afford to miss out on the Champions League next term. The financial benefits far outweigh the cost of doing business now and the implications are far reaching in their significance as they are in the short term.

That said, as van Gaal has now said, doing business is much easier said than done. Teams with the quality United seek are frequently reluctant to sell. It shouldn’t be surprising. They’ll either have title and/or qualification goals within reach and selling top roster talent won’t assist in such aspirations. Often those who can be convinced to do so are teams charging a premium with a means to replace the departing player in some manner. Given the latter part of the window is upon us, this is makes things all the more challenging.

The result is I, like many others with realistic means of analysis in the transfer world, don’t see United doing much business from here on out, if any at all. Problem is injuries at the back have now reached a climax. Ashley Young, one of our converted forward-to-fullbacks, has picked up a significant groin injury that will require surgery. It should go without saying, but Young will miss some time that could threaten to keep him off the pitch until the summer. While Borthwick-Jackson has been inconsistently good at fullback, I’ve questioned his pace. Guillermo Varela too. It’s a significant burden to place on youngsters week in and week out. Darmian has been woeful on the left, as seen at Liverpool where a switch to his natural right side turned him from a wandering amateur to shades of the brilliance he exuded back in August and September.

Van Gaal has come out to say that United’s hand has been forced and the need to acquire a fullback will be important. It surprises me that no one in the media, save me of course, have identified Gregory van der Wiel as a logical solution to the problem. PSG’s internationally capped fullback sees his contract expire at Parc des Princes this June and it would seem his long-term successor, Serge Aurier, has already taken over duties as PSG’s first choice right back where they both prefer to play. Though van der Wiel has yet to make indication otherwise, it seems to me a player still in his prime would seek a means to move on or what hasn’t he already renewed? United could offer him that option while benefiting from the additional depth of quality, experience, and mentoring to United’s up and comers. There’s also his familiarity with van Gaal during his time as the Netherland’s manager.

Previously, Edinson Cavani was an oft-linked player to United and other big spenders because of his alleged growing frustration with a lack of playing time in his preferred position behind Ibrahimovic. Years later and nothing of the sort has yet to familiarize and, as such, I’ve been quick to dismiss such nonsense. This year is different as ESPN, usually quite reliable when it comes to their frequently undisclosed ‘sources’, have revealed Cavani’s agent has reached out to a receptive United. In the day’s following, United quelled those rumours, as too those linking Felipe Anderson and apparent talks with Pep Guardiola, in a move to distance themselves from the idea. Seems a bit odd. Rarely have I seen them do such, especially given the sheer volume of rumours they’re continuously associated with. Does this mean there’s some substance to them? Why else would they care to do so unless there was a modicum of truth to them?

For now, it’ll remain speculatory; but don’t be surprised if any of those three names resurface between now and February or in the summer. We know United previously bid on Anderson. You’d be mad to not believe United see Guardiola as a long term successor to van Gaal, even if it’s become obvious his job security is exactly that: secure. And Cavani, even at 28, has quality any club would be happy to deploy up top – especially one struggling to find the back of the net.

So I’ll leave you with one tidbit. The news of Martial broke the day the deal occurred. Darmian and Schweinsteiger meer days prior save some unfounded rumours involving the German weeks prior. The point is they were all but dead until it broke and so is the case for damn near every buy in recent times. No one saw it coming outside the circle of those involved. And that could be the case here.

I’ll Take It

Whenever United play Liverpool, irrespective of their positions in the table, the game means the world. Like many United fans and our Merseyside counterparts too, I look forward to their derby more than any other fixtures during the season. Even the Manchester derby. Not even the Leeds rivalry of old can compare, though I’d be lying if I said I was around to witness that. The two most successful English football clubs in the history of the game with passionate fan bases the world over. What’s not to love?

Naturally, I like to see United at their best as anything but a win is insufficient. The odd few times United have lost in recent times, I can remember being in a foul mood after. It’s like my other sporting love, the Montreal Canadiens, losing to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Simply unacceptable. It’s amazing and, very possibly, concerning how much legit fans put into these games on an emotional level.

Without going into a detailed match report, imagine my disdain today as the first half wore on. United were awful and very little seemed to be functioning. The midfield was losing the battle in the middle of the park, the forwards weren’t getting service, and our back four were lucky to escape a goalless first half. Into the second half, the early stages revealed a truth no United fan wanted to witness: United could actually look worse.

Thankfully it didn’t last too long and United soon started to find their feet. And who other than the man in form would see United escape with a narrow three points? The skipper, Wayne Rooney, of course. So ugly as it may be, I’ll take them as I can. They were important points on the heels of a match where it should have been two more. Teams in the chase dropped points on their end, so win-win for United.

For those who follow me here or on Footie Writer, you’ll likely be familiar with my wants for United for many weeks now. Little has changed and again, as United struggle for goals and look, far too often, fragile in the back; reinforcements are needed. Van Gaal’s system struggles offensively because his selection isn’t well-suited to play to its strengths.

Defensively, United were okay and have been rendered mediocre by a spat of injuries. The result is for a second straight season, van Gaal is converting forwards and midfielders into full backs with mixed results. Following his failure to land a marque centre-half in the summer, van Gaal was quick to identify Blind who has found he going tough too often. The strength of their back four has been two-fold: De Gea bailing them out more than he should be and United’s midfield, when healthy, are the engine behind that possession that bores fan and pundits alike.

Speaking of the midfield, possession is fine and dandy when the advantage of such can be translated into the attacking third. Contrary to what van Gaal will say in media scrums, the chances aren’t enough nor are they of the quality variety nearly enough. The players with the forte to play this brand of football lack the pace to move the ball as quickly as they need to if disorganizing the opposition is the aim. As such, teams have found success in luring them forward by parking the bus with ten men back and playing United on the break with pace. Several clubs with no business beating United have with just as many holding United level. Trouble too is, as like today, our selection is limited in replacing the likes of Schweinsteiger or Schneiderlin, especially with Herrera playing at the ten, and we see a completely different story.

Finally, in the final third no less, van Gaal’s insistence in playing Rooney previously created problems. Now that he’s in form, it’s less troublesome. Martial has been pushed out wide where he’s looked good with the likes of Memphis inconsistent and Lingard, for all his potential, just not up standard. I find he’s really wasteful with the ball and seems to lose it as many times as he fails to find the target when attempting for goal. Mata has been the other regular presence out wide on the right, but for all his qualities he’s just not well suited to such a role.

The long story short, United may have clawed back a few points today; but their long term aspiration for, at the very least, Champions League football next term will be challenging to say the least. As such, if they wish to remain the pack, they need to overcome the difficulty of the January transfer window and add some players. At the very least (and assuming they maintain this system), I think United could do well to find a full back, a quality centre-half to partner with Smalling, an option to replace Fellaini, and (more than anything) a right winger with pace. No tall order, huh?

It doesn’t necessarily have to be as difficult as you’d assume. For example, someone who can compliment Darmian on the right where he’s really struggled to find form for some time is PSG’s Gregory van der Wiel. As I identified, the Dutch international, at 27, still offers plenty of quality and experience to push Darmian while givingr United depth stability. Having been unseated by his long-term successor, Serge Aurier, and with his contract expiring this summer, United could find the going easy should they offer PSG some money rather than PSG losing the Dutchman for nothing.

Another is Sporting’s Peruvian international, Andre Carrillo. His contract also expires this summer and was indefinitely suspended by the club after refusing a contract offer and who knows what else. In any event, short of a massive turn around, his days at Sporting are numbered and United, with the financial flex, wouldn’t find it too difficult to outbid prospective rivals such as Fiorentina. He’s a complete package. Pace with an ability to cross to stretch the play (something United really need) and dribbling skills with the ball on either foot for cutting runs inward to have goes for goal.

With Carrick and Schweinsteiger into their golden years of football, United would do well to find a box to box midfielder as a long term option. Recently, rumours surfaced of Adrien Rabiot seeking a means to escape Parc des Princes as he’s longing for more minutes he simply won’t get with Verratti on board. More troubling, Vaerratti is allegedly nearing a contract extension, further fueling the rumours. So there you have it, if the reports are to be trusted – something I rarely do. In any event, why not try? He possesses size and a technical ability to play the holding role better than the foul-machine that is Fellaini. Fellaini is a quality player, but he’s absolutely lost in this current system. He just doen’t fit anywhere in the starting XI. I’d like him as a utility player, but will he be happy in such a role?

Lastly, United need a world-class centre-half to compliment the impressive Chris Smalling. Rojo is a good depth option and Jones just can’t stay healthy for the life of him. Blind isn’t good enough and Borthwick-Jackson, who is usually found playing fullback, and McNair aren’t ready for the best of the big European clubs. So right now, as I sit here and type, exists a £38.26M release clause on Aymeric Laporte’s contract with Athletic Bilbao. Why spend £50M+ on Stones when you can acquire, in my humble opinion, a superior centre-half born literally a day apart from Stones? Better and cheaper. What’s not to like? Smalling and Laporte could be the Rio and Vidic of old.

What’s clear to me is it doesn’t look like van Gaal is going anywhere and, as long as he’s around, you best believe this 4-2-3-1 will persist. So United have some work to do and players are needed to make this system work. Sure, such ventures would be very expensive. I just wonder what it would cost them to lose out on Champions League next term.

Until next time…

 

Enough is Enough

It seems like a year ago the United mob was calling for Wayne Rooney’s head for all that was wrong. In a literal sense, the same could be said of the mob and its demands that Louis van Gaal be let go. For my part, I’ve been a bit more level headed; opting to see things into January and give him a chance to turn things around while utilizing the winter transfer window to shore up loose ends.

Nigh a season ago, the man could do no wrong. Unlike David Moyes, van Gaal impressed himself upon the team and really made it his. It translated into a better atmosphere, particularly within the dressing room, and its influences could be felt on the pitch. His aura commanded respect, an aura built on a history of success. But this was but a mere mask. It was easy to forget that the squad wasn’t much better than under his predecessor thanks to the make up of the standings come May 2015. One could argue he inherited a mess and I’d agree – mostly. Another could argue United were fortunate because this time being negligibly better statistically meant a Champions League spot. The same results a year prior would have seen them miss Champions League. Fact. And how important was that? The lucrative Adidas money suggested very.

But now, with another summer gone with little in the way of big signings and previous big signings sold for relative peanuts, support began to wain. The distractions of a World Cup gone, what could be said in terms of an excuse? The issues of the midfield seemingly sorted and Evra’s heir apparent captured. But what of depth at centre half? What of options up top to replace those departed? A new system and lacking much progress on the squad as a whole.

It started well enough. The midfield did its job (defensively) and van Gaal praised his efforts to bring balance to the club. United owned the possession. Mysteriously, goals became harder and harder to come by. This is something United fans are not used to. But as United continued to struggle, van Gaal managed to pull together just enough results and offer just enough rhetoric to keep the mob at bay – then too focused on the skipper. Thanks to a season as unpredictable as an earthquake, United even managed to apply van Gaal’s boring football philosophy to the top of the table, albeit very briefly.

Long before December did the inherent weakness of the squad rear its ugly head. Arsenal gave United a lesson and reminded the world of United’s defensive frailties that have been vulnerably easy to expose since Ferguson was still gaffer. With goals continuing to be hard to come by, injuries soon mounted to the point that even the midfield could no longer insulate the club’s back four; by that time, still statistically best in the league. Fans began to become restless and clamor for more echoed the grounds at Old Trafford with growing enthusiasm. It was a sentiment that was to climax as December wore on. It was then the crumbling tower began to collapse.

Goalless draws and losses piled up. It was tumultuous streak that saw van Gaal’s side close out the calendar year on pace for the worst season United has had in the Premier League era. It was a pace to match the worst since a very forgettable 90/91 campaign. Thanks to a disastrous December, van Gaal found himself rewriting records at United that no manager would cherish and his stock plummeted. It was a miserable time for the club. Long since, United were out of the Capital Cup to a Champo side, bowed out from the group stage in Champions League despite a favourable drawing, slumped to sixth in the league and, consequentially, a fair distance out of the qualifying positions for European competition next year. It was boring, ineffective football. The media was awash with rumours that van Gaal’s dismissal was imminent. Chelsea had sacked Mourinho. All was in place for van Gaal to receive the same fate with the Special One lurking in the shadows – complete with team adorned scarves with United spelled incorrectly.

But no. Apparently all was fixed after a superb, yet goalless, performance against Chelsea. United were again unlucky. It was followed into 2016 with a less than compelling win over a lowly Swans side. Those convenient distractions, eh? A mere week from demanding an apology and hinting he’d quit if things got ugly; now van Gaal was adamant he’d push on and that he had the full support of the board. Whatever the case, what would become apparent is that van Gaal would keep his job into the new year.

And so, I’ve had a change of heart. I’ve come to the conclusion that van Gaal doesn’t deserve the month to sort things out. Just as Moyes looked out of his depth and lost in the technical area, it has become apparent to me that van Gaal, in his own way, is lost. For me, van Gaal has failed because he’s stubbornly implemented his system – his philosophy of sorts and it’s failed. But rather than adapt, as too did Moyes fail in doing, the Dutch manager refuses to concede things aren’t working. The worst part? Sure as I am the sun will rise tomorrow in the East and set in the West, you can rest assured the stubborn Dutchman won’t change it.Week after week, he makes (ultimately) trivial changes with his limited selection while pushing on with the same tactics. It’s liken to watching an infant trying to push the square block through the circular hole.

The smoking gun for me was their home date with Sheffield United for the third round FA Cup. It was a game of dizzying frustration – a sight beyond reasonable comprehension. It took United some 97 minutes (if you include added time from the first half) to crack a League One side… Via a (deserved) penalty. I genuinely felt for Sheffield United fans. They deserved a replay at home. United didn’t deserve to win. But Rooney’s conversion sealed their fate on the shoulders of a boring, uninspiring win. It was embarrassing to witness. Yet again, it was glaringly obvious to me is that the squad, as mentioned, is ill-suited to make this system of van Gaal’s work.

Call me a fool and/or an armchair manager, but United struggled to crack Sheffield’s defense because they largely played ten men back in a compact formation. Okay, that was easy, but one of their biggest issues was getting bodies toward the goal when they did manage to attack down the flanks. As much as United lacks pace in the midfield, as well as up top (especially before Lingard and Memphis came on), there was simply too much ground to cover for the midfield. I can’t fathom why it would appear prudent to play two holding midfielders to support United’s back four while playing a ultra-defensive League One side that rarely tested United – even in their most vulnerable spots. Would it not have made more sense to invert the midfield to have one player play the holding role and two options available to support the attack?

I’d say yes, but van Gaal won’t deviate from the system. By his own admission, he’s open to suggestions and chronically difficult to convince he’s wrong. His ego won’t allow for it. It has its own defense mechanism where he’ll evaluate the bad and sees it another way that annoys me to no end. He has a penchant for seeing the silver lining in all those dismal performances. He trivializes the ultimate issues that drag down the team and hypes the positives, consistent with reality or not. It’s his aforementioned rhetoric; the kind that calls the display against Sheffield United ‘attacking football’ that ‘created chances’ and was ‘unlucky’. Utterly ridiculous. It’s one big reason his time should be up – his refusal to adapt even in the simplest of ways and better utilizing his options to their strengths.

That said, it gets worse. Tricky too.

Barely into the second week of the month and there’s no indications he’s on his way out anytime soon – though the FA Cup effort changed the media’s demeanor on the subject. Perhaps he does have the board’s support? Perhaps improvement will come? It’s no secret he’s always willing to improve where possible his means for selection. Perhaps more of his willingness to sell players who don’t conform is the recipe for success?

Given United’s large kitty, he could get the players needed to salvage what’s left and work toward next term. Ultimately, a title is a long shot and I’d be fine with that. And you must be too as, even if you want to see van Gaal get the sack now, you must know bringing in a guy like Mourinho would see a large turnover of players in much the same manner. Like I said, whoever it was to be come January, they’d have to spend to get this club into May a top four spot or things would be ugly. Real ugly. Right?

Well, if you believe what van Gaal had to say recently, then you’ll know he doesn’t foresee United spending this month. Now, before I lose my mind with this apparent shortsightedness, I feel compelled to point out that it’d be quite foolish for van Gaal to openly admit that United are willing and eager buyers. Why give the initiative to your bartering partner over the fee of a player? United have money. Lots of money. But they also have other interests at stake where blindly spending it all isn’t in Woodward’s repertoire. So, you see why he’d say such a thing.

The thing is, managers across Europe aren’t stupid people. They are all too familiar with United’s financial prowess and even more aware of United’s dilemma. So van Gaal can ‘van Gaal’ it all he wants, these clubs know they’ll have United by the balls should talks ever occur regarding the sale of a prized asset willing to come aboard the HMS Snore. So United may as well concede here and pay up. They should do it Real Madrid style: bullish in their approach with an arrogant flash of cash. Point is, van Gaal would have been better served not suggesting to the impressionable United mob of his indifferent outlook on making his unnameable system function. Especially when such a suggestion, be it disingenuous or not, is entirely consistent with everything that is wrong with his mismanagement of the club on and off the pitch thanks to his tepid successes over several transfer windows.

So why give him another in which to fail? Sure, they’ll pay a premium versus the summer – but I think the risk of losing out on Champions Leahue football will cost much more than fees and wages. The point is, they don’t have to finish the rebuild this winter. It’d only take a few players realistically. And there are realistic options out there. No, not Bale, Ronaldo, or Stones.

So United needs to be done with it, before this month is too far gone. Whatever the system may be, United have enough quality there to push back into the top four. A bit of spending can see them not only find such a not-so-trivial task easier to achieve; but do so with stated intent to the remainder of the league that United will once again be a force. They will put fear into the hearts of its opposition. Old Trafford will be a fortress. And United will stand shoulder to shoulder with the biggest and best in Europe. Because van Gaal refuses to adapt and is ultimately unproven in the transfer business, United won’t be those things under his leadership. United can’t afford to risk the long term successes of this season and beyond on his philosophy. It’s been a year and a half of little progress. Van Gaal’s self-made precedence is just that.

Shopping List

If you read my last novel-esque entry here at Footie Writer, I discussed the ever tenuous position van Gaal finds himself in. While not all can be blamed on him for United’s collective failure, as I detailed, much of it must fall on his shoulders. This is largely due to what has been a failed attempt to implement systems not suited to the players available for selection while wastefully letting go of others who could function – particularly in the attacking half. It also should be mentioned failures in capturing players played a part. What’s obvious to me is they need to buy this January and fill the voids that are limiting their potential. This is a fact, irrespective of whether or not van Gaal remains at the helm or a replacement liken to Mourinho or Giggs, on an interim basis once more, come in to stop the bleeding.

So what does United need? Well, if the current set up is to be maintained, then I believe United could do very well if two options to play up top on the right wing were brought in with a quality centre half to add some depth and inject some stability. Why two options up top? In the complete absence of a forward capable of playing the wing as the system necessitates, it seems only fitting that you have two options to adequately see the club through potential injury or busy schedules with Europa and the FA cup still on the calendar.

So who are they? I decided to have a look and came up with a shopping list of sorts:

Right Wing

Riyad Mahrez

Let’s start up top with rumours currently insisting that United are lining up a £29M bid for Leicester’s Riyad Mahrez. One half of their unfathomable rise to the top of the league, he has partnered with Vardy to score and assist on more goals than the entire United squad this season. At present, he’s bagged 14 goals and six helpers over 18 matches in all competitions. Originally bought for half a million Euros from Ligue 2 side AC Le Havre, the mouth-watering return on such an investment is just shy of 7900% of the alleged fee valuation. That’s not bad business. Here’s the problem: Leicester won’t sell him. Not this winter. Not while they have a real chance to land a European qualification and continue to remain in the conversation in the League. So if not him, who can United sign this winter?

Sadio Mane

While I’ll admit he doesn’t seem the likeliest of targets on my list, or most preferred, but what’s different now (versus last summer) are expectations on the south coast. We know United approached Koeman and offered a decent fee for the services of the young and pacey forward, only to be rebuffed as Koeman refused to allow any more of his players to leave. After making noise in the league last season and narrowly missing European qualification to the Europa group stage, it’s not surprising the Saints were optimistic of their chances this season. This season is not going to plan. Currently sitting in 12th, Southampton could now be more willing to entertain offers to reinvest such fees into the squad. For United, Mane would offer them the pace and ability to play on the wing, even if better suited on the left versus the right. In any event, we must discuss him because of the established previous interest.

Quincy Promes

Currently practicing his trade with Spartak Moscow in the Russian league, this young Dutch forward is a natural right winger who is equally adept on the ball with both feet. He also possesses excellent pace and a decent ability to cross the ball with a penchant for scoring. I look at him and immediately think he’s the future replacement for Arjen Robben on the national team, where he’s already had call ups. Presently with ten goals and six assists to his name across all competitions, he appears to tick all the boxes that United would covet. At just 23, he still has time to fill his increasing potential and an opportunity to play for United could be very appetizing, both for player and club. I must say, it almost seems too good to be true.

Arjen Robben

No, I’m not joking – seriously. I discussed this one at length here at FootieWriter explaining why. When healthy, he could be the perfect fit for United both in terms of on field performance and locker room presence. Pairing up the savvy veteran of the game with a youngster to mentor and mold him can only be good for the short and long term goals for the club. United have already done it, with Bayern Munich no less, in bringing Schweinsteiger to the club at a relatively discounted fee as he mutually enters the twilight of his career – at least at his prime. Robben has played in the League before, United exist of a very few who could afford his wages, and there’s the hypothetical van Gaal connection should he still be around. He’d definitely be one of the most, if not the most, expensive options listed here. But if healthy, you’ll get what you’ve paid for. And that’s just what United crave.

Felipe Anderson

While he hasn’t exactly been tearing it up in the Serie A this season, neither has his club, SS Lazio. Sitting near the middle of the table, they exist somewhat like Southampton as a club who might be convinced that taking an inflated fee for a player could be well served in reinvesting the funds into the team elsewhere. Or, if you’re Lazio’s owners, perhaps their continued efforts to steer the club away from the debt issues that existed as little as a year and a bit ago. In Anderson, United would get a forward who is equally comfortable with the ball on either foot and can play a central role as well as either wing. When has versatility ever been a bad thing? With lightning quick pace and an ability to really run with the ball, the oft-connected Anderson to United isn’t for not.

Nicolas Gaitan

Speaking of oft-connected to United, how about a player who’s been linked as ‘all but done’ for as many transfer windows as he’s possibly been alive? Yes, I must include Gaitan because, while not quite the fit others appear to be, he’s got quality that United could use with an ability to play on the right. While he hasn’t exactly been pace setter in terms of his scoring this season, more than anything his nine assists over 18 matches in all competitions can’t be ignored. I have said many times that United lack creativity this year in giving their forwards chances – both in terms of quantity and quality. Van Gaal might think that one or two a game are all one needs – I would disagree. The stats don’t lie. Gaitan can provide that creativity with his excellent passing and vision combined with finishing and pace that aren’t bad by their own right.

Anwar El Ghazi

El Ghazi presents himself as a project of sorts – someone with a yet to be realized potential possibly on the high end of the scale. Probably not United’s first choice on this list if, yours truly, will look at the likes of Jesse Lingard as not yet being good enough – at least on the right where he isn’t naturally suited to play. He’s more of an investment for the long term at just 20 years of age. As such, he likely wouldn’t command a huge fee and could find time to play as easily on the U21 side should options not regularly present themselves with the first team. So why bother? What you probably didn’t know if he has bagged eight goals in 13 appearances for Ajax in the Eredivisie. Impressive, but less so when he’s got none in all other competitions. But as I mentioned, he wouldn’t be the go to United seek and merely makes my list as the second option should United go that route.

Inaki Williams

Williams may not posses the technical abilities of some of the previously mentioned names, but what he lacks in his passing or finishing is made up for with an incredible pace. Perhaps the fastest player you may not have heard of in La Liga.. Or anywhere, he has collected seven goals and three assists in his 17 appearances for Athletic Bilbao this season. The other thing to bear in mind is that at just 20, he’s much like El Ghazi as a player with oodles of potential and time to realize such. His ability to speed down the wing or beat defenders to through balls is something United would love. The real challenge here will be his fee. Bilbao, as we have seen, are characteristically stubborn in their valuations and if they’re aware of (and I’m sure they are) such potential, they will likely present a fee that Woodward will find stomaching difficult.

Leroy Sane

The youngest player on our list of United options is German national and Schalke 04 product, Leroy Sane. Not too long ago, the media outlets reported United had representatives been scouting the youngster and the inevitable assumption a bid would ensue was (to date incorrectly) predicted. With five goals and five assists in all appearances for Schalke, Sane has seen his stock rise this season and has begun to catch the eyes of bigger clubs around Europe. Sane presents himself as a middle ground to that of El Ghazi and Williams – not quite as technical as the Dutchman nor quite as quick as the Spaniard. But this isn’t a bad thing because he, like the former, has the potential to be something special. Picking him up as a depth option and long term first team player pays both short and long term dividends.

Adnan Januzaj

After his break out in 2013/14 under the ill-fated David Moyes, Januzaj never really took the next step. He’d show flashes of brilliance and stretches of indifference. Despite it, he retained his label as a youth player with an upside to be world-class. However, the result was less play time under van Gaal and it culminated one season later with an unforeseen loan to Borrusia Dortmund. It was hoped there he’d get some minutes with a quality side. It hasn’t worked. He’s not played much and, ironically, it’s been on a quality club with far more quality than United have displayed thus far. So it begs the question: Why haven’t United recalled him? While I won’t pretend to know the specific details of the loan move, if  it were feasible to cut the loan short and recall him – would United not, at the very least, benefit from trying him on the right side? I have to assume yes. I’m not saying he’d recapture that form and realize his once apparently limitless potential. But it couldn’t be any worse than what we’ve seen, right?

Centre Back

John Stones

The subject of a very open and aggressive campaign to bring into the fold at Chelsea in the summer, it is believed that Everton and Roberto Martinez turned down offers north of £40M. The nature of such was off-putting to Martinez and he didn’t hide his displeasure of such, which is probably why the reported interest from United remained just that – interest. It is widely believed that Chelsea will make further approaches in January and the current state of things at United very well may see their interest turn into an inquiry, if not a bid. Make no mistake here. Nothing short of £50M will see Everton sell Stones this winter. To put this in perspective, the record fee for any defender is Chelsea’s sale of David Luis to PSG for £50M. It would be a world record fee for a defender. One who is 21 and far from realizing his full potential. And let’s face it – he’s a quality centre half, but is he yet a world class talent worth such a massive fee? Considering he only got his first England call up last May and has only four appearances in Hodgson’s starting XI over seven appearances, I’d be inclined to say not yet. And this is why I doubt United will stump up such a fee for a uncertain future… For now.

Ezequiel Garay

Garay is a tall and powerful defender who would provide United with an aerial presence, especially while defending corners and set pieces, and leadership to the back line. It’s the veteran experience it sorely needs as the consistently brilliant Chris Smalling needs someone to pair with with all other options hurt or consistently hurt. Currently, Zenit sit sixth in the Russian league and not that far back from the top, let alone the spots needed to qualify for European football next year. As such, it’d be hard to prize away easily the club’s best defender and nothing short of a sizable offer for the Argentine international would likely suffice. Contrary to the former in Stones, Garay (while not testing the record fee realm for defenders) would likely present Woodward with a conundrum in deciding does such a fee warrant the services of a 29 year old? Given the reality as of now, one would have to assume it must if United are to turn around their season.

Bruno Martins Indi

Martins Indi presents himself as a trifecta of sorts – primarily a centre half and able to play as a full back or in the holding midfield role. Such versatility is always an asset, one that United could do well to have these days. Young and somewhat unpolished, Martins Indi would still present himself as an upgrade in United’s presently thin defensive corps. The major issue would be prizing him away from Porto should United choose to try such. Currently undefeated and a sliver ahead of Sporting in the table, it’s highly unlikely they’d be willing to part with (arguably) their top centre half unless a suitable replacement could be found in due time. And given the winter window being what it is, that’s hardly a small feat by any stretch.

Kalidou Koulibaly

Napoli are enjoying a fine season, no part in thanks to Juve’s slow start. Just one point off the top of the table while enjoying the best defensive record and tied for best goal differential in the Serie A thus far; it’s little surprise to find a quality centre half at the helm. The French born Senegalese international, Koulibaly, possesses decent speed for a player his size and has more than enough grit to battle for the aerial balls. At 24 years of age, he’s got plenty left in the tank and would prove a wise investment to any club willing to pay for his services – a fee that won’t be insignificant by any stretch. The likelihood that Naoli would let him go, especially mid-season, is quite unlikely.

Joel Matip

This German born Cameroonian international is another tall and somewhat pacey centre half who, while less physical than the likes of Koulibaly, is better at getting involved in the play moving forward and has strong defensive instincts. For a club like United who are often exposed to set pieces and breaks by players with pace, it seems a perfect fit. Of all the options listed, Matip exists as the most realistic option. Schalke has a great deal of depth at the position and would likely be more easily persuaded if the right offer landed in their laps. And, at just 24, he would be a worthy long-term investment.

Aymeric Laporte

If not Rafael Varane, Laporte is arguably the best young French centre half and is on the brink of seeing a place in their starting XI. As you know, he’s been a name linked to United for some time. So why should this winter be any different? The guy is a beast and I’d go on record and say I think he’s better than Stones… A lot better. Born literally a day apart, I think he’s got much better instincts defensively and is physically much stronger. In a nut shell, if pundits will tell anyone that dropping £40-50M on Stones is a good decision, surely the same fee for Laporte should be an easy decision. Best part? Even though he extended his contract to 2019 this past June, I think Bilbao would be quite happy to invest such into its club otherwise. It’s not as if they’re winning anything this year in La Liga, so why not test their usual stubborn resolve?

Agree? Disagree? Anyone I’ve missed? Let me know what you think. Maybe I should send this to Santa for Louis? Or will it be Jose? Giggs? That’ll be quite interesting in itself. Could come down to how United fare at the Potters on Boxing Day. Think of it… Wouldn’t Mourinho managing his first game for United, at home to Chelsea, make for an epic worthy story line? It’s just too good.