Manchester United, over the past three seasons, have been the butt of the joke when it comes to transfer windows. Ever since the promotion of Woodward to overseer of transfers in 2013, the club has been used by players (Ramos, Fabregas) to engineer themselves expensive new contracts at their respective clubs. There was also the nightmare of Moyes’ first window where Fellaini, the only purchase that window, was signed on transfer deadline day for a reported £27.5 million. Van Gaal was infamous for having spent £250 million whilst at United, with not much actual improvement to the squad. Woodward is not a very popular character with the United fan base, for obvious reasons.
However, the former JP Morgan investment banker has pulled his finger out in the past few weeks. Whether this is the ‘Mourinho factor’ coming into play already, or Woodward feeling the heat from two failed managerial appointments and many unsuccessful signings, the impact seems to be positive. United have already signed Eric Bailly and Zlatan Ibrahimović, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s transfer only needing official confirmation. Whilst this not job done, these are large steps in the right direction.
The capture of Zlatan Ibrahimović, the most renowned, for free, shows real purpose. He has just completed his most prolific campaign to date, and has the winning mentality and motivation which matches Mourinho’s. He adds quality on the pitch and a real presence off it too. The Swede is a physical specimen, thought to be still in his prime at 34 years old, allowing potential negative comparison with a certain Wayne Rooney (30). Martial and Rashford will both learn much from the experienced front man.
Expectations cannot be too high however. Whilst Zlatan has just had his most successful season, it must be taken into consideration that the level of opposition in Ligue 1 is nowhere near as challenging as that in the Premier League. The Swede said himself that “we [PSG] decide when to win, we decide when to score”. The English top division really can be the most unpredictable and challenging competition, the success of Leicester City’s last campaign the latest example. Another potential hiccup in the acquisition of Zlatan is also the dangerous combination of egos (Mourinho and Ibrahimović’s) at the ‘biggest club in the world’, and how much these egos could have negative effects on the promising careers of Rashford, Martial, Depay and so on.
All in all, the acquisition of Ibrahimović is a statement: Manchester United can still attract the biggest names in the business, despite not qualifying for the Champions League. Mkhitaryan is further evidence. The Armenian midfielder had the best season of his career at Borussia Dortmund last year, chalking up 21 goals and 20 assists in 50 appearances across all competitions. While Mourinho is not as obsessed with multi-functional players as Van Gaal was, Mkhitaryan can play, and play well, in almost any position in midfield and attack. The thought of United paying £26 million for the Armenian when Liverpool splashed out £34 million for Southampton’s Sadio Mané will bring smiles to the Old Trafford frequents.
The transfer which understandably brings the least amount of excitement to United fans is the purchase of Eric Bailly. At a reported £30 million, the former Villarreal defender was unquestionably expensive. It is not an exaggeration to say the majority of United fans had never heard of Bailly before the transfer. However, upon closer inspection, and after a few chats with some football nerds, Bailly is a player who has impressed in the last campaign. He is tall, quick and strong, and, most importantly, young. At 22 years of age, Mourinho has time to iron out the deficiencies in his game, such as his lack of discipline.
Whilst each of these transfers have their merits and drawbacks, the most important thing to note is that United are addressing problem areas. Zlatan adds to the worryingly young strike force of Rashford and Martial, Mkhitaryan fills the right-wing gap that has inadequately been Mata’s for the last two seasons, and Bailly will displace the shaky Blind at centre-half. There are two, probably three, areas still to address however. With it being likely that Jones and Blind will see the exit door this summer, a top class defender is needed to rotate with Smalling and Bailly at the back. Darmian’s position, right back, may also be in question after a poor second half of the season and Euros campaign. And finally, a bruiser in midfield is a characteristic of Mourinho’s sides, something which United currently lack.
The speculation that United have tabled a £80 million plus offer for Juventus’ Paul Pogba is exciting, but unfortunately not very realistic. There are three crucial reasons why seeing Pogba back at United is unlikely. Firstly, Manchester United are currently the second richest club in the world, behind Real Madrid who are also interested in Pogba. If push comes to shove between the two clubs, not only are Real wealthier, they also have an ace in the hole with Morata, a player Juventus are keen to recapture after Los Blancos activated their buy-back clause. Secondly, there is the draw of Madrid. They have arguably the most star-studded team in the world, and to be a part of that group is fine praise indeed. There is only one clear winner when compared with United, who have in the last three years struggled to challenge for Champions League football, let alone titles. Thirdly, and finally, Manchester United were the club who foolishly let go of the talented youngster in 2012, after Ferguson failed to integrate the player into the first team. Now, four years on, Pogba probably looks back at leaving United as the best decision of his career. I doubt he would want to rush back in any hurry.
A more realistic target to fill the ‘midfield bruiser’ role is Pogba’s international teammate, Blaise Matuidi. The Frenchman has been a mainstay in the PSG side for many years and effective for his national side at this summer’s Euros. With the giant French club having recently signed Polish holding midfielder Krychowiak from Sevilla, the door has seemingly been left open for Matuidi to fly to England to discuss his future. Another link drawn between Matuidi and Manchester United is his (super) agent, Mino Raiola. Other clients of Raiola are, you guessed it, Ibrahimović and Mkhitaryan. More dots are connecting day by day, and it only seems like a matter of time before speculation becomes reality. Raiola does, of course, represent Pogba too; however, Matuidi looks like the more acquirable play.
The transfer window is picking up pace, with big moves occurring daily and speculation of bigger moves written about even more often. United have made a promising start, but if Ibrahimović wants to win the league title in his first season at Manchester United—like he has at all his previous clubs—he needs to hope Woodward and Mourinho keep up the good work. There are still some Van Gaal-sized holes needing filling in the squad before United look to realistically make a challenge for the title, most notably in the defence and midfield.