After two fantastic results against Spurs and Manchester City, Manchester United fans look to January for reinforcements knowing the core of a decent side is already there.
January is normally a minefield in terms of recruitment, the number of players available is significantly smaller than that in the summer. United need to choose carefully.
Something that United fans and the media seem to have in mind now is that older players are no longer required. That pure youth is the way to go. Is this really the way we exclusively need to go? Are older players no longer needed?
Recently we have had our fingers burned with players like Bastian Schweinsteiger, Angel Di Maria, Alexis Sanchez, Radamel Falcao and to an extent, Nemanja Matic. There’s a feeling that it’s those transfers which really cloud the judgement from both the media and fans alike as traditionally some of our best players have come into the club in their prime and twilight years. Players who are 25 and older really do come into their own when experience is needed.
Experienced players have been the cornerstone of the majority of our title wins and with the culture of young players at United, it’s really easy to forget that we had some fantastic and meaningful contributions from a host of players joining the club in their prime or even their twilight years.
Eric ‘The King’ Cantona was no spring chicken when he arrived from Leeds United, but Sir Alex Ferguson was very adept at finding players that maybe had a shorter expiry date but still had a lot to offer at the right time. Looking back we’ve had some brilliant older players in Henrik Larsson, Laurent Blanc, Fabian Barthez, Robin Van Persie, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edwin van der Sar. All were players that came in and added experience to the dressing room and on the pitch to get us through and help develop the younger players that have come through.
Then there are the players who we’ve signed in their prime who have gone on to give us some of their best years in the red of Manchester United. Peter Schmeichel, Jaap Stam, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Dimitar Berbatov and Juan Mata all joined us in what could be classed as their prime and have played important roles at the club at various times.
However just because of the success on the pitch, let’s not forget that for every Berbatov or Van Nistelrooy there has been a few shockers, too. Even under Fergie, when for some unknown reason it just doesn’t work out.
Juan Sebastian Veron is probably the one which stands out more than most, in that he was at the peak of his powers when he arrived at Old Trafford. That was very much like Alexis Sanchez who many expected to hit the ground running but ended up fizzling out very quickly.
So whats the difference now? Why haven’t our older signing worked as well as in the past? Why is quality experience so hard to come by?
In my mind its two things. The first and most important is that Manchester United and Real Madrid stood alone for so long as the pinnacles of football, the place to go to be a world star, a legend of the game. Getting rich was part of the journey not the only result.
Once you had made it to United you had made it to the top of your sport. Players like Van Persie, Berbatov, Sheringham and Saha all joined United to win, to complete at the top level, leaving behind clubs and supporters who adored them but couldn’t deliver the trophies, packed stadiums and memories they craved.
These days this isn’t the prime focus for players anymore – their priorities have shifted. There are distractions around every corner, agents wanting more money, sponsors wanting their shows in lights and emerging leagues offering crazy salaries to increase the exposure of their clubs and leagues.
The second factor, and one that’s here to stay is the sheer competition and power of other clubs now. Attracting the best talent to the club and taking them from others is more difficult. In the recent past when United went looking for a player that was it that. The player was on their way, it was inevitable.
Nowhere else bar Real Madrid could you play and challenge for the league, European Cup, World Super Cups etc. Now, because of the way the competition and investment in the game, every year there realistically could be 20 teams who could win the Champions League, each spending £100-150m per season to compete and recouping the same should they qualify to play in the tournament.
Domestically, we’ve also seen the rise of teams such as Chelsea, Leicester and Manchester City being artificially bank rolled to create competition that didn’t exist before. Many clubs don’t need the money from large clubs and have stopped becoming prey for the big traditional European powerhouses.
Look at United’s pursuit of Harry Maguire as proof that teams really don’t need to sell players anymore, nor do they want to unless it’s an offer that is way above market value. This year his former side will qualify for the Champions League, compete for the title and could easily make another £200m in transfer fees should teams want to buy the likes of James Maddison, Ben Chilwell and Jamie Vardy. Add into the mix the increased scouting presence of every European side globally and it’s evident that not every player will be a success every time.
So, should Manchester United be scared of signing older players? Absolutely not, some of our best sides have had them. Should we be worried about paying big fees? Not at all, we’ve always done it to get the best talent and ward off competition, it’s nothing new. Should we recruit with a plan in mind and scouting network that knows what it’s doing? Yes, I’d put our recent issues with players down to knee jerk reactions and desperation buys rather than strategic purchases.
Most of our big buys in the last 30 years have been watched for 2-3 years prior to joining us. I’d say that our issues with players isn’t age, or pressure from large fees. It’s the fact that they are joining us because they were the third option on the list and we thought the other two might be a bit expensive, meaning we are unsure they are worth the money.
This is where we have gone wrong recently, we weren’t sure all along. Sir Alex Ferguson and David Gill were sure, the scouts were sure and the player was sure. We knew they would be a fit because we had been watching them for some time.
We need to pick a target and go and get them, not be using agents to throw us bones when they know we need someone.
This January we need to do exactly this go and bring in 2-3 players we know about. Erling Braut Håland looks like one of these players. He has a history with Solskjaer, is in good form and is clearly young enough to improve. With a reported release clause of around £20m it appears to be a no-brainer.
However, what we lack is experience and the player I would go for here is Blaise Matuidi from Juventus. He’s a stop gap, nothing more than some of the players mentioned earlier. We would get 2 years out of him and he would offer World Cup winning, title-winning experience and allow rests for McTominay and Fred when needed.
He can also likely keep Paul Pogba focused in that middle unit. Those two, in my mind, are enough. However, if we are feeling flush and want to have a punt at that fourth Champions League spot then I’d also have a look over at Gareth Bale. We need a good pro in the dressing room with an aura that the other younger players can cling too, very much like Zlatan and Cantona.
He might not play every game and he might be ‘injury prone’ but how many injuries are really a two fingered sign to Zinedine Zidane for speaking ill of him in public and openly saying he doesn’t want him? Let’s be honest, he could scored 10 goals in half a season and be the difference that wins us an extra 3-4 games himself. That’s enough to make up the gap to fourth place and get back into the Champions League for next year. £40m to get Manchester United there and £200m windfall from TV etc sounds like good business to me.