Whisper it quietly, but United got their priorities right
With rolling 24-hour sports channels and the social media flourishing more than ever, it should not come as a great surprise that what happens off the pitch is now given more scrutiny than what happens on it. The lust for breaking news and getting ‘the story’ has accelerated out of control, while providing in-depth tactical analysis and insight into the games has become an after-thought.
Many now anticipate the biannual ‘transfer deadline day’ more than the actual football matches which is insane. Each club is heavily scrutinised in the market business and not making big-money signings to appease the fans now portrays club as weak and vulnerable.
And let’s make one thing clear – the new combination of David Moyes and Ed Woodward being thrown in at the same time to work on transfers was a significant error of judgement. Manchester United don’t use a Director of Football as Moyes is famed for scouting many of his own players and playing a large role in club recruitment policy. In any case, a Director of Football doesn’t fit into United’s ideals and more commonly seen at club’s who expect a high turnover of managers. Ed Woodward’s success comes from his tough financial negotiating and helping the club write off large sums of debt accumulated from the Glazer takeover. Both have been hugely successful in their respective fields, but neither is directly familiar with overseeing the intricacies of big-name and big-money transfers. In hindsight, the vastly experienced and successful David Gill should have been persuaded to remain in his role as Chief Executive for twelve more months to ease Moyes’ into his job.
Large swathes of the media are now opening fire on the Moyes and Woodward combination. They were embarrassed by Thiago Alcantara’s last-minute switch to Bayern Munich, before being humiliated by the public pursuit of Cesc Fabregas. There were bizarre attempts to negotiate a non-negotiable deal with Anders Herrera, numerous failed bids for Leighton Baines, reportedly turning down the wonderfully gifted Mesut Ozil, further unsuccessful attempts for Danielle De Rossi and Sami Khedira before missing out on the loan-deal for Fabio Coentrao. To top it all off, they even paid £4 million more for their one major signing than they should have after dithering on triggering his release clause in time.
The wholesale doom and gloom is unfounded and misplaced. Manchester United made a significant number of vital errors over the past number of months but one vital fact has been overlooked by the media vultures circling around their proposed demise of the club. With the acquisition of Marouane Fellaini and the holding of Wayne Rooney, Manchester United have accomplished their two immediate priorities from the start of summer and have thus, strengthened their title-winning squad.
Wholesale changes to the playing staff would have been a grave error and one that was, thankfully, avoided. Much has been made of the impact of new managers on this year’s title race but their influence over proceedings pales in comparison to that of the mentality of a squad.
Sir Alex Ferguson possessed an endless array of attributes but the most crucial was that he was a natural-born winner who despised losing and knew how to be successful. He knew what players matched this and was an expert at spotting which players shared this mind-set and which didn’t. Fergie may be gone but this attitude remains and he has shown full trust in Moyes that this blueprint will not waver.
What United have lacked in recent times is a domineering central midfielder who will assert himself on the game both with his ability and physicality. A midfielder whose robustness and energy could complement the silky passing and fluent rhythm of Michael Carrick. It is telling that Shinji Kagawa (six goals) was the only United midfielder to net more than twice last season and a more significant goal-threat was required. Ideally a new midfielder would be strong in the air, play short, succinct passes to complement United’s counter-attacking threat and be a box-to-box player.
Marouane Fellaini is the perfect fit. He scored twelve times last season, averaging a goal every three matches, finishing as Everton’s top goalscorer, and was the league’s player of the month for November. He can play in a holding midfield role, as a box-to-box player or sit nestle in behind the front-line, such quality in versatility is a greatly underrated asset. He made 82 tackles in the league last season – from the top clubs, only Michael Carrick (83) made more, having played an extra two games.
He is a player Moyes trusts and has a close bond with – a signing virtually with no risks and countless benefits. It also fits the United policy of spending big on established Premiership players, only seriously delving into the European market on the rare occasions to sign promising youngsters when no home-based equivalent is on the market.
Fellaini has helped propel Everton to finishes of 7th and 6th in the past two seasons due to his contributions at both ends of the pitch and was the club’s most technically gifted asset. At 25 years old the big Belgian is now only entering his prime and is sure to improve his game yet further in the coming years. He has an eye for a pass and will bring much needed creativity to United, whilst there should be less focus on his need to contribute defensively which theoretically should improve his attacking attributes further.
Moyes also retained Wayne Rooney and the early indications are that he will use him in his preferred free-roaming attacking role, and will be less burdened defensively. Automatically this strengthens United not just in terms of ability within their squad, but of weakening major rivals Chelsea.
After his summer courtship of Rooney, Mourinho was forced into signing an ageing Eto’o and bizarrely loaning out Romelu Lukaku. Chelsea have an impressive squad with an equally strong-minded coach but the weaknesses which hampered their progress last season remain. Question marks remain over their defensive strength-in-depth, lacking a quality holding midfielder and most crucially of all, firepower up top. Eto’o will score goals and is arguably an upgrade on Torres, but their rival fans will breathe a massive sigh of relief that they didn’t invest more heavily in that area.
Manchester City have also strengthened their squad, but they have already shown massive defensive vulnerability without injured skipper Vincent Kompany. Joe Hart is going through a prolonged spell of poor form and whilst there is now less reliance on Yaya Toure and Aguero, they haven’t made the marquee signing some fans expected after a disastrous 2012/13 campaign.
Arsenal grabbed the headlines with the remarkable coup of the outrageously talented Mesut Ozil, but buying new leather seats for your car without replacing a faulty engine could be dangerous. That said, Wenger has got the fans back on side and the club has made a statement, but they are not quite ready for a title tilt just yet.
Spurs have bought impressively from the windfall of funds generated from Bale’s sale, but the Welshman’s loss to the side cannot be underrated. They failed to break into the top four even with the genius of Bale and have also lost a raft of players adapted to the Premiership. The loss of Dempsey, Parker, Huddlestone and Caulker may not significantly weaken the first team, but the experience and know-how of home-based players can never be underestimated. None of their signings will obviously settle and acclimatise immediately, so the optimism of Spurs fans may have come a little too hastily.
Manchester United romped to the title last year and despite widespread criticism they were mightily impressive. There are no signs that the any of the existing squad will let their impeccable standards slip and the additions of powerhouse Fellaini and the sublimely skilled young winger Wilfred Zaha are purchases which should excite the United faithful.
It is impossible to ignore the on-going incompetencies of their main Premiership rivals, namely Manchester City and Chelsea who despite a limitless supply of wealth have squandered much of their early promise. This summer has seen the furore of management changes but none have taken the transfer window by storm. Inefficiencies have been left unaddressed and no-one has obviously taken the initiative.
It would be an understatement to say United have blundered and dithered at times this summer but the core objectives have been met. Moyes and Woodward will of course need to acclimatise themselves to a learning curve which can be unforgiving and potentially excruciatingly embarrassing, but the next two transfer windows will be the litmus test.
Fellaini could well achieve ‘cult hero’ status at Old Trafford, Rooney may well rejuvenate himself and become the club’s all-time leading goal scorer and in Robin van Persie they have the world’s most complete striker. This is a squad of champions with a winning mentality, and the continuous widespread doubt over their credentials should provide the hunger and determination to once again succeed. You’d be a fool to bet against them.
Why it is time to bring Bale to United.
I am going to be direct here; trying to bring Gareth Bale to Old Trafford would mean a tedious transfer saga, an inflated fee and could well prove impossible to achieve. Despite all this, I think an attempt should be made, and summer 2013 is the time to strike.
Being married to a Spurs fan, I have watched more Tottenham games than any of our other rivals. It has been an entertaining sideshow for me to focus on Bale’s quest to perfect his Cristiano Ronaldo impression. All the elements are there of 2006 version Ronaldo; increasing goal return, diving reputations, more ostentatious attempts from distance, open disapproval of teammates’ shortcomings, growing awareness of how to roam from the wing effectively and even the trademark infuriatingly selfish away performances.
The decision for Bale then is how he moves to the next level. For all Villas-Boas’ impressive endeavours, the feeling remains that qualification for the Champions League represents the summit of Tottenham’s ambitions. It won’t be lost on Bale that his breakthrough moment came over two seasons ago now. He will take some comfort from improving as a player in this time, but the bottom line is in terms of achievement he has made no progress. The sale of Modric reinforced the view that Spurs are destined to remain a second tier club. If Bale is to become one of the Europe’s premier players then logic would suggest a move to one of the Europe’s premier clubs. Only by being surrounded by superior players and competing for trophies can Bale truly fulfil his potential.
But why United?
Daniel Levy attempted to soften the blow of finally losing Modric by announcing a new partnership with Real Madrid. Speculative assumptions were immediately made that this paved the way for Tottenham’s other prize asset to make the same move in the near future. Madrid would certainly fit the profile of the challenge Bale needs as he turns 24 in the summer. Where better to establish yourself as a successor to Ronaldo than at the club where he has become the undisputed second best player of the planet? Herein lies the problem, a move to Madrid at this stage would see Bale directly competing with Ronaldo in order to play in his preferred role. As the feted Modric has found, there are no guarantees at Madrid and a bit part role is a real (forgive the pun) possibility. Is operating as Ronaldo’s understudy an effective way of auditioning to be leading man? Ask Luis Nani. In my view a move to Madrid would see his minutes limited, his role ever-changing and his development stalled.
Which brings me to Manchester United. If Bale were to move to Old Trafford he would be the marquee signing and clear first choice in his preferred position. A debut season at the club with an experienced, Welsh legend for company would allow him to make the transition to the top tier in a comfortable environment. From United’s point of view, he would bring qualities we clearly lack. It is a strange scenario we find ourselves in where our success this season is in spite of an underlying collection of wingers. Young has been tactically useful if limited, Nani has been absent sometimes in body – always in mind, and the less said about Valencia’s regression the better. It is a damning indictment of our options that our most impressive wide players this season have either been fullbacks or 38 years of age. Bale would bring direct running, consistency of supply and an added goal threat. It isn’t hard to think of him linking up spectacularly with the players we have both emerging and established.
Making sense is one thing – actually happening is another. In a dream scenario for many we would be saving our summer budget to bring in that central midfield colossus Reds have been demanding for years. The likelihood of that is a subject for a whole other article but recent seasons would suggest ‘no chance.’ Defensively we have been porous this term – yet with Smalling, Jones and Evans already at the club is a major move for a defender likely? I’d suggest not. At the time of writing, an interest in Zaha has been confirmed yet this would be an acquisition for the future rather than a purchase to solve our immediate wide issues. James Rodriguez is another name frequently linked; but I confess to being in the dark about his likely price tag and/or adaptability to our culture. Bale would carry no such concerns as a proven Premier League player who has excelled in his fleeting opportunities on the European stage. The biggest stumbling block therefore would be cost – the sale of a couple of well-paid squad members (Nani? Anderson?) and likely departure/retirement from at least one from our veterans corps would free up space on the wage bill.
The transfer fee is a trickier issue. The hostility between the respective boardrooms is well known; and Levy would revel in his reputation for driving a hard bargain. A fee in excess of £35m would not be unexpected. A bridge too far in the era of Glazernomics? Perhaps not. The signing of van Persie (minimal resale value, high wages, significant fee) showed a willingness to splash out when a player becomes available of a) sufficient quality to significantly improve fortunes on the field, and b) has the status or potential to be a marketable name throughout the globe. Bale ticks both boxes. In addition we were allegedly willing to pay major sums for Hazard and Moura – players with a similar (or in Lucas’ case arguably lesser) status and record to Bale. Hope springs that the board would be willing to spend big to secure Bale’s capture. Much talk since the Champions League draw has been of ‘bringing Ronaldo home’ – that is beyond our financial capability but Bale is the next best thing.
Do I think it will happen? Probably not. By this stage I would have expected a greater public charm offensive and calculated leaking to prompt Fleet Street ‘exclusives’ that the deal was on. However as today’s opponents love to remind us, I can ‘dare to dream’.