Spring is here. The birds are chirping, the flowers are blooming, and the transfer rumors are starting to fly in earnest. Especially in Manchester. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is officially United’s new manager, and as such it’s time to talk about what Manchester United are going to give him to work with.
At 19, he might be the best teenage footballer in the world. His unique career path, from youth star at Manchester City, to plain old star at Borussia Dortmund might well have been concocted by a mad scientist to be the ultimate catnip to United. It is nearly impossible to find a young English star who is already established at the highest levels of the game. With an added bonus of sticking it to crosstown rivals throw in, how could United possibly say no?
And then there’s the positional need. Despite a squad that’s top heavy with attacking talent, United really don’t have a player whose best position is the right wing. Romelu Lukaku, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard, Alexis Sanchez, and Juan Mata are all more comfortable playing through the middle or on the left. So, there’s real need. (Just how Manchester United have managed to spend so much money over the years and acquire so many attacking players without finding one who is comfortable on the right is another matter entirely).
The problem with acquiring Sancho isn’t that the move wouldn’t make sense. The problem is that there are a lot of other moves that would make more sense. That’s because, right now, Manchester United are already a very good attacking side. What they aren’t is a very good defensive one. Sancho might very well improve them, but a lot of other cheaper moves would improve them more, and improve them more quickly.
Nemanja Matic is Manchester United’s defensive midfielder. He’s 30. While he remains an assured passer and decent defender in tight spaces, his mobility is in steep decline and he simply can’t patrol the wide swaths of the pitch and attacking team needs him to. And it’s not like as he enters into his footballing golden years that’s going to improve. He’s paired with Ander Herrera. Herrera has finally found the form that brought him to United’s attention in the first place.
He’s also 29. He also reportedly may be on his way to Paris Saint-Germain this summer. So that’s basically an entire midfield that needs replacing. Even if, somehow, United talk themselves into Fred, Scott McTominay and Andreas Pereira all being ready to contribute in deep midfield roles next season, that still leaves extra minutes to be filled behind Paul Pogba. It’s hard to look at the state of that midfield and not see United needing one if not two major pieces and needing them much more urgently than they need Sancho.
Then there’s the defense. Luke Shaw’s resurgence at left back has at least temporarily settled one position.
It has also freed up Ashley Young to play the majority of the minutes at right back. Young has performed admirably there. He’s also going to be 34 this summer. Young was preferred there to Antonio Valencia, who will be leaving at the end of the season and Matteo Darmian who is a person that still exists (and had the option year of his contract picked up by United). That leaves only Diogo Dalot. He’s 20, and maybe he’ll be good one day, but for now the 33-year-old winger who was converted to left back before being converted to right back is preferred to him. So, draw your own conclusions about how far along the developmental path he is.
The center back situation is a little more in the eye of the beholder. After Jose Mourinho’s departure, Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof have settled into a clear partnership. They are…fine. It’s possible if they had a stronger defensive unit around them they might even be good. Having a couple of center backs who are good enough to get the job done under the right circumstances isn’t a problem, if you give them the right circumstances. The optimistic case for United’s defense is that if they improve at midfield and right back then the center backs will be able to perform at a top level. Alternatively, they might just need a top line central defender as well as their other upgrades.
None of this is new. The names might have changed but the story remains the same. United needed to beef up defensively when they went out and acquired Sanchez last season, a year after acquiring Henrikh Mkhitaryan, a year after acquiring Anthony Martial and Memphis Depay, a year after acquiring Angel Di Maria, a year after acquiring Juan Mata. At some point the continued attacking merry-go-round needs to give way to a defensive focus or the results will just keep being the same.
None of this is to say that acquiring Sancho is a bad move, only that it’s one that doesn’t solve the core problems that this United team has struggled to solve since Alex Ferguson left. The team needs strength in midfield and better defenders. If they add the right players at those positions in addition to adding Sancho, then this summer will be a huge success. If they miss out on Sancho, but bulk up elsewhere then it’s still likely this team will improve, perhaps dramatically. But, if all that United does is sign Sancho, and not give the rest of the squad the full tune-up it needs, well then it’s likely the summer will be a failure even if Sancho himself is a huge success. United need an overhaul, irrespective of whether they land an attacking superstar. Without it, Sancho will just be another shiny coat of paint.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association